When she died in 2010, at the astonishing age of 104, the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins was all but forgotten, her name known only to a few aficionados, her books mostly long out of print. And yet, in her day, her reputation had been up there with the other distinguished Elizabeths of mid-twentieth-century fiction, Bowen and Taylor. What happened?
I had never heard of Elizabeth Jenkins myself until a chance conversation with a bookseller friend. He told me he had just sold one of her books and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was still being read. Elizabeth who? I asked, and he gave me the basics. Since then I have found out – and read – much more, and discovered for myself what a very fine novelist she was.
A literary career that spanned eight decades began soon after she left Cambridge. While still an unpublished author working on her first novel, she was invited to dinner by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and duly received the usual Bloomsbury treatment – taken up and made much of, then frozen out and humiliated. Though Virginia did praise that first novel, in somewhat patronizing terms (‘a sweet white grape of a book’), Elizabeth was so embarrassed by it that she sought out and bought up all the copies she could find. (It was called Virginia Water, published in 1929, and it does indeed seem to have disappeared without trace.) However, Victor Gollancz was sufficiently impressed to offer her a three-novel contract. Elizabeth Jenkins was on her way.
Over the coming decades, a stream of well-received novels and equally well-received biographies poured forth. Several of the biographies – of Jane Austen (Jenkins was a founder of the Jane Austen Society), of Elizabeth I, Lady Caroline Lamb and others – remain quite easily available to this day, but the novels, though they often went into several printings, are mostly much harder to find. In part, no doubt, t
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