Not , unfortunately, being a time-traveller, I haven’t managed to see or hear Jane Austen in person. I am, however, far more fortunate in this regard when it comes to the subject of my next favourite writers post – Elizabeth Jolley. I did get to see and hear her at a literary lunch at the height of her career. My reaction was the same as many others – her “little old lady” appearance and voice belied her sharp wit and earthy worldliness.
It’s not surprising that she is one of my favourite writers: I call her my antipodean Jane Austen. She is witty and ironic, she is wicked (though blacker than Austen), and she tends to write about a small number of people in a confined, often domestic, situation. But here the similarity ends. While the “character” of Austen’s characters play a role in what happens to them – there’s a reason why Elizabeth not someone like Lydia “gets” Mr Darcy – Austen’s main interest is in the social and economic constraints on her characters. Jolley on the other hand focuses more on the interior. She explores loneliness and alienation. She looks at the disturbing or unsettling sides of relationships, the ‘feelings’ people have but often don’t admit to such as those for a person of the same sex or for a person for whom they should not have feelings for (due, for example, to age differences, power differences, or infidelity). She shows how difficult it is to maintain a long-term intimate or deep relationship that is equal on all levels (physical, intellectual, social, material, etc).
In the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 25, No. 1, 1991), Jolley writes:
In my own writing I have been interested in the exploration of survival (perhaps emotional survival), resilience and responsibility. (I only know this now after several books are written).
How very Jolleyesque that aside is – humble but a bit sly at the same time. She continues a little later to say:
…for the most part my characters are perplexed, anxious, often frightened with perhaps one redeeming aspect in their personalities – that of optimism which might for a time, until it gets out of hand, keep them from the specialist’s doorstep.
The first Jolley I read was the short story, “Night runner”, in an anthology titled Room to move. It introduced me to her concept of alienation and rather black notion of survival, her particular brand of irony, her portrayal of characters who more often than not suffer from some level of self-delusion, and her dark humour. I went on to read Miss Peabody’s inheritance, The newspaper of Claremont Street, The well, The sugar mother, and An innocent gentleman, among others, and have never really been disappointed. I enjoy her use of repetition and self-referencing, the motifs and the characters, even, that reappear in different works. She gets me in the pit of my stomach with her vulnerable but often unkind or downright cruel characters, but makes me laugh at the same time with her depictions of their attempts at survival. You just have to see Ruth Cracknell playing The woman in a lampshade to know what I mean!
I have not yet read all of Jolley’s works. Just as for a long time I kept back one Jane Austen novel because once I’d read it I’d have read them all, I am now doing the same with Jolley. Her books are so delicious they need to be savoured. I’m sure this is not the last post I’ll be writing about her.