Elizabeth Jolley, Diary of a weekend farmer
I took 2 valium and went to bed early (Monday 12th October, 1970)
Elizabeth Jolley’s Diary of a weekend farmer is one quirky memoir (if you can call it that). And yet it is, really, exactly what you might expect from a writer who rarely wrote the expected!
It is a slim volume – illustrated with warm, shimmery paintings by West Australian artist, Evelyn Kotai. The diary entries were written by Jolley at irregular intervals from 1970 to 1974 (probably), and are accompanied by poems by Jolley, plus the occasional contribution from her husband Leonard and daughter Ruth. Some of the entries are reflective
… being on this piece of land makes me feel very much aware of the shortness of life, I mean our human life in comparison with the land and the big old trees. (from Monday 6th [September, 1971] continued)
while others are factual
Ruth and I tried to plant tomatoes ground too dry and hard. (from 10th November 1970)
As you can see, little care (or perhaps a lot of care – how are we to know?) is taken with punctuation.
Jolley’s trademark wry, or even wicked, comments are in evidence
Next door’s place has been well cleared and conquered I think the word should be … (from 11th November 1970)
There is, in fact, a tiny plot running through the book and it has to do with the “neighbour woman”. She appears regularly as a rather ambiguous presence who doesn’t respect Elizabeth and her city-slicking family, and their farming endeavours, but offers some useful advice at times. Much of this “plot” is carried though a poem (“Neighbour Woman on the Fencing Wire”) which continues in sections throughout the book:
I suppose you didn’t notice last Sunday evening
you left your rake and mattock out and
(from “Continuation from the Fencing Wire”)
This woman is a little thorn in Jolley’s side – always pointing our her failings – and yet at the end, Jolley’s underlying compassion becomes evident as she writes of the “neighbour woman’s death” and her husband’s grief:
… and I understood I was face to face with someone who really loved the neighbour woman and that he would never get over something that is brushed aside in the word bereavement. (from No date required)
But, what this little volume particularly shows is her love of the land – along with her recognition of its challenges. Here’s one example:
It is an alien place resisting or is it retreating from all our human endeavour. And then the doves fly up glowing in the rising sun and the sound from their wings is like a tiny clapping. (from Monday 25th February, 1973).
There is a very Jolley-esque tension here between an almost mystical beauty and a power that is not always benign.
And here is a reference to gums and their widow-making capability:
The wind moves the trees great branches fall
In the wind or in the stillness
A few feet nearer and I should have been crushed
Into the greater stillness.
(from “Great Branches Fall”)
These diary entries were made before her first book, Five acre virgin, and other stories, was published in 1976, though she’d had individual short stories published from the 1960s on. When I read memoirs by writers, I look (of course) for references to writing. There is not much here, though. Besides the mention of something her husband said as being “a very good 1st sentence”, the main reference to her writing is this:
I finished the story “Pear Tree Dance” for the BBC, an idyllic ending! The newspaper of Claremont Street contains the grim and sinister side of things. (from 19th August 1971)
She’s right about that. Newspaper is one of my favourites of hers but it is rather grim. It was not published until 1981 … and is about a woman who wanted her own piece of land. I think I’ll leave it here – and let you ponder that idea!
Diary of a weekend farmer
South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993