Jolley, Elizabeth (1923—)

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Jolley, Elizabeth (1923—)

British-born Australian short-story writer and novelist who is considered pre-eminent in Australia and over-seas for her innovative and experimental fiction. Pronunciation: JOLL-lee. Born Monica Elizabeth Knight on June 4, 1923, in Gravelly Hill, between Sutton Coal-field and Birmingham, England; daughter of Charles Wilfred Knight (1890–1977, a teacher) and Margarethe Johanna Carolina (von Fehr) Knight (1896–1979); sister ofMadelaine Winifred Knight Blackmore ; attended Bilston Girls' High School until nearly eight; studied at home and then (age 11–17) at Sib-ford, a Quaker boarding school near the Cotswolds; married Leonard Jolley (1914–1994, a librarian); children: Sarah Jolley; Richard Jolley; Ruth Jolley.

Entered nursing training at 17, leaving to be a housekeeper (1946–50) and, briefly, a school matron (1950); joined Leonard Jolley in Edinburgh, Scotland (1950), moving with him to Glasgow (1956); immigrated with family to Australia (1959); started writing for publication (1960s), having her first book published and becoming a university lecturer in creative writing (1970s); has produced about a book a year since then, receiving much critical acclaim and many civic, academic, and literary honors.


State of Victoria Short Story Award for "A Hedge of Rosemary" (1965); Western Australia Week Award for Fiction and the Age Book of the Year Award for Fiction for Mr. Scobie's Riddle (1983); Australia Council-Literature Board grant (1983–85); New South Wales Prize for Fiction for Milk and Honey (1985); another Literature Board Fellowship and invitation to the Commonwealth Literary Festival and an Australian Bicentennial grant to write-publish The Sugar Mother (1986); honorary Doctorate of Technology from Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University, 1987); Miles Franklin Award for The Well (1987); Western Australian Citizen of the Year (Arts, Culture, Entertainment); Officer of the Order of Australia for Services to the Arts (1988); Canada-Australia Literary Award (1989); Age Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Royal Blind Society-3M Company Talking Book of the Year, both for My Father's Moon (1989); Gold Medal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature for Cabin Fever (1991); Alice Award from the Western Australian branch of Society of Women Writers (1992); Western Australia Premier's Book Awards Overall prize for Central Mischief (1993); joint winner withFrançoise Cartano of the Inaugural France-Australia Literary Award for The Sugar Mother (Tombé du ciel), a book in French translation (1993); Age Book of the Year Fiction Prize (1993) and National Book Council Banjo Award for fiction (1994), both for The Georges' Wife.

Selected writings:

Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1976); Travelling Notebook (Fremantle, 1978 and 1979); Travelling Entertainer and Other Stories (Fremantle, 1979); Palomino (Outback, 1980); Newspaper of Claremont Street (Fremantle, 1981); Miss Peabody's Inheritance (University of Queensland, 1983); Mr. Scobie's Riddle (Penguin, 1983); (stories) Woman in a Lampshade (Penguin, 1983); Milk and Honey (Fremantle, 1984); Stories (including "Self-Portrait: A Child Went Forth," Fremantle, 1984); Foxybaby (University of Queensland, 1985); The Well (Viking, 1986); The Sugar Mother (Fremantle, 1988); My Father's Moon (Viking Penguin, 1989); Cabin Fever (Penguin, 1990); The Georges' Wife (Viking, 1993); Diary of a Weekend Farmer (Fremantle, 1993).

The dust jacket of Elizabeth Jolley's second novel, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, relates that she "was born in the industrial Midlands of England and brought up in a household 'half English and three quarters Viennese,' and later in a Quaker boarding school." Such quirky self-characterization, never self-aggrandizing, encapsulates themes which occur time and again in her work—in this case, working-class desperation, analogous institutions like the household and the school, and intimate situations where the parts do not quite add up.

Jolley's father Charles Knight was a pupil-teacher (someone who went directly from studying to teaching at about 14) who acquired bachelor and master of Science degrees by correspondence courses; he even sat a German examination in London when he was about 80. A Quaker when World War I was declared, he was imprisoned for several years as a conscientious objector; in addition, he was publicly turned out of the family home with only a shilling by his ill-tempered Methodist father, more because of the disgrace of imprisonment than because of his pacifist stance. Later, he went to Europe with other Quakers to distribute food, and in Vienna he met his wife-to-be, Margarethe von Fehr , a Montessori teacher passing out British rations to her students. The daughter of an Austrian general, she had come from a privileged background, but the aristocracy had fallen, leaving her to fend for herself. They married in Vienna and again when they returned to England. Margarethe was a lapsed Roman Catholic, obsessive about her household, generous to others but also demanding of them.

When Elizabeth Jolley was born on June 4, 1923 (also her mother's birthday), her parents were living in Sutton Coalfield, her father teaching at the Sir Josiah Mason Orphanage. Her sister Madelaine was also born there on August 20, 1924. At age six, Elizabeth commenced elementary school at the Reddicap Heath School for mixed infants. Her father then received an appointment to the Bilston Boys' Central School, a badly funded school in an area of grinding poverty and depressing sights, such as a coal mine, a brickworks, and a bone-and-glue factory. The family lived first in Wolverhampton, next in Bilston, and then in Wolverhampton again. Jolley went to the Bradmore School for a few weeks and then to the preparatory school of the Bilston Girls' High School for a year or so, Charles driving her in the sidecar of his motorcycle when they lived in Wolverhampton.

Charles helped the boys at school as best he could, for example, by arranging (and paying for) school "dinners," an excuse for seeing that they had some nourishment, and he and his wife practiced Quaker virtues at home; they once took in a miner's child during a coal-miners' strike around 1929. Their domestic life, though materially poor, was culturally rich, if sometimes strained. Charles Knight brought home a small salary as a teacher, making his modest philanthropy possible, and was otherwise didactic; believing that school "spoiled their innocence," he took his two children out of school just before Elizabeth was eight, teaching them at home, for instance, by turning their youthful walking trips into science lessons, examining bricks for what they contained and how they were manufactured. The family spoke German in the household, and there was a series of French, Swiss, and Austrian governesses who instructed the two girls in French and/or German in return for receiving tutoring in English from the Knights, and who, one after the other, quarrelled with Margarethe and were dismissed. Margarethe had her own radio, a gramophone and record collection, introducing the girls to music, and she had them copy four lines of German poetry or prose into a book every morning before breakfast. The Knights often quarrelled, she about their squalid circumstances. Further, Margarethe had a "special friend," Mr. Berrington, a barrister, who would come to dine each Sunday, discuss the father's sermons (by 1938, Charles had returned to Methodism, becoming a lay preacher), then the weather, and next listen to music with Margarethe, or read German with her, or even take her to his own house for the afternoon. Jolley would later write a piece called "Mr. Berrington."

In September of 1934, Elizabeth was sent to board until July 1940 at a Quaker school, Sib-ford, on the edge of the Cotswolds, an institution which prepared young people for the trades. Though homesick until her sister was sent there in 1939 and though the school was spartan in the extreme, she felt "cherished" by her teachers and was thrilled to continue her education in music, to be introduced to letter-writing and literature (Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, and Trollope), to be translating from French and German, and to be reading aloud. The experience left her somewhat ill-socialized (e.g., regarding contemporary dress codes) and quite isolated from world events (e.g, the Depression and the onset of World War II). About the latter she would learn more from visits home between school terms, where the family was housing refugees from Europe, something she and her sister resented because they were displaced from their room. When war was declared, her father fell to his knees praying that "No, nothing so evil would happen again."

In 1938, Elizabeth had had a summer abroad with her mother and Mr. Berrington, an experience which required her to come to terms with this supernumerary family member. (The family had been abroad fairly regularly from about 1930 while Charles studied French and German in Strasbourg.) She was sent again, alone, in 1939, innocently attending a Hitler Maiden's Camp for a two-week holiday (her parents did not believe the rumors of war) and had to hurry home from Hamburg to Hull on a cargo boat. Since boarding school had oriented her toward nursing, Jolley applied to and was accepted by the St. Thomas Hospital in London, but it had been flattened by bombs and evacuated to St. Nicholas and St. Martin's Hospital in Surrey, where she went instead. Previously a home for children crippled by conditions like scoliosis and diseases like tuberculosis, the hospital was then overfilled with injured British soldiers, as well as some injured prisoners of war. Also, just as she arrived, it was even more over-crowded with casualties from an air raid on an airplane factory, some of whom were burned while others were steam-burned. It was, she says, a rîte de passage, "an experience that I never got over." Nursing experiences figure prominently in her trilogy.

There, Elizabeth met her husband-to-be Leonard Jolley, a patient in his mid-20s hospitalized for over two years with an illness thought to be a "tubercular hip." In fact, he had rheumatoid arthritis. Then, at the beginning of 1943, she moved to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for general nursing training. In late 1946, she left to be housekeeper to a woman doctor in Edgebaston (Birmingham), and, from May through September of 1950, she was a matron at Pinewood, a progressive school in Amwellbury (Hertfordshire). Despite her title, the position was more devoted to washing, ironing, cooking, and looking after the nursery.

In 1950, Leonard Jolley had taken up a position as librarian to the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh, Scotland. Elizabeth joined

him there and, though they had few friends, they happily enjoyed housekeeping, gardening, plays and music, but not the Edinburgh Festival which was too expensive for a librarian's salary. In 1956, he became deputy librarian in the University of Glasgow, and they moved to a larger, shabbier house in Jordanhill which their few bits of furniture filled even less than they had the previous one. They joined the East-West Society which welcomed visitors to the university, and she would house some of them, ostensibly for a week or two while they settled in, although some stayed for months, even years. These Chinese, African, Indian, and West Indian people livened up the household considerably, did much to socialize her, and allowed her and her husband to go out while some of the boarders babysat. All this time, she kept diaries; she even drafted a novel which some 30 years later became My Father's Moon.

If the Glasgow position as deputy had been a step down for Leonard Jolley, his next job would be a step up, one involving significant life changes. He was offered the position as head librarian at the University of Western Australia, then one of Australia's newer universities (established in 1911) but ultimately to be one of its wealthiest. Elizabeth's father cautioned that, at his age (45), Leonard would never be able to return to a librarian's post in the United Kingdom, a consideration which did not discourage him. In November of 1959, they arrived by ship in Perth where Leonard commenced a distinguished career: perhaps Australia's first "intellectual" head librarian, he would write an influential book (The Principles of Cataloguing, 1960), recatalogue the university's collection, oversee the construction of its new Reid Library, and nearly quadruple its holdings by the time he retired in 1979.

Both of them were struck by how different Perth was physically and socially—the bright lights, the friendliness of people. In the beginning, Elizabeth spent much time as a faculty wife, first being entertained and then, in turn, entertaining colleagues and visitors from the university. After living more than two years in a house in Parkway, almost on the UWA campus, they moved two or three miles to the suburb of Claremont where Jolley would continue to live for the rest of her life. In 1970, they also purchased five acres with a three-room-plus-verandah cottage on bushland at Wooroloo, some 40 miles east of Perth: the Newspaper dust jacket talks of her "cultivating a small orchard," and the jacket of Foxybaby extends the claim, saying that "she now cultivates a small orchard and goose farm," both genial hyperbolic descriptions. In addition to being a faculty wife, increasingly she was her husband's personal nurse, for his arthritis was a lifelong illness which came more and more to affect the family, requiring his being put into a nursing home in early 1991. Until then, the Wooroloo retreat was a source of enjoyment and refreshment to all of the family members, as documented in Diary of a Weekend Farmer. (Presumably it is the setting for the farm in Palomino and the newly purchased land in Newspaper, and perhaps also the inspiration for the land which figures so prominently in short stories like "Five Acre Virgin," "Bill Sprockett's Land," and "The Jarrah Thieves.")

During the 1960s, Jolley successively held a variety of part-time jobs—the dust jacket continues by saying that "she has worked as a nurse, a door-to-door salesman (failed), real estate salesman (failed), and a flying domestic [house-cleaner]." "I wanted money for typing," wrote Jolley, "and I also wanted the discipline of a job which I could do while the children were not here." (The part-time work at a nursing home no doubt figures in a draft of Mr. Scobie's Riddle from that time, and the cleaning work centrally features in The Newspaper of Claremont Street.)

It was around 1962 that Jolley began to write with publication more consciously in mind: she has said that "I think that fiction writing was for me the creation of a life that could make up for what may be lacking in a life that I wasn't really interested in," namely "the University Wives' Club" on whose executive board she unhappily served in the 1962–68 period. At first, many cruel rejection slips resulted: "Nowhere in Australia is there a market for anything like this or an audience for anything like this," or "This is not US." During that same time, she was also given good advice by "Lucy Walker," the pen-name of Dorothy Sanders , a popular novelist and wife of the UWA's professor of education, who instructed her on how to rewrite short stories into dramatic material to be sent to the BBC and, if rejected, to the ABC.

In 1965, Jolley had her first short story published ("The Talking Bricks," in Kylie Tennant , ed., Summer Tales 2). In 1974—by which time Jolley had won a short-story competition and published ten stories and seven poems—Ian Templeman of the Fremantle Arts Centre asked her to teach creative-writing classes there. That was a crucial turning point, and Leonard Jolley acknowledged her new career by saying, "You will go to things there and I won't necessarily come with you. This will be something you will do on your own." After some anxiety about their functioning as separate social units, she became comfortable with the idea and even happy at not always having to prepare or to attend UWA dinners.

Her 1976 book, Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories (all previously broadcast by the BBC, some by the ABC), led to her being invited in 1978 to teach fiction classes at the Western Australian Institute of Technology which had started Australia's first B.A. in creative writing, a position she held continually, becoming writer-in-residence when it became Curtin University (1987). Thus from the 1970s, she had two new professions, teacher and writer, and her skill at each has been abundantly acknowledged. In 1990, Curtin University's vice-chancellor gave his foundation's Excel Award to the university's Creative Writing Group, of which Elizabeth Jolley was a key member, and, in 1993, the university named its new 600-seat lecture theater after her. Australian and overseas awards testify to her excellence, as do front-page book reviews in such places as the Washington Post Book World, The New York Times Book Review, and the London Times Literary Supplement. There are also the final indicators of universal appeal, namely big contracts, healthy sales, and translations of her books into Dutch, French, German, Icelandic, Russian, and Spanish.

A relative latecomer to publishing, Elizabeth Jolley has nonetheless experimented with form and technique from the beginning. The form of the stories and novels range from an effortless lyricism of the 1960s and 1970s (contrasting with the residual Australian impulse to realism), to metafiction in Peabody, to Gothic grotesquery in Milk and Honey, to fantasy in Foxybaby, and to autobiographical in the Vera Wright trilogy. And their overall tone has evolved from being parodic, even manic, to being more sober and meditative. Throughout, however, Jolley's central technique has been the art of juxtaposition, or what she teasingly describes to her students as the "sophisticated space." The technique underlies her compositional style: "I have a manila folder that I open out, and I might make little squares and write little bits in there so that the pages are actually resting on what is like a map of the structure of the book." And that structure is often quite sophisticated. Mr. Scobie's Riddle is based on Brahms' Deutsche Requiem and Foxybaby is informed by Dante's Inferno. The result is fiction that invites, in Jolley's words, "the reader … to weld the pieces together by the spaces."

The novels are striking, too, for their plethora of bizarre violence and aberrant sexualities. Her topics not infrequently involve murder by omission or commission (Palomino, Newspaper, Milk and Honey, The Well). And her novels always imply or depict something of taboo sexual import. For example, promiscuity figures in Foxybaby, My Father's Moon, and Cabin Fever; bigamy is a feature of Mr. Scobie's Riddle; symbolic incest is central to Palomino, Scobie, The Sugar Mother, and the Vera Wright trilogy, and there is actual incest in Palomino, Milk and Honey and Foxybaby. Bisexuality defines two characters in Scobie, as does male homosexuality in Foxybaby and My Father's Moon; lesbianism is imaginable in Newspaper, and is fore-grounded in Scobie, Peabody, Foxybaby, My Father's Moon, Palomino, The Well, and in the Vera Wright trilogy. The lesbian relationships in her work have, not surprisingly, attracted the most attention. The first novel Jolley sent off and had accepted (1976) was Palomino, but it did not appear for some years after its acceptance (1980), a half-page reader's report suddenly trailing off: "It is a story about two women."

However, Jolley's provocative topics are never chosen merely for shock value. Rather, she studies institutions for their capacity to facilitate community, and she studies individuals for their ability to attain communion. Institutions per se are usually found wanting, because of mindless bureaucratism, or (more frequently) because of their hijacking by desperate people who use and abuse them as a substitute for family. Characters are usually found wanting because they are locked into dysfunctional psychological patterns, some of them being obsessive caretakers who fear abandonment, others being narcissists who fear engulfment, all of them having profound problems with intimacy. Thus, Jolley's work is pessimistic to the extent that it represents social institutions, laws, and mores as restricting human relationships; and such a social institution is as likely to be the family as a school, hospital, or a nursing home. Yet her work is optimistic to the extent that it affirms that communion and love are possible if we can learn the distinction between self and other, be open to choosing and being chosen, and want to cherish and be cherished.

The central ironic premise of Jolley's fiction is that love is essential to human happiness but hardly realizable on a political basis and barely obtainable on a personal one. Her narratives work to define "good" as "love" in all its quintessentially Jolley forms—as community, caring, and communion—and "evil" as its lack—as dependency, fecklessness, and loneliness. Although intimacy is possible in Jolley's world, it is not inevitable nor even likely: you can hope for another person to choose and to cherish you, but you cannot will it. The only thing you can do in the meantime is to practice hope.

sources and suggested reading:

Bird, Delys, and Brenda Walker, eds. Elizabeth Jolley: New Critical Essays. Collins, Angus and Robertson, 1991.

Ellison, Jennifer. "Interview with Elizabeth Jolley," in Rooms of Their Own. Ringwood, NSW: Penguin, 1986, pp. 174–191.

Kavanaugh, Paul, and Peter Kuchs, eds. "This Self the Honey of All Beings," in Conversations: Interviews with Australian Writers. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1991, pp. 153–176.

Lurie, Caroline, ed. Central Mischief: Elizabeth Jolley on Writing, Her Past and Herself. Viking, 1992.

Milech, Barbara, and Brian Dibble. "Aristophanic Love-Dyads: Community, Communion and Cherishing in Elizabeth Jolley's Fiction," in Antipodes. Vol. 7, no. 1, 1993, pp. 3-10.

Salzman, Paul. Helplessly Tangled in Female Arms and Legs: Elizabeth Jolley's Fictions. University of Queensland, 1993.

Wilbanks, Ray. "A Conversation with Elizabeth Jolley." Antipodes. Vol. 3, no. 1, 1989, pp. 27–29.


The J.S. Battye Library of Western Australian History in Perth has a 97-page transcript of five hours of interviews with Jolley conducted by Stuart Reid in May and June of 1989; and the Mitchell Library in Sydney holds various letters, diaries, and manuscripts.

Dr. Barbara H. Milech , Director of Graduate Studies, School of Communication and Cultural Studies, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, who has written a number of papers on Jolley and produced a bibliography of Jolley's work which appears in the Bird-Walker book

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Jolley, Elizabeth (1923—)

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