Bill curates: Favourite writers, no. 2

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

We discovered in August that Thea Astley is Sue’s #3 favourite writer. We’ve always known that Jane Austen (here) is #1. So I thought we should check out # 2. And, if you’re wondering, I’ve looked and there is no #4. Sue of course – she’s a librarian – is astonishingly well organised, so to go to her Jolley reviews, click on Authors above. There you will find authors listed alphabetically, and beneath each author the books Sue has reviewed.

My original post titled: “Favourite writers 2: Elizabeth Jolley”

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.

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press)

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.

Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press
Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press

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.

Postscript: Since this post I have read more Jolley, but I still have some up my sleeve!


Bill is right. There is no #4, though I have frequently thought about who would be my number 4. I’ve also wondered about how many favourite writers it would be reasonable to have? I love so many writers, still living and those who are no longer with us … but I think that if I do name a 4th I will stick to ones who have died. And, I think I know who that would be.

You now know my top three writers, as I considered them 10 years ago? Would you care to name your top 3?

16 thoughts on “Bill curates: Favourite writers, no. 2

  1. I sometimes name ‘best’ authors, but I struggle to name favourites. If I think whose books would I automatically buy then that would have been Ian M Banks and William Gibson, and further back in the past, Ursula Le Guin. Of your selections I like Jolley and Astley but I would have Christina Stead ahead of them both.

    • Yes, thanks Bill, I think we could tease out “best” versus “favourite. Best there describes something more absolute or objective which I would find hard to delineate.

      Fair enough re Christina Stead. I hadn’t read any of her – mea culpa – when I wrote those three posts. I still have read too little.

  2. Hi Sue and Bill, the question as to who are my favourte three authors is far too difficult to answer. There are so many wonderful writers dead and alive that I enjoy reading!

      • Hi Sue, I am a Wuss, but I am not the only one(lol)! I have just finished reading The Way of all Flesh, which I loved. When I googled it I found that A. A. Milne,, wrote about it in one of his essays … “Once upon a time I discovered Samuel Butler;… who wrote The Way of All Flesh, the second-best novel in the English language. I say the second-best, so that, if you remind me of Tom Jones, or The Mayor of Casterbridge, or any other that you fancy, I can say, of course, that one is the best.

  3. For some reason I tend to prefer dead authors but I would find it too difficult to name favourites, it depends what sort of mood I’m in.

  4. Doris Lessing, Steineck, William Faulkner – purely because their names all leapt to mind when I tried to imagine what I would immediately buy if I were in a bookshop and saw those names on books I had not already read.

    • Great choices cotsell. I love Steinbeck, and what Lessing I’ve read. Wild grass singing was gut wrenching as I recollect. I really need to get stuck into Faulkner. I like your criteria/method for choosing your favourites!

  5. The problem with a question like ‘name your favourite’ is what plagues those 100 Favourite lists we see from time to time. Certain names rise to the top but they are just the ones we think of first, usually because they’re well-known.
    For me there’s a distinction between favourite books I’d happily read again and again — my desert island books like James Joyce’s Ulysses, HHR’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch — and books whose authors bring/brought out a new title fairly regularly and I look forward to them and nearly always enjoy them but I probably wouldn’t ever read them again, like Elizabeth Jolley, Richard Flanagan, Amanda Lohrey, Rohan Wilson, Amanda Goldsmith and that’s five and I’d better stop there though I can think of half a dozen more…

    • Yes, Lisa, and I think that’s why I stopped at three because these three are authors I turn to again and again. I have a fourth who has been with me through decades of my life now.

      BTW I would read Jolley again (obviously)! Indeed, I have.

      I really don’t have desert island books, but I think one would have to be poetry, probably an anthology so I could get a few of my favourites there!

  6. I know there’s some weirdness in her life, but because I’m silly I can’t recall what it is. Something to do with .. adoption ? .. her husband ?
    My second-eldest sister felt as Sue does about her, and also knew her quite well. And since Josephine was a passionate Austenista ( ! ), Sue is obviously correct in pairing them.
    I have spoken. [grin]

    • Austenista, M-R. I love that. I think I’ll tell that to my JA group friends.

      Yes, the weirdness is to do with Jolley’s relationship and marriage to Leonard, the daughter of Leonard’s first marriage, and major secrets and pretences maintained at her husband Leonard’s request (it seems but Jolley went along with it, of course). Really weird … but we’ll never know what Jolley really felt about it all. Interesting that your sister knew her well. I wonder what she knew about it all.

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