A sensitive and perceptive writer who was not afraid of the 'appalling' Virginia Woolf
ELIZABETH Jenkins, who died last Sunday aged 104, was a sensitive and perceptive novelist and biographer. Having been introduced to the Bloomsbury Group in the Twenties, she soon turned her back on Virginia Woolf, whom she found "appalling", to achieve success in her own right.
Her particular talent in fiction was to depict the victimisation of sympathetic, if frail, protagonists by people who are unremarkable except for their cruelty. Like Agatha Christie ("the most elegantly dressed elderly woman I have ever seen"), Elizabeth Jenkins was fascinated by tales of suburban crime.
Her second novel, Harriet (1934), is the story of a simple-minded woman who is starved to death by relatives keen to get their hands on her inheritance. The book beat Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust to the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, an award presented to Elizabeth by EM Forster.
Similar tales of human intrigue were to recur throughout Elizabeth Jenkins's fiction, notably in her best-known novel, The Tortoise and the Hare (1954), which dealt with the gradual collapse of an apparently perfect marriage. The title refers to the two women competing for the affections of a wealthy barrister.
Margaret Elizabeth Jenkins was born on October 31, 1905 at Hitchin in Hertfordshire, where her father had founded the preparatory school, Caldicott. She grew up in the strong Methodist tradition of her parents.
'Lizzy' was sent to The Modern School, Letchworth ("I have never known such cold") and St Christopher's in the same town. In 1924 she went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read English and history. Among her tutors was FR Leavis, who so brutally edited one of her essays that Elizabeth Jenkins forever remembered to prize concision.
The principal of Newnham at the time was Pernel Strachey (Lytton Strachey's sister), and it was through her that Elizabeth was introduced to Edith Sitwell as well as to Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. In the year after she left Cambridge, while working on a first novel, Virginia Water, she settled in a small furnished apartment in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. There she received a simple invitation to join the Woolfs after supper one Thursday.
Elizabeth found the famous writer "very beautiful" and the "ineffably distinguished" company "enough to take one's breath away". But after a few months she found herself frozen out of conversation, or addressed in "contemptuous and mocking" tones.
Scorned, she did not seek to meet Woolf again, even after the Bloomsbury figurehead subsequently inquired after her and described Virginia Water (1928) as "a sweet white grape of a book".
The debut novel was well-received and cemented Elizabeth's working relationship with Victor Gollancz, who offered a £60, three-book contract. The author herself, however, soon found the work embarrassing and bought and destroyed any copies she could find.
In 1929 she started teaching English at King Alfred's School, Hampstead, where she would remain until the outbreak of war. Although the school tended to be unruly, and she never felt herself a natural teacher, Elizabeth Jenkins controlled her class with quiet authority.
In 1939 she moved into a Regency house in Hampstead, which was to remain her home for more than half a century. Her memoirs, The View from Downshire Hill, were published in 2004 as she approached her 100th year.
During the war, she worked at the Assistance Board, helping Jewish refugees and the victims of London air raids.
Elizabeth Jenkins continued to write until recently, eventually producing two dozen books. Asked her favourite, she would single out Dr Gully (1972), a true Victorian murder mystery.
She never married. The men in her life, she said, were not free to pursue any relationship.