The Tortoise and the Hare: On Hosting

The Tortoise and the Hare: On Hosting

Although I run workshops and focus groups in my day job, there was something about hosting a salon that made me nervous. I enjoy moderating research groups for the same reason I enjoy presenting or acting. It’s a frame, a concealment. Hosts, on the other hand, have to make small talk, introduce people, be charming or whatever. I might be able to moderate a group of raucous employees and get them to describe their working conditions, but I could not host them at a party. Such is the joy of InterIntellect. Hosting here means none of those things — or, at least, it doesn’t have to. Running an InterIntellect salon meant I could be a host without having to socialise in ways I don’t find easy. It’s about the discussion, the material. My salon ended up being one of the most stimulating conversations I’ve had for some time. It was like group blogging out loud.

We met to discuss The Tortoise and the Hare, Elizabeth Jenkins’ novel about an affair and the breakdown of a marriage. Published in 1954, Tortoise is a minor classic of post-war English literature, overlooked and underrated by critics who find it convenient to focus on “The Movement,” the supposedly dominant literary grouping of the 1950s. This categorisation was denied by the writers supposed to form “The Movement” (Amis, Larkin, others). It also has no place for other contemporary writers of significance like Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, and Rebecca West. What sort of credibility are we meant to afford these critics if they cannot give a novel like West’s The Fountain Overflows the predominant position it clearly deserves as one of the great novels of the 1950s, and indeed of the second half of the twentieth century? It is this sort of myopic literary categorisation that leaves splendid books like Tortoise on the shelf.

So we were a band of revivalists. We are fighting the good fight to read and admire Jenkins’ novel that is ignored because it wasn’t written by Kingsley Amis. (No offence to the King, naturally.) InterIntellect, obviously, was the perfect setting. One of the earliest comments came from someone who found the book infuriating because she felt the main female character was so weak. But then she couldn’t get it out of her head. That is Jenkins’ gift. Her characters are hopelessly upper-middle-class, her morals are desperately old fashioned. She seems, at times, to actually endorse what we would call misogyny. But she writes so well. We were swapping our favourite lines, which have a polished, vicious Jane Austen quality.

Everyone had a different view of the book. Some of us found Imogen — the downtrodden wife — deeply sympathetic. Others wanted to give her a kick! Blanche, the woman who “steals” Imogen’s husband, received similarly divided reviews. Was she to be sympathised with for finally, in late middle age, finding someone who loved her and taking her opportunity, or was she a scheming homewrecker? For modern people, like us, it is natural to think an affair is a sign that “something was wrong in the marriage,” and we discussed that in detail. But I wonder if Elizabeth didn’t think that affairs were simply what men did. She was never very sympathetic to psychology, as a traditional, clear-eyed, Christian moralist. We worked hard to imagine ourselves in those times and think in those ways.

Photo of Elizabeth Jenkins, taken around the time of the affair on which the novel was based. Salon attendees all found here a striking resemblance to how they imagined Imogen.

The best part of the salon for me was the questions people came with. I have written about Tortoise on my Substack and I either knew the attendees or they were readers. Having read about Elizabeth on my blog, and knowing that I have been researching her life for an MA, they came with fascinating queries, some of which I had to consider for the first time. Would a woman like Blanche, born a Victorian in the deep Sussex country, really have slept with a married man? Considering the very masculine way Blanche is described, would the novel today be about a gay affair? Was the fascinating, ridiculous Zenobia based on a real person? Why does Imogen kiss her friend Paul, seemingly out of nowhere, on a country walk one day? I could give you my answers, but I hope these questions have tickled your interest to pick up the book yourself. If you do, email me.

One attendee had connection problems and was disappointed to miss most of the discussion, including some slides I had shown with photos and details of my research. I dropped him a note afterwards and we connected later that evening. It was a splendid conversation. As well as recapping the salon and discussing some of the questions, we talked about our careers, our academic interests, and our religious beliefs. Where else could you have so much good conversation in an evening? I can’t wait to host another salon and see who I meet.