Jolley, Elizabeth 1923-
English-born Australian novelist, short story writer, and critic.
Noted for her witty and disciplined prose, inventive techniques, and precise, colorful characterizations, Jolley writes darkly humorous experimental fiction. Her technique of using repetition to emphasize striking or important images, or to reexamine ideas and situations from various perspectives, is said to have a musical quality. Jolley frequently employs land motifs and explores such themes as loneliness, aging, homosexual love, and the relationship between imagination and reality. Through disjointed, self-reflexive narratives, Jolley often depicts alienated individuals who have been uprooted from their accustomed environment. A. P. Riemer has observed: "Jolley displays the mark of an admirable literary talent, a range of interests and sympathies both complex and consistent, personal yet abstract, and a command of narrative techniques which identifies her as a writer of considerable standing."
Jolley was born in the coal-mining English midlands in 1923. She came to understand loneliness and isolation at an early age from her Viennese mother, the daughter of an Austrian general during World War I, who was exiled from her home and family after marrying Jolley's English father. Jolley's mother missed the Viennese countryside and often spoke longingly of the life the family could have had there. In addition, Jolley's family spoke German, which isolated them as "foreigners" in their small neighborhood. Jolley was educated at home until she turned eleven years old and then was sent to a Quaker boarding school. She met her husband in 1940 while in nursing school. In 1959 Jolley's husband accepted the position of Librarian of the University of Western Australia, and the family moved to Perth, Australia. Jolley's experience with migration and her objective appreciation of the Western Australian landscape informs much of her writing. In Perth, Jolley worked variously as a nurse, door-to-door salesman, part-time tutor, and orchardist. She started writing in the early 1960s when she was nearly forty years old and persevered through many years of rejection from publishers until, in 1976, her first short story collection, Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories, was published in Australia. In the mid-1980s after establishing herself as an important figure in contemporary Australian literature, Jolley gained international recognition and was able to devote herself to writing and lecturing on a full-time basis. Jolley lives on her small farm in Perth.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The first story that Jolley wrote in Western Australia, "A Hedge of Rosemary," was inspired by her experience with migration and chosen exile after moving from England—a subject that pervades much of her fiction. Holland and Black Country migrants, and itinerant salesmen appear throughout her works. With her first published collection, Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories, Jolley established her characteristic writing style of colorful, detailed characterizations and a unique combination of realism and dark, strange humor. Her collections employ repetition of themes, motifs, settings, situations, descriptions, and characters that she finds particularly evocative and resonant. For example, land ownership is vital for the happiness of many of her characters. She usually portrays them resorting to devious methods of obtaining their land, as in "The Five Acre Virgin," the novella The Newspaper of Claremont Street, and one of Jolley's most powerful stories, "Adam's Bride." She also uses hospitals and rest homes as settings for her strange brand of humor. "Hilda's Wedding" is considered one of the best examples of Jolley's dark humor and pathos. In this story the night staff of a hospital stage a wedding for the unattractive and "always pregnant" maid. The service is taken from an 1851 Cricketeers Manual and attended by various eccentric staff members. In many of her works, Jolley deals with love relationships. In "Winter Nellis" she depicts a lack of understanding between the sexes, and "Grasshoppers" is an acclaimed short story dealing with lesbian relationships. Another oft repeated element of Jolley's writings is her reworking of characters into several stories, such as the Morgan family who appear in each of her collections. The Mother of this family also bears a close resemblance to the Weekly, the protagonist of the novella The Newspaper of Claremont Street.
Jolley has been praised for her poignant, detailed descriptions of characters and landscapes, particularly of the Western Australian countryside. Most critics find her adept at blending weird humor with pathos while some, such as reviewer Anne Laren, note that Jolley's sympathy can sometimes be overwrought, "in occasionally vivid portraits of sad/desperate/eccentric lives, pathos too often slips over into mawkishness—while dollops of quirkiness seem self-conscious and strained." Jolley is also lauded for her ability to reuse material without being redundant. "Jolley operates with an inspired thrift. . . . She will take a situation, a relationship, a moment of insight, a particular longing, and work on it in half a dozen different versions. . . ," observed Helen Garner. The reviewer also asserted, "these repetitions and re-usings, conscious but not to the point of being orchestrated, set up a pattern of echoes which unifies the world, and is most seductive and comforting."
Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories 1976
The Travelling Entertainer, and Other Stories 1979
The Newspaper of Claremont Street 1981
Woman in a Lampshade 1983
Other Major Works
Palomino (novel) 1980
Miss Peabody's Inheritance (novel) 1983
Mr. Scobie's Riddle (novel) 1983
Milk and Honey (novel) 1984
Foxybaby (novel) 1985
The Well (novel) 1986
The Sugar Mother (novel) 1988
My Father's Moon (novel) 1989
Cabin Fever (novel) 1990
The George's Wife (novel) 1993
*This collection is comprised of Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories and The Travelling Entertainer, and Other Stories.
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SOURCE: "Three Short Story Writers—Peter Cowan, Elizabeth Jolley, Justina Williams," in Westerly, Vol. 25, No. 2, June, 1980, pp. 104-07.
[In the following essay, Williams offers a favorable assessment of The Travelling Entertainer.]
Elizabeth Jolley .. . is much concerned with charm, sometimes in her characters, as in the stories here [in The Travelling Entertainer] that concern a lovable Uncle Bernard. Sometimes, too, earlier in her career, she aimed too deliberately for a whimsical delicacy of tone. Her latest collection, however, shows her preoccupied with various kinds of darkness. Her sympathies lie with obscure and eccentric individuals who construct a world for themselves in a hostile, categorically-minded society. . . . Jolley's is an art of the expansive, the anecdotal, the production of a hundred tiny details which gradually form the irregular maze of a life. Her characters wander, not searching for an exit, but as though when every familiar path has been charted in words, the maze will reveal its form. This pattern is clearest in the first long story in The Travelling Entertainer, "The Performance," in which a newly arrived patient in a mental hospital tells his life to the man in the next bed. Here the author seems reluctant to suppress or interpret any detail that might provide understanding, and the result, despite some touching passages, is more story material than an...
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Jolley: An Appreciation," in Meanjin, Vol. 42, No. 2, June, 1983, pp. 153-57.
[Garner is an Australian novelist and short story writer. Below, she praises various aspects—such as imagery, themes, and characterization—of Jolley's fiction.]
I first came across Elizabeth Jolley's writing in Meanjin in 1979. A story called "The Bench" (now retitled "Adam's Bride" in her Penguin collection Woman in a Lampshade) opens with these sentences:
All small towns in the country have some sort of blessing. In one there is a stretch of river which manages to retain enough water for swimming in the summer; in another, the wife of the policeman is able to make dresses for bridesmaids, and in yet another, the cook at the hotel turns hairdresser on Saturday afternoons.
This is a perfect introduction to one of Jolley's dominant modes: the confident, attractive generalisation, the use of the word 'blessing', the easy feeling for the detail, both natural and human, of life in the country, and respect for the minor skills and generosities of ordinary people.
Jolley is sixty, was born in England, and lives in Perth. She has published six books of fiction in the last eight years: Five Acre Virgin and The Travelling Entertainer, short stories (Fremantle Arts Centre Press),...
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SOURCE: A review of Woman in a Lampshade, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LIV, No. 17, September 1, 1986, pp. 1313-14.
[In the following negative review of Woman in a Lampshade, Laren faults Jolley's stories as overly sentimental and unconvincing.]
Uneven as a novelist, British-born Australian writer Jolley is if anything slightly less impressive in this collection of stories [Woman in a Lampshade] (first published in Australia in 1983). Here, in occasionally vivid portraits of sad/desperate/eccentric lives, pathos too often slips over into mawkishness—while the dollops of quirkiness seem self-conscious and strained.
Psychopathology is heavily treated in three stories: a halfwitted woman, on trial for double-homicide, is defended by her husband—in a long, stagy appeal, complete with flashbacks; "Two Men Running" is an unconvincing study of madness (involving incest and matricide); and, in "The Libation," implausible coincidence leads a woman to the room where her bygone lesbian lover has just died—and to suicide. Two sentimental pieces (one of them full of corny gimmicks) feature lonely mothers yearning for connection with far-off children. Only one story, in fact, delivers pathos with effective starkness—"Dingle the Fool," about two sisters' ties to their retarded brother; and two other pleasant, simple tales offer a poor soul longing for, and eventually attaining,...
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SOURCE: An interview in Rooms of Their Own, Penguin Books, 1986, pp. 174-91.
[Ellison is an Australian academic, author, and critic. In the following interview, Jolley discusses her life, career, and the craft of writing.]
[Ellison]: How do you see your latest book, Foxybaby, in relation to your body of work?
[Jolley]: Foxybaby has been written in a more compact way. With the other books, I was writing more than one at a time. They go over a certain number of years. I concentrated on Foxybaby—just wrote it and finished it. Everything in the book has to come through Miss Porch. I've not written like that before. Because the book is a kind of visionary nightmare, Miss Porch has to be there for every single thing. Nothing can take place without her being there, because the book is actually through her mind, in a way.
Did you challenge yourself to do that?
Well, put it this way: I started doing the book and it kept falling flat, and it kept being very wooden. Then I made a complication by trying to work it through her, and then it began to work. It's as though I made a kind of complication, or the book made a complication for me. It was much harder to do this, but I hope that the material is more satisfactory in this way.
You have a repertoire of characters who recur through your works, and certain...
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SOURCE: "How You Look to Your Cleaning Lady," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 3, 1988, pp. 3, 9.
[Freeman, an American short story writer, offers a positive review of The Newspaper of Claremont Street, interpreting the protagonist's dream to own a house and some property as representative of the human struggle against hopelessness.]
When I was young, I had a weekly job. I cleaned house for a woman who taught homemaking skills at the local girl's reform school. Each Saturday, I scraped wax off her floors, vacuumed her carpets, and otherwise rid her house of dirt while she recuperated from what must have been a hard job of trying to make cooks out of delinquents.
One thing I remember from that experience is how you come to know all sorts of things about people when you clean their house. You see their efforts to control things, how messiness is fought or succumbed to. You see what can't be hidden. Above all, you glimpse the complex efforts to simply make a home.
Elizabeth Jolley, an Australian writer whose previous novels (Foxybaby, The Well) have earned critical praise as well as a growing number of readers, has created a wonderful character in her novel, The Newspaper of Claremont Street. The "newspaper" isn't a newspaper at all but a human being, an aging woman who earns her living by cleaning other people's houses.
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SOURCE: "Up-front in the Outback," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, August 14, 1988, p. 28.
[In the following review, Brooker praises Jolley's skill in evoking the atmosphere of modern Western Australia in Stories.]
Capturing the uncharitable expansiveness of the Outback and the tiny provisionality of human attempts to encroach upon it, the best of Elizabeth Jolley's stories will no doubt stand as classics in the rapidly growing Australian canon. Those who have been frightened off by the vociferous bicentenary should take up this book as a gentle and engaging introduction to the antipodean sensibility.
These collected stories depict a modern Australia which is still informed by the needs and aims of the first influx of European exiles and immigrants. Jolley's stories balance comedy and pathos in their betrayal of characters who strive for a sense of rootedness and belonging. The ambiguous promise of the newest New World glitters at the heart of this collection.
The title story of the first half, "Five Acre Virgin," is one of a series of which tells the comic saga of a shambling family living in a run-down city suburb. The five acres in question is a miserable stretch of wasteland which becomes the focus for the dreams of a rural idyll.
The youngest daughter tells with glib innocence of how, through luck and devious manipulation, they lay their hands on...
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SOURCE: "A Literary Offering: Elizabeth Jolley," in LIARS: Australian New Novelists, Penguin Books, 1988, pp. 267-300.
[In the following excerpt, Daniel places Jolley among a group of New Australian writers that she describes as "Liars" depicting "a literary tromp l' oeil, in which one level mirrors another: truth and illusions and reality and the Lie of fiction mirror each other. " The critic provides a dialogue that embodies her concept of the lie of fiction as it relates to Jolley's writings. She also compares Jolley's body of work to a fugue with shifting and conflicting voices, stories, and realities.]
READER Which way do you think Jolley's mind runs?
LIAR It certainly doesn't run straight. There are no straight lines in Jolley's work. Ellipses, overlaps, intersections, up and down Tangled Hierarchies of levels, criss-crossing. And inside out. It's all in the eye. You blink and what was absurd has become poignant. Look closely and it's absurd, stand back a bit and it's plaintive. All of it in splendid conjunction, congruence.
READER All in the eye? Or the ear? It seems to me her novels are made up of voices, which supplant each other in turn. One voice enters, murmurs, the next breaks in, cacophonous. The murmuring shifts to a muttering, then a guffaw, the raucous laughter drowning out the distant thrum of entreaty. Voices spring out of the depths and pitch up...
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SOURCE: "Cloisters of Memory," in Meanjin, Vol. 48, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 531-39.
[In the following essay, Jolley explores her own and other writers' loyalties to and embellishments of familiar landscapes and personal experiences in their literary works.]
Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man . . .
I have always expected loyalty from a teapot, and so it is doubly distressing that my indestructible teapot has a small hole in it. Such hypocrisy goes against all ideas of true loyalty. Is it possible to compare human qualities with those of a teapot? Probably not.
The great loyalty of the fiction writer towards the reader is in the attempt to distil from landscape and experience particles of culture and background and to put this material into an available and acceptable form. To be loyal both to background and to reader, the writer needs to exercise judgement in order to select and choose, to concentrate and to refine and to reject non-essentials, so that the best material is offered in the best possible way.
One of the positive aspects of migration is that it demands loyalty of all kinds in all kinds of directions, to the past, to the present and to the self. I came to Western Australia from Britain in the middle of my life. I realise that the freshness...
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SOURCE: "Dualism and the Austrian Connection in Elizabeth Jolley's Fiction," in Southerly, Vol. 52, No. 2, June, 1992, pp. 44-55.
[In the following essay, Wimmer finds a duality in Jolley's fiction stemming from her experience with exile and migration. Wimmer contends that Jolley attempts to resolve this duality by contrasting a symbols of European culture with the physical landscape of Australia.]
There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. The thing is not necessarily either true or false, it can be both true and false.
Elizabeth Jolley's growing popularity has in recent years excited a lot of interest in her biography. Responding to the wishes of many magazine editors, she has provided us with an unusually large number of autobiographical pieces as well as a number of interviews covering similar material. While these autobiographical pieces are by no means alike in their emphases, one aspect of Jolley's life which is heavily stressed in each is that of exile and exclusion. In discussing exile, Jolley uses almost identical sentences and modes of representation, for instance when she stresses that her experience of exile extends backwards into the lives of her parents.
My mother was in exile because of her...
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SOURCE: "Inside/Outside Families," in Helplessly Tangled in Female Arms and Legs: Elizabeth Jolley's Fictions, University of Queensland Press, 1993, pp. 68-80.
[In the essay below, Salzman asserts that Jolley's stories present untraditional family structures and values as a means of questioning the process of communication.]
Perhaps our idea of family is an idyllic one and has never really existed outside hope and imagination
Elizabeth Jolley, "The Changing Family—Who Cares?"
In Jolley's fiction, a displacement of the traditional family structure often aligns itself with an interrogation of the whole process of communication. A good example of this dual interrogation of both the family and the nature of the communicative process occurs in two interlinked stories, "The Performance" and "The Shed". In each story the same photocopied form-letter is sent by a family to a grandmother. Instead of the personal communication she longs for, it is a bulletin for general consumption, not unlike a news broadcast. The letter has its greatest impact in "The Performance", where it is described by the main character, a postman who intercepts and reads it, seeing it as a symbol of the broken communication within his own marriage. The letter is all the more insulting (and empty) because it is a Christmas "bulletin":
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Daniel, Helen. "Elizabeth Jolley." In LIARS: Australian New Novelists, pp. 364-65. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Select bibliography of Jolley's works and criticism on her writing.
Daniel, Helen. "Elizabeth Jolley: Variations on a Theme." In Westerly 31, No. 2 (June 1986): 50-63.
Examines "lines of connection and continuance" in Jolley's fiction, especially recurring themes, characters, and landscapes.
Grey, Paul. "Flowerings." In Time, New York 130, No. 23 (7 December 1987): 87.
Contends that the simplicity, eccentricity, and macabre humor of The Newspaper of Claremont Street make it exemplary of Jolley's best fiction.
Halliday, Bob. "Elizabeth Jolley's Well of Loneliness." In The Washington Post Book World (2 November 1986): 10.
Favorable review of three works by Jolley, including her collection of short stories Woman in a Lampshade.
Molloy, F. C. "Adam's Bride." In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, p. 618. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.
Thematic and stylistic study of the short story "Adam's Bride."
Riemer, A. P. "Between Two Worlds—An Approach to Elizabeth Jolley's Fiction." Southerly 43, No. 3 (September 1983):...
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