Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In Miss Peabody’s Inheritance as in much of her work, Elizabeth Jolley presents some characters who are oppressed by their ordinariness, and others who, while ludicrously melodramatic, exhibit or attempt to exercise a full range of human qualities—emotions, weaknesses, joys. The effort to express and meet emotions and needs is a central theme in the novel. As Miss Thorne notes after Gwendaline discovers her naked in bed with Miss Edgely, human needs, whatever their outcome, must be acknowledged. She hopes that Gwendaline “could understand something of the real need people have in themselves, a need matching needs in other people.”

An odd blend of lust for life and lust for lust’s sake fuels Diana Hopewell’s coyly erotic writing, just as it entices Miss Peabody to attempt some kind of self-liberation from her drudgery. Yet while Diana Hopewell expresses her fantasy through her comically dogged characters, Miss Peabody is largely an overly credulous reader, who at most progresses to thinking that drunkenness makes her look pleasantly cheeky.

Literature itself is another theme. Comically, Diana Hopewell says that her work is, “I hope, a novel of existence and feeling.” Jolley takes pains to suggest the same of hers. To suggest her work’s affinities to the comic distortion of Oscar Wilde, she alludes to the consummate comedian of manners; Diana Hopewell’s characters, for example, attend a series of Wilde revivals.

The allusions exemplify Jolley’s playful juxtaposition of the sublime and the seemingly ridiculous. In one breath, her novelist describes Wagnerian operas—lust on a grand scale—and disco songs that Debbie croons as she cavorts enticingly. The mixing of high and low culture strengthens Jolley’s theme of the rueful nobility of little people and permits her to comment impudently on the way fine literature and pulp fiction alike engage their readers. Diana Hopewell acknowledges frankly and proudly that her subject—plainly put, lesbian pederasty—both disturbs and compels readers. She tells Miss Peabody: “Some readers will fight off this involvement. Don’t worry. Read on.”