Elizabeth Jolley, Hilda’s wedding (#Review, #1976Club )

One of Elizabeth Jolley’s biggest fans is Helen Garner, as I have said before. Garner often mentions Jolley, and my current read, the second volume of her diaries, One day I’ll remember this, is no exception. She writes:

Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel, My father’s moon [my review]. She re-uses and reworks images from her earlier work, brings forth experiences that she’s often hinted at but never fully expressed. I can learn from this. I used to think that if I said something once I could never say it again, but in her book I see how rich a simple thing can be when you turn it this way and that and show it again and again in different contexts.

This is not the only reason Garner admires Jolley, but the reasons are not my topic for today! I will add, though, because it is relevant to my topic, that another thing Garner appreciates about Jolley is that both draw closely from their own lives in their writing.

So now, “Hilda’s wedding”, which I read for the 1976 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book. It’s not the short story I had planned to read, but I couldn’t find that one – also a Jolley – in my collection or online. Fortunately, during my hunting, I found this one from the same year, and it exemplifies the two points I made at the beginning. Firstly, it features a character, Night Sister Bean, who appears in other Jolley works, including the first of hers I read, the short story “Night runner”. And, being a hospital-set story, it draws on (let’s not say “from”) her own experience of nursing.

“Hilda’s wedding” is a rather bizarre or absurd story – which, again, is not a surprise from Jolley. In it, the narrator, who is a relieving night nurse – so somewhat of an outsider – organises an on-the-spot wedding for the very pregnant, apparently unmarried, kitchen maid Hilda. The various roles – husband, celebrant, parents of the bride, pages – are played by night staff including the cook, cleaners and porters. The bride is dressed, with a veil made of surgical gauze and a draw sheet as her train (which contains a hint of the Gothic that we can also find in Jolley’s writing). Immediately after the ceremony, Hilda goes into labor and gives birth in the elevator.

What does it mean? I’m not sure, but this little story about an impromptu wedding sounds like children’s play-acting. It’s a game which uses imagination and creativity, which provides a sense of fun in a grim place, and which brings a little joy to Hilda, whose “melon-coloured face shone with a big smile”. Melons, as you may know, are often associated with pregnancy and fertility. However, injected into the story at various points is the real world, one characterised by rules and impersonality. There’s also the unresolved mystery about Sister Bean and rumours about her negative impact on transfusions/drips. Is she a witch, they wonder?

Sister Bean opens and closes the story, but otherwise appears only occasionally. There are various ways we could read her. One could be people’s need to find a reason or explanation or scapegoat for the bad things that happen in a world where you have little control. In the third last paragraph, our narrator comments on the early morning, and the city waking up:

A thin trickle of tired sad people left the hospital. They were relatives unknown and unthought about. They had spent an anonymous night in various corners of the hospital waiting to be called to a bedside. They were leaving in search of that life in the shabby world which has to go on in spite of the knowledge that someone who had been there for them was not there any more.

It is against this backdrop of sadness that our nurse narrator was there for Hilda. In the next and penultimate paragraph, the narrator is standing outside, taking “deep breaths of this cool air which seemed just now to contain nothing of the weariness and the contamination and the madness of suffering”.

In this story, as is typical of Jolley, there is humour alongside sadness, comedy next to tragedy, unreality bumping up against reality, and, appropriately, no resolution at the end.

In Central mischief – a collection of Jolley articles, talks and essays compiled by her agent Carolyn Lurie – is a talk Jolley gave to graduating nurses in 1987. Before I get to my concluding point from it, I’ll just share something else she says, which is that “for me fiction is not a form of autobiography”. This is an important distinction, which I think Garner would also make. Writers like Jolley and Garner may draw on their own experiences, but what they write is something else altogether.

But now, I want to conclude on this that she tells them:

There is a connection between nursing and writing. Both require a gaze which is searching and undisturbedly compassionate and yet detached.

What a clear-eyed view – and how hard to achieve. What do you think about this?

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Elizabeth Jolley
“Hilda’s wedding” (first pub. 1976, in Looselicks)
in Woman in a lampshade
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1983
pp. 139-46
ISBN: 0140084185

34 thoughts on “Elizabeth Jolley, Hilda’s wedding (#Review, #1976Club )

  1. There’s something strange about Jolley’s personal life, I know; and I imagine it must have informed her writing in some way .. given her an appreciation of life’s vagaries, mebbe ..
    It greatly annoys me that my best-loved sister knew Hewett, Hospital and Jolley, but NOT Garner.

    • Haha M-R … it was your sister’s loss I’d say, though those three are great to know.

      And yes, there were many strange things about Jolley’s life that must have affected her world view in particular ways.

    • Thanks Mallika for engaging with this question as I’ve thought a bit about it. I wonder whether she’s making a difference between “feeling” and “emotion”? So, you write with feeling/compassion but you keep clear-eyed and not emotional? Still thinking.

      • It is one to think about. certainly. Can one be compassionate without ‘feeling’ or bringing up the related emotion? Perhaps one can for instance in situations when one feels bad for a stranger’s misfortune but not really deeply since one doesn’t know the person?

        • Yes, I’m thinking that you can be compassionate, that you can feel for someone, but you can do that without being emotional or invested in them. For example, you might feel compassion for someone who has done something wrong, and you might feel badly for the predicament they’ve got themselves into, but you don’t get emotional, you don’t lose sight of the reality of the situation? Is this making sense?

          So, I guess what I think she’s saying is that you can write with compassion, for example, about difficult or unlikable people – you can show why they are the way they are, for example – but you never lose sight of the fact that they are still the way they are? If we think about her comment about nurses, she’s saying that they should be compassionate and caring/feeling but not – as nurses and doctors are always told – become emotionally involved? I think she wants to write about life like that – with compassion and feeling, but with clear not emotional eyes about the reality?

        • Yes, that does make sense. Compassionate in the sense of trying to understand people, make sense of why they are how they are or in the situation they are; being understanding of their pain; rather than being judgemental but at the same time not being emotionally invested in such a way that one can’t look at them with clear eyes

  2. I have lots of Jolley novels, but not her short stories. I was hoping this one would be included in the Penguin Special I have, but no, it only includes Woman in a Lampshade and Adam’s Bride; and Night Runner is the one in the PEN Macquarie Anthology. It’s about nursing too.

    • Thanks Lisa. I have Woman in a lampshade, which this one comes from, and I thought I had her first, but I don’t. You are right about Night Runner – it also features Sister Bean whom I think might also appear in My father’s moon (but I’m too lazy to go check!) because the Night Runner story is used in My father’s moon I think. That’s Jolley, and I’m starting to go round in circles!

    • One of my dearest friends, now dead, was a close friend of Elizabeth Jolley in Perth. I remember her telling me about this wonderful writer who was having trouble getting published. She lent me a tattered typewritten manuscript of the Night Runner story at one stage.

  3. Given that Jolley was nursing in the 1940s and 50s I’m assuming that’s when the story’s set. Tough time to be a single mother, in fact Hilda was probably lucky to keep her job once she was showing. It seems to me a mark of some compassion to organize a ‘wedding’ for her as no doubt she would be ‘Mrs’ for the rest of her life.

    • Yes, my guess is it’s set during that time Bill. And I think you’re right about the plan being a partly at least one of compassion. When I said “brings a little joy” to Hilda I intended that idea to be conveyed but you’ve extended it to make a social point too.

      When I was thinking of the compassionate aspect, I was also thinking that our narrator is shown to having her snarky side too – she admits being prepared to risk a patient’s safety to test the theory about Sister Bean. So, again Jolley shows her characters to not be black and white. I really should write more in my reviews but I hate getting bogged down in detail (which I often do anyhow!)

    • PS It’s not a real wedding, though, as the “celebrant” wasn’t licensed in any way used an 1851 Cricket Manual not even a Prayer book to conduct the “service”! This is part of the humour of the piece. But, the wedding shows an awareness of Hilda’s predicament all the same.

  4. Oh, I love these connections between writers, that come out in notebooks and letters and diaries. I know somewhere in the comments recently, Melanie was mentioning that she hadn’t enjoyed that collection of letters by Langston Hughes, but that’s actually one that I did really enjoy, because of the plethora of connections between him and other creatives. There were a lot of names to track, and not all the relationships were equally nourishing, but the interplay can be fascinating, especially when one thinks about how some writers were readers for other writers and how they influenced and shaped those works indirectly (as is true for writers today, too, sometimes). That’s a great quote about the need for distance and the need for compassion, both. I think recognizing what a character will do in fiction is often different from what you want them to do, if you are dedicated to the idea of their being credible (sometimes, for instance, at the expense of their being “likeable” to brush against an ongoing debate).

    • I love them too Buried – as is obvious, eh? It is interesting to see and think about the impact of writers on each other. Garner is very open about much of this.

      I’m glad you like that quite about distance and compassion – and love your “brushing” against that ongoing debate! You know you will never have a demur from me on that debate.

  5. Elizabeth Jolley fan here. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is my fav of the ones I’ve read.

    “In the middle of the journey of our life, when we begin to start to feel the weight of the crimes we are hauling behind us, we might turn to literature for wisdom. It is not readily available, but I have always found it in Elizabeth Jolley, even before I knew what I was looking for.” (Helen Garner)

    • That’s right, Guy, I knew that! After the Night Runner short story, Miss Peabody’s inheritance was my first novel. I have often thought I’d love to read it again.

      That’s a great Garner quote – and it sounds so like her (“the weight of the crimes we are hauling behind us”)

    • She was English-born, Karen, and came to Australia with her husband, in her mid-30s. She didn’t have her first book (a book of short stories) published until she was 53, in 1976, but she had had short stories published through the 1970s (and some before that I think). BUT she is quite “quirky”, often darkly so. Well worth reading. Most of her novels are not long.

  6. Hi Sue, I don’t know who is not a fan of Elizabeth Jolley. I have Woman in a Lampshade, and you have encouraged me to read her short stories again. Jolley, always hit the mark. I think Jolley was a disturbed woman, and that helped her writing. Recently I read Patricia Highsmith’s autobiography, and she too was a very disturbed woman. Though, I think Jolley had more compassion than Highsmith and a better writer. My favourite Jolley novel is The Well.

    • Yes, I think you are probably right about Jolley. I don’t really know anything about Highsmith except that she wrote crime.

      Did your ever see that film adaptation of Woman in a lampshade with Ruth Cracknell?

      • Hi Sue, many of Patricia Highsmith’s characters were based on people she knew, and by doing so upset a few people. Highsmith wrote psychological thrillers, and the characters were very dark. I don’t think I have seen Ruth Cracknell in Woman in a Lampshade. I must look for it.

  7. I didn’t enjoy My Father’s Moon, but I do enjoy some of Jolley’s short stories. As a former nurse, of course, I know you have to keep a certain amount of detachment to survive, but I’d beware of nurses who avoid all emotional attachment. There’s been many a time I retreated to a quiet corner for a quick weep. There are times I’ve gone home and sobbed. When you spend your days surrounded by sick and dying people, you start to find it hard to comprehend people are actually healthy and well out there – the sick and dying fill so much of your days and nights – it’s a strange thing sometimes to be a nurse on night duty and look out a hospital window onto the world and realize there are people out there who are well and happy, when you have spent the last twelve hours surrounded by nothing but suffering and death. Hence her need to ” take deep breaths of this cool air”. It shapes your mind living night and day surrounded by human suffering. Jolley and Cynthia Nolan, both nurses,both writers, knew this well I think.

    I’m glad they helped the kitchen maid – I don’t know how I would have coped sometimes without the help of the marvellous cleaners and maids who watched over patients and cheered up many a weary nurse! They were pure gold.

    I’d love to read this!

    • Your reflections are wonderful Sue. I completely take your point about emotional attachment. I would imagine compassion without getting emotionally involved would be the goal and, overall, the healthiest for nurses, but I can’t imagine people who choose this profession being able to not become emotionally involved at least with some cases they come across.

      And, thanks so much too, for explaining how working in that environment can skew your perspective on the world. That makes perfect sense, as does your comment about the cleaners and maids.

      Unfortunately this story is not available online – when I do short stories I try to choose ones available online but it’s not always possible. Maybe your library has the collection? They should have ALL Jolleys!!

      • Both Jolley and Nolan I think are depressive personalities Sue (and if I can finally get that review done for Bill about Nolan’s book it would be interesting to compare her with Jolley!) Yes, you start to feel that the whole world is like the hospital, your life becomes so immersed in it. I’ll check our local library, it’s been closed for two months during lockdown!

        • I know of Nolan but I haven’t read her. I can’t help thinking that more writers than not are depressive. I look forward to what you have to say.

          Are you out of lockdown now? We are out today but with so many restrictions it’s not really free. Still it’s on the way.

  8. Pingback: Classics and Literary Round-up: October 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  9. Hi Sue I have just finished reading Leaping into Waterfalls; The Enigmatic Gillian Mears, by Bernadette Brennan. I remembered your blog on Jolley’s quote; “There is a connection between nursing and writing. Both require a gaze which is searching and undisturbedly compassionate and yet detached.” Gillian Mears was not a nurse, and her gaze on her family, friends and lovers was disturbing and not always compassionate, and never detached. A very good read, but also, unsettling.

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