Note: this is a mini-review compiled from the notes I made when I read Elizabeth Jolley’s An innocent gentleman before blogging. I found them on some scrappy pieces of paper while decluttering and figured my blog is the best place to keep them … not floating in some drawer somewhere!
Most if not all of Elizabeth Jolley’s books that I’ve read deal with the difficulties in forming and maintaining meaningful human relationships. Of course, a lot of writers do this – after all people and their relationships are the stuff of life. But Elizabeth Jolley tends to deal with the disturbing or unsettling sides of our relationships. She explores the ‘feelings’ people have but often don’t admit to, such as feelings for a person of the same sex or for a person for whom they should not have feelings. This might be because of age or power differences or infidelity. She shows how difficult it is – though we desire it so – to maintain a long-term intimate or deep relationship that is equal on all levels (physical, intellectual, social, material, etc). And she usually does it with a deep sense of irony. In this, she is, to me, a contemporary Jane Austen.
And so, in An innocent gentleman, Jolley’s last novel, we have three main characters – Henry, Muriel and Mr Hawthorne – who have a complicated set of relationships with each other based on wishes and desires for something deeper, happier. The setting is World War 2, and the woman, Muriel, has married ‘down’ according to her mother. Henry is her husband, and Mr Hawthorne is the ‘classy’ man they meet. If you suspect the “eternal triangle” you’d be right, sort of, but in Jolley’s hands it doesn’t play out to script. The relationships that develop are complex … and play, for one thing, on the notion of innocence.
There is an autobiographical element to this too. In her essay collection, Central Mischief, Jolley writes about her mother’s long-running adulterous relationship, which her husband, Jolley writes, “grudgingly accepted”. He was an older, more well-off man. It’s not surprising, really, that Jolley explored complex, odd-to-many-of-us relationships.
Anyhow, besides these three, there are some secondary characters – Muriel’s mother, their neighbours the Tonkinsons, the two little daughters, and Victor and Miss Morton – who circle around these characters, being affected by or affecting the central relationships. This is very Jane Austenish too, in fact, this focus on a small range of characters operating in a small sphere, which comprises, in this case, a town in the midlands and a trip to London. In Jolley’s hands, though, there’s often a suffocating sense of lives too well controlled, too small, and of a desire, sometimes, to break out.
Jolley quotes Wordsworth: ‘…There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society’. And so, as in most of her books, there is not a final resolution where the characters find their place, resolve their issues. There is just a point in time where they have learnt something about themselves and resolve to keep on going, doing the best they can ‘in one society’, but what that best entails is another thing.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers is also an Elizabeth Jolley fan, and has reviewed this book.