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?

Challenge logo

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

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?

Bill curates: Elizabeth Jolley’s My father’s moon

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.

Elizabeth Jolley is one of the greats and I am sorry that I have only read her in fits and starts. I have had, unread, Brian Dibble’s biography of her for so long now that I wonder if I should just hurry up and read all these fictionalised accounts of her life first, uncontaminated by knowing what she ‘really’ did.

My original post titled: “Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon”

Book cover‘No one,’ she says, ‘can write anything till they’ve had experience. Later on perhaps. You will write later on.’ (Elizabeth Jolley, My father’s moon, 1989)

Although fiction demands imagination, it must be based on  some kind of genuine experience. (Elizabeth Jolley, “Only Connect”, essay first published in Toads, 1992)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, the others being Cabin fever and The George’s wife. It won The Age Book of the Year Award in 1989.

I am an Elizabeth Jolley fan – and, along with Helen Garner, another Jolley fan, I enjoy the way she repeats and revisits stories and characters from one book or story to another. In this book is the chapter, “Night Runner”, which was published as a short story in Meanjin in December 1983, and again in a short story anthology, Room to move, published in 1985. The narrator of the story – and of the novel – typifies Elizabeth Jolley’s alienated protagonists and their often peculiarly self-centred and self-deluded ways of coping with their loneliness. Clearly Jolley decided that this was a character she wanted to develop further. And clearly she also drew a lot from her own experience to develop this character. Like Vera, Jolley was brought up as a Quaker, her parents sheltered refugees before and during the Second World War, and she trained as a nurse. Like Vera, Jolley probably experienced loneliness and alienation. However, this is fiction and so we need to be careful about how far we take these analogies between Vera and her creator. Much as I can empathise with Vera’s predicament, I must admit that I would hate to think she is Elizabeth Jolley.

It’s an uncomfortable novel. Vera, the first person narrator, is not a highly sympathetic character but neither is she totally disagreeable either. What she is, though, is lonely. The book has a somewhat challenging structure – and I had to concentrate to keep track of where I was. It starts with Vera, a single mother, leaving her parents’ home, with her young daughter, to live and work in a boarding school. Her hopes for a lovely life there among people “who feel and think as I do” are dashed. Such people “are not here as I thought they would be … I am by my own mistakes buried in this green-leafed corruption and I am alone”. In this first chapter are flashbacks to the past, and gradually the book moves into the past, providing us with insights into her character and how she has ended up where she is. Most of this past takes place in the hospital where she trains as a nurse during the war. The book finally returns to the beginning of the novel with Vera resolving to make a step towards alleviating her loneliness. However, we are by no means convinced she will.

The book comprises titled chapters, many if not all of which could be (and some have been) published separately as short stories. This gives it a somewhat disjointed feel – but seems appropriate for the story of a person like Vera. It is full of wonderfully drawn characters, with some very funny (if often dark) scenes and dialogue. Just think nurses and hospitals! There are many references to music – something that is common in Jolley’s works. Music is usually a comforting force for her characters, offering them respite from what is often a cruel world – and this is the case here, with Vera being drawn to characters who love and play music. There is a lot of irony, some of it subtle, some of it less so as in Magda’s comment to Vera who has fantasised about an affair with her husband: ‘You are so innocent and good … Don’t ever change’. Naive perhaps, innocent no!

So, what about the title? Funnily enough(!), it refers to Vera’s relationship with her father, a major stabilising influence in her life. He tells her throughout her childhood that wherever she is she can always look at the same moon he is looking at, ‘And because of this … you must know that I am not far away. You must never feel lonely’. A lovely concept and one to which Vera regularly returns in the book.

My father’s moon is not, I think, the easiest Jolley to read, and there are some things that might become clearer on a second reading. However, its concerns are very representative of her work – loneliness and alienation, homosexuality, parenting, memory, music and religion. While Vera is deeply lonely, while she often behaves selfishly, she can also be kind. She is also no quitter. For that I rather like her.

Elizabeth Jolley
My Father’s Moon
Melbourne: Viking, 1989
ISBN13: 9780670822676


I have written several posts on Jolley over the years, including reviews of a couple of novels, a sort of memoir, and a short story, but I had hoped to have read and posted on more of her work by now. Instead, a few of her novels – along with that Brian Dibble biography Bill has – still languish on my TBR pile.

Have you read any Jolley? If so, do you have any favourites?

Delicious descriptions: Elizabeth Jolley on the value of libraries

Elizabeth Jolley, The orchard thievesRegular readers will know that in June I joined in Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Elizabeth Jolley Week by posting two reviews, one of which was for the novella Orchard thieves. In that post I mentioned the sly humour, but I didn’t really share a quote to demonstrate it. However, I knew that I could always write a Delicious Descriptions post, so here it is.

It comes when the grandmother is walking home from the library. She had urged one of her extra library-book tickets to another library patron because “she knew how awful it was to get home only to discover that the books were familiar, having been read before.” As a librarian by profession, I loved it.

Anyhow, our grandmother is also a bit of a worrier, regularly thinking about various disasters that could befall her or her family:

On the way home the grandmother thought about the special kind of wealth there was in the possession of library-book tickets. They were reassuring and steady like the pension cheque. She never went anywhere without her purse. You could never know in advance what the day had in store. There might come a time when it would be necessary to offer all she had to appease an intruder. She knew of women who spread crumpled and torn newspapers all round their beds at night so that they would hear an intruder coming closer. Or, she might be held at knife point by someone in the street. She would offer all she had in her purse, small change, pension cheque and the library-book tickets. There would be absolutely no need for the villain to either strangle or stab her in order to snatch her purse. She would hold it out to him and tell him he could have it and be off. She would tell him this in plain words. The library-book tickets might even make a changed man of him, especially if he had never had a chance to use a public lending library during a life with all the deprivation brought about by being on the run.

I mean, really, don’t you love it?

Elizabeth Jolley, Poppy seed and sesame rings (#Review)

In her introduction to Learning to dance: Elizabeth Jolley, her life and work, a book that was intended to comprise only non-fiction to create a sort of autobiography, literary agent Carolyn Lurie wrote that Jolley would sometimes “draw so directly on her life” for her stories “that it seemed illuminating to include a small selection of her fiction.” From what I know of Jolley, this seems like a sensible decision.

For example, in “Poppy seed and sesame rings”, the first person narrator says:

I often heard Mother crying in the night. When I called out my father always explained in a soft voice, ‘She is homesick, that is all.’ So I always knew what was the matter.

Compare this with the opening piece in another compilation, Central mischief: Elizabeth Jolley on writing, her past and her self, which contains only non-fiction. The piece is titled “What sins to me unknown dipped me in ink”, and in it Jolley writes that “because of her marriage, my mother was an exile. I remember that her homesickness lasted throughout her life.”

Anna Gibbs, FrictionsHowever, before I discuss the story itself, a little about its background. Jolley, born in 1923, started writing novels and short stories very early in her life. Although her first book wasn’t published until 1976, she’d written her first novel around 1939, and had had short stories published by the 1960s. As far as I can tell from a list of her papers at the University of Western Australia, the story “Poppy seed and sesame rings” was written around 1965, and was initially titled “Pumpernickl, poppy seed and sesame rings”. So, it was an early story, and has been published at least three times, twice in anthologies and once in a collection of her stories, and has also been broadcast on radio:

  • Frictions: an anthology of fiction by women, edited by Anna Gibbs, Alison Tilson (1982) (contains three Jolley stories)
  • The Oxford book of Australian stories, edited by Michael Wilding (1994)
  • Fellow passengers: collected stories: Elizabeth Jolley, 1923-2007 (1997)
  • Read on BBC Radio 4, by Kerrie Fox, 26 Oct 1997

I wonder how many of Jolley’s other stories have had such exposure?

And now, the story. As I said above, it’s clearly autobiographically based, but of course that doesn’t mean that what happens in the story happened in real life. It simply means that the story’s broad outline and main themes draw from Jolley’s experience of being the daughter of an Austrian immigrant mother. In the story, the family, comprising her father, mother, aunt and grandmother, has migrated to the “New Country” from an unidentified Germanic country. In reality, Jolley was born in Birmingham to an English father and an Austrian immigrant mother.

The main theme of the book is the immigrant experience, and particularly the mother’s homesickness. Initially, the mother tries to make it work. She is generous with their shop’s customers in a desire “to be accepted”, and she feels supported by the company of her sister and mother. However, gradually things deteriorate. The sister and mother die; her daughter (our first-person narrator) leaves home for nurse training; she continues to miss her favourite foods like “poppy seed bread and sesame rings”; and the shop struggles to make a living so her help is not needed. Her life becomes a lonely one, spent largely “in the dingy room at the back.” She becomes more set in her old ways and attitudes while the daughter, finding her own way in the world, feels less and less inclined to visit. It’s a common story in migrant families.

There are other things in this story, though, besides these ideas of exile and loneliness, that give it the Jolley imprint. The story starts with the sudden death of the narrator’s aunt while the two are visiting an Art Gallery and Museum. The daughter describes her aunt’s death on the steps of the museum:

I tried to pull her from the step but she only sighed and, making no attempt to get up, she simply leaned forward and died. I ran straight home leaving her there with the pigeons and the coming darkness.

‘Tante Bertl wanted to walk,’ I told them so they did not expect her for a time.

This sort of shocking moral failure – plainly stated, and often never discovered – is not uncommon in Jolley, and reflects her acknowledgement of our darker natures. It’s part of the surprise of her work – and so at odds with her appearance! Such a sweet-looking, unassuming little old lady in a cardigan, she was!

There’s also a hint of lesbian attraction. The daughter brings a friend, Marion, home to cheer up her mother, a “friend” she “hardly knew” and “had chosen … because she looked healthy and very clean and the nearest one to speak to in the hospital administration department.” The visit goes badly, due to the mother’s refusal to be welcoming to the visitor. Afterwards, the daughter finds herself thinking about Marion:

Upstairs I sat at my table and tried to read and write and study but I kept writing Marion’s name everywhere.

I thought about her. I kept thinking about her without being able to do anything about it.

These thoughts cause her to digress from her nursing study to write from her heart “about quiet lakes and deep pools which have no reflection and no memory”, to express the “unknown store-house of feelings” she had found within herself. There’s a double whammy here, it seems – a discovery of attraction and also, perhaps, of the power of writing. No wonder this early story has had several outings.

Read for Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Elizabeth Jolley Week.

AWW Badge 2018Elizabeth Jolley
“Poppy seed and sesame rings”
in The Oxford book of Australia short stories (ed. Michael Wilding)
Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
pp. 177-183
ISBN: 9780195536102

Elizabeth Jolley, The orchard thieves (#BookReview)

Elizabeth Jolley, The orchard thievesElizabeth Jolley’s twelfth novel, The orchard thieves, is a little different from most of the other Jolleys I’ve read. It’s a little less black, a little less about alienation, but it’s unmistakably Jolley in style and preoccupations.

By preoccupations, I mean her interest in family relationships and dynamics – and, related to that, her humane, but clear-eyed, understanding of human nature. The orchard thieves was written when Jolley was in her early seventies, and revolves around a grandmother contemplating the meaning of family and children. It feels very much like the meditations a woman of her age would be having – which is not to suggest that the story itself is autobiography. Still, I can see once again, why Helen Garner loves Jolley (and doesn’t love Thea Astley). Jolley and Garner both draw from their lives, albeit Garner more so, and both focus on life’s interior challenges. They also both do so in spare but loaded writing.

The orchard thieves, then, has a minimal plot, and no named characters. Told third person from the grandmother’s perspective, it concerns a family whose members are identified by their roles: the grandmother, the grandsons who belong to the youngest sister, the granddaughter who belongs to the middle sister, and the aunt (who also happens to be the eldest sister who lives with the grandmother). There is also the son-in-law (the youngest sister’s husband.) The novel (novella, really) is constructed in three parts, and the plot, such as it is, revolves around the return from London of the middle sister with her daughter.

So, what is it all about? It’s about the family at a point in time, from the grandmother’s point of view. It’s about parents and children, about love and worry, and about age and wisdom – not that the grandmother pontificates her wisdom or is even really sure that she has it. She worries about the aunt, her eldest unmarried daughter, fearing she’s lonely. She worries about the grandsons, their safety now and their future. And she worries about the middle sister’s health and happiness when she returns home – for how long? – clearly pregnant but saying nothing. It is this sister’s return that ripples the surface of the family’s finely balanced relationships.

Jolley prepares us for this “rippling” with an initially mysterious Preface, which commences

‘If you have the house,’ the middle sister said to the aunt, the eldest sister, ‘if you have the house you’ll have to pay us each one-third of the current market price. One-third each of the value of the place.’

We immediately think of course that someone has died, and then, as the book commences we realise that the owner of the house, the grandmother, has not died. We then wonder if she will die, but Jolley’s purpose is more subtle. This is not an inheritance-fight plot. Instead, the conversation tells something about the sisters’ characters. It also suggests underlying tensions, and introduces some ideas which, when they re-appear in their correct chronological sequence, become clear.

This is not a depressing book. The tensions are real, but the grandmother’s hard-won wisdom re-stabilises without offering pat solutions – and it’s all done in a quietly meditative, but by no means dry, tone. I found it absolutely delicious reading, with its Jolleyesque references to pear trees and birds, orchards and gardens, music and myths, sexuality and lesbianism; its sly humour; and, dare I say it, its relevance to my own musings. I haven’t reached my seventies yet, but am soon to join the world of grandmas and am certainly the mother of adult children. Jolley captures the concerns, the lessons learnt and still being learnt – about raising children, about relating to adult children, about being a grandmother, and above all about love – so economically but with sensitivity and insight.

Here’s a scene, early in the book:

Alone on the grey rug in the deeply shaded garden, the grandmother began to understand that it was not until she was a grandmother herself that she, because of her own love for her grandsons, realised how much she, as a small child, had been loved. And the pity was that it was too late to acknowledge this to anyone. It was no longer possible to offer, unsolicited, a kiss, a caress or a tender phrase backwards, as it were, over her shoulder. Recalling momentarily the pain of a telephone reprimand, well deserved she was sure, and only one of many, the grandmother came to a very real truth, which was that the great love which holds the mother to the child does not necessarily travel in the other direction, from the child to the mother. She understood also that she would not be the only person in the world to have discovered this.

Such spare writing. With the exception of the descriptions in the opening phrase – “grey” and “deeply shaded” – which set the melancholic, reflective tone, the language is direct and largely unadorned, and powerful as a result.

There are several references to myths and legends, which the grandmother believes “were attempts to explain happenings which were too painful and hard for human endurance.” Wanting to share these with the grandsons, she starts to tell them the story of Ceres/Demeter and her daughter Persephone/Proserpina, but it gets all too dark and boring for them, so they

simply slipped from the grandmother’s hands and disappeared with a slight rustling of dry leaves into the surrounding bushes.

You can just see it can’t you? Elsewhere, this gorgeous elegant language is subverted when the grandmother, walking with her grandsons, uses their language:

The grandmother hoped that the river paths unlike the roads and houses and the trolleys in the supermarket, were not crap. She hoped they were not crappy crap. She hoped that the aunt’s game and the secret paths, the rocks and the rock pools along the river beaches would remain uncrapped for as long as possible.

Oh, I could go on, sharing more and more. There’s so much more to say about, for example, the imagination and how it can lead you to worry and worry, about mothers’ regrets for things they could have done differently, about the time when children need to grow out of thieving orchards, about the reality that the

little rogues and thieves … would, during their lives, do something perfect and noble and wonderful and something absolutely appalling.

And appalling is pretty much how we could describe the middle sister’s behaviour when she arrives!

Helen Garner concludes her tribute to Jolley*, “To my dear Lift-rat” (which she wrote after Jolley had succumbed to dementia), with this:

But it was too late for me to say goodbye, or to thank her for the last sentence of The Orchard Thieves, where an old woman points out comfortingly to her daughter that the difference between a bad haircut and a good one is only a week.

Garner’s right. It’s somehow the perfect, grounding ending for a book which is about both the importance of “the unseen things, the real feelings and the deep needs” and the business of “push[ing] on with living.” It’s a timeless book.

Read for Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Elizabeth Jolley Week.

* You can read Garner’s essay on-line and in her collection Everywhere I look (my review).

AWW Badge 2018Elizabeth Jolley
The orchard thieves
Ringwood: Viking, 1995
ISBN: 9780670865505

Elizabeth Jolley, An innocent gentleman (Mini-Review)

Elizabeth Jolley, An innocent gentlemanNote: 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.

AWW Logo 2016Elizabeth Jolley
An innocent gentleman
Ringwood: Viking, 2001
ISBN: 9780670912155

Monday musings on Australian literature: Late bloomers

Bloomers (Flowers in vases and pots)

Bloomin' bloomers

I guess every country has them, the writers who aren’t recognised until their middle age. Australia certainly does, and many of them seem to be women. I’m not sure whether this apparent gender imbalance is a fact or simply reflects my biased interest in the lives of women writers. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a fact, though, given that women often need to balance motherhood and wifehood with the rest of their lives. Anyhow, I thought I’d share five of my favourite late Australian bloomers. They are mostly my usual suspects and, like many people who seem to appear overnight, they  worked for a long time at their craft before they gained their much deserved recognition. I’m listing them in the order of their age when their first major writing was published.

Jessica Anderson (47, An ordinary lunacy in 1963)

Jessica Anderson wrote stories and plays, and adapted other works for radio before hitting big time with her novel An ordinary lunacy. I’ve only read two of hers – Tirra lirra by the river and her one piece of historical fiction, The commandant, which I reviewed last year. I have her last novel, One of the wattle birds, in my burgeoning TBR pile. Like many women writers, I suppose, her subject matter tends to be families. Even The commandant, which is ostensibly about the male head of the Norfolk Island penal colony, is really about the family relationships, and the reaction of the women (his wife and sister-in-law) to their circumstances in particular. According to Wikipedia, Tirra Lirra by the river, was reviewed well in the USA.

Marion Halligan (47, Self possession in 1987)

Marion Halligan was a member of the now legendary Canberra Seven or Seven Writers, a group of Canberra-based women writers who met regularly to read and discuss each other’s work. The group comprised: Dorothy Johnston, Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Dorothy Horsfield and Marion Halligan . In 1988, Australia’s Bicentennial Year, they published an anthology titled Canberra Tales. It made quite a splash on the literary scene at the time. Halligan had just published her first novel then, but the first of hers that I read was Lovers’ knots which won several awards. I have gone on to read several of her novels, including the gorgeous Valley of Grace which I reviewed last year. Halligan wrote one of my favourite quotes about reading: “Read a wise book and lay its balm on your soul”. Really, how beautiful is that!

Elizabeth Jolley (53, Five acre virgin and other stories in 1976)

Jolley was the subject of my second favourite writers post. She began writing in her twenties, and did have individual short stories published in the 1960s, but she also suffered rejection after rejection after rejection. However, she kept on and became a much lauded novelist, and a successful creative writing teacher. After all, Tim Winton was one of her students! She is recorded as saying that her eventual success was partly due to “the 1980s awareness of ‘women’s writing'”, an awareness that I fear we have lost again! Anyhow, she made up for lost time, and published 15 novels in about 20 years, as well as short story collections. I’ve read half of the novels and love the way she gets into the dark parts of our souls, into those areas where we feel alone or alienated, while being funny (albeit in a black way) at the same time.

Amy Witting (59, The visit in 1977)

Amy Witting is probably the least well-known of the five I’ve listed here. Her real name was Joan Austral Fraser. According to Wikipedia she met Thea Astley when they both taught at the same school and Astley encouraged her to submit a story for publication. It was published in The New Yorker in 1965, but it would be 12 more years before her first novel was published. I’ve read two of her novels, I for Isobel and A change in the lighting, and would happily read more. Again she deals with families, and often with the challenges middle-aged and older women face in navigating a society which is not necessarily friendly to them. She also published several collections of short stories.

Olga Masters (63, Home girls short stories in 1982)

Olga Masters was a journalist for a long time before she finally had a novel published. She was also mother to seven children, many of whom are well-known in their various fields (but you can read about all that at Wikipedia). She died in 1986, just four years after her book was published, and so her output was small, just a few novels and a couple of short story collections. Her first novel Loving daughters is still vivid in my mind, though I read it over twenty years ago. It’s set in a small coastal town in New South Wales in the 1920s and is about two sisters of marriageable age, Enid the pragmatic home-maker, and Una, the romantic, restless one. Which one will catch the eligible clergyman who comes into town, and does he make the right choice? It’s a wonderful book about character and choice. As you’ve probably assumed, she too focused primarily on the domestic. I can’t help thinking that this focus is another reason why women writers found (find, in fact) it hard to be published.

There is of course something reassuring about late bloomers. They remind us it is never too late. It may be too late at 50 years old to represent your country in the sprint at the Olympics or win Wimbledon, but it’s not too late to write a novel if that’s your passion. I’d love to hear of late bloomers you love (yourself maybe?), Australian or otherwise.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Five fascinating fictional fathers

This week’s Monday musings has a personal, sentimental, genesis. Last Friday, my 91-year-old father underwent his third major abdominal surgery in 6 years. It’s a big ask for an older body but he’s hanging in there. My parents, not surprisingly I suppose, were instrumental in my becoming a reader. My mother introduced me to Jane Austen. My father would let me bring my “28 books” (why I thought there were 28 is lost in my childhood haze) to him in bed in the morning so he could read them aloud to me. It was also he who introduced me, through reading aloud again, to Banjo Paterson‘s ballads. I have a lot to thank my parents for – and my being a reader is one of them.

All this got me to thinking of fathers in literature, and particularly Australian literature. There are a lot of men – yes, really! – in Australian fiction, but how often, I wondered, is their role as fathers a feature of the writing? As it turns out, it’s more common than I thought, but I’ll just share five here.

Elizabeth Jolley‘s My father’s moon (1989)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy and, while it is really about Vera and her challenge to find a place in the adult world, the support provided by her father is critical in her life … and Jolley writes of it beautifully:

He always told me when I had to leave for school, every term when I wept because I did not want to leave, he told me that if I looked at the moon, wherever I was, I was seeing the same moon that he was looking at, ‘And because of this’, he said, ‘you must know that I am not very far away. You must never feel lonely,’ he said. He said the moon would never be extinguished. Sometimes, he said, it was not possible to see the moon, but it was always there. He said he liked to think of it as his.

Murray Bail‘s Eucalyptus (1998)

Eucalyptus is one of my favourite books. The writing is gorgeous and it explores fatherhood from a surprising angle – for a modern novel. It is in fact a rather traditional fairy story, with a modern twist. The father in Eucalyptus sets a task for his daughter’s wooers – they must be able to identify every eucalypt tree on the property in order to win her hand, but this modern father finds that managing his daughter’s future is not quite as easy as he thought. She might in fact want a say in it.

Joan London‘s The good parents (2008)

Joan London targets, among other things, the whole issue of parenthood by exploring three generations or so of parents and children. The central family is Jacob and Toni, with their two children, and Jacob is given reasonable “airplay” in his own right as he contemplates his missing daughter and his role as her parent, and along the way his relationship with his mother, Arlene. He wonders, as many parents do at some stage, whether the choices he made for his and his family’s life were the best ones for his children.

Steve Toltz‘s A fraction of the whole (2008)

The father-son relationship is the central idea of Steve Toltz’s big, loose, baggy monster of a novel as it explores Jasper’s rather typical desire to not be his father, the free-thinking-out-there Martin. After a rather wild ride in which Jasper learns many important things, he realises that he will never be his father, that he is the sum of more than one part.

David Malouf‘s Ransom (2010)

And then there’s Ransom, Malouf’s reimagining of Priam’s approach to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son Hector in order to give him a proper burial. The book has larger themes – about daring to dream, about humility, about the power of compassion, to name a couple – but at the heart of it is the love of a father for his son. Without that, there would be no book and we would have missed another beautiful read from Malouf.

This is a pretty quick introduction to some views on fathers in recent Australian literature, because my time right now is otherwise engaged – but I’d love to hear if you have favourite literary fathers. Who are they, and why do you like them?

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Elizabeth Jolley on gums


Xanthorrhoea (once called Blackboys)

Just a little one today from Elizabeth Jolley‘s somewhat quirky memoir, Diary of a weekend farmer:

For some reason the great trees have been left standing and the bush, the blackboys and the wild flowers have not been cleared on our 5 acres. The wandoo trees very beautiful also jarrah and something called Black Butt? Red gum has white flowers? White gum which has red. Rough wild bark. Leaves fall all the time and new leaves come, stained bark. (from 11th November 1970)

Jolley learning the land …