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?
“Hilda’s wedding” (first pub. 1976, in Looselicks)
in Woman in a lampshade
Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1983