p> The Tortoise and the Hare, first published in 1956, charts the slow deterioration of a marriage through the eyes of the wife, Imogen. Imogen is young, beautiful, and submissive to her much older husband, Evelyn. In the early days of their marriage, Evelyn found her somewhat helpless charm endearing. But fifteen years on, as his career reaches its peak, his needs have changed: he wants to be looked after. The more she tries to please him by effacing herself, the less regard he has for her. And the less regard he has for her, the more her confidence collapses. Gradually, his affections transfer to their neighbour, the frumpish, dowdy, overbearing Blanche Silcox, whose ‘figure with its bloated waist’ was held up by the ‘slender forelegs that unexpectedly support a bull’. Miss Silcox is effective, opinionated, good at huntin’ and fishin’, and at organising his life and everyone else’s.
p> For all that things have changed in sixty years, many elements of the story continue to ring true. My own husband is eight years older than me and has a well-established career which, like Evelyn’s, is in the law. I am a late bloomer, slow to understand myself, the sort of woman who has grown up enormously because of my loving husband’s care. In the early years of our relationship, I was overwhelmed by grief and struggled with everyday life. Normal activities like driving, meeting strangers, shopping, and working full time felt beyond me and, like Imogen, I was happy to spend many hours of the week doing very little. Because my husband has been patient, gentle and kind, there are many ways that he has husbanded me into being who I am today. But when I think what life could have been like had my husband been as politely, overbearingly selfish as Evelyn, then, like Imogen, I may very well have faded into invisibility.
p> There are also elements of Blanche in me. Like her, I can be very effective. These days I run a pretty tight ship, and the house is a reasonably neat, welcoming place. My husband comes home to clean socks in the dresser and hot dinner on the table. Bar the normal irritations of children, he has a comfortable home life. But The Tortoise and the Hare made me think, again, about how much many women, including me, still work so hard to meet the needs of their menfolk. Imogen tries and fails; Blanche tries and succeeds; I try and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. My husband does not demand this of me; he never makes judgements if the house is grubby or I’m too wrecked to cook; and he does a fair bit of the workload. But I certainly do more than I need to make the house a home, whether cooking from scratch or folding his hankies before putting them away. Unlike Evelyn, my husband is respectful and committed to finding ways to share our lives; even so, the book helped me see some of the power dynamics that we unwittingly live out.
p> The book also recalled the marriage, and divorce, of several of my friends. Imogen is always polite and careful never to make a scene, even when her husband’s relationship with Blanche Silcox slides into a humiliatingly public, domestic, daily affair. And in one dreadful scene, Evelyn kindly remonstrates with Imogen because she has not tried hard enough to like Blanche.
p> It may seem incredible that a man could rebuke his wife for not making a better attempt to appreciate his mistress, but again and again I have heard similar stories. The man who left one friend and their newborn child because, since the birth of the baby, my friend had ‘selfishly’ failed to attend to his needs and he felt pushed into the arms of his (previously undeclared) lover. The man whose wife’s ‘preoccupation’ with their young children and her own ill-health ‘drove’ him to nightly consumption of internet porn, and to demanding the more brutalised sexual expression that had become his new norm. The man who left a marriage because his wife’s breast cancer was making his life too difficult. And so on.
p> These did not start out as abusive relationships. It was only after a long and gradual shift in the terms of each relationship that conversations in which the mostly victim was blamed for the actions of and abandonment by the mostly selfish were possible. Again, this is seen in the book. Imogen takes a long time to recognise what is happening. When she does begin to wonder, and tentatively frames a question, her usually polite husband explodes at her impertinence and lack of consideration for his privacy, and shuts down the conversation. Understanding that he will be considerate, polite, and gentle as long as she never broaches the subject, she leaves it until what was previously unthinkable has become so normal, so reasonable, so much a part of everyday life, that it cannot be challenged. And this, too, I hear from friends. By the time they realise what is happening, it is too late for questions; tentative forays are met with aggression, counteraccusations or blank denial.
p> The Tortoise and the Hare is an acute look at the power relations between many men and women, or income earners versus homemakers, and it raises interesting questions. Who is the hare, and who is the tortoise? Who wins, and what is the prize? Is the winner the woman who fully shapes herself to the man’s needs; and the rich, powerful, handsome man the trophy? Or is the winner the one who is cast aside and left with nothing but, perhaps, the chance to rebuild a life on new terms?
p> Questions are also raised about love, power, and work. What boundaries should be kept sacrosanct in a relationship, and how can one keep them or ask another to keep them? How much should one shape oneself or the household to meet the other’s needs? Evelyn works, while Imogen’s role is to be decorative and provide a sanctuary for him. How, then, does ‘working’ versus ‘homemaking’ affect the power relationship? Some things have changed since the book was written; now, both partners often work in demanding jobs. In thinking about Evelyn’s need to be cared for, I found myself wondering how we can find restoration and comfort at home when both partners are exhausted and the kids are ratty and we don’t have housekeepers or cooks.
p> These are all good questions, with no neat or universal answers. Instead, they need to be negotiated time and again. And while The Tortoise and the Hare does not offer solutions, it certainly describes aspects of many modern domestic relationships, raises questions, and holds clues to possible answers – and provides some beautiful, intelligent, incisive, and sometimes hilariously bitchy, reading along the way.