(Short Story Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

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

*Stories 1984

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.

Bruce Williams (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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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Helen Garner (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 aspectssuch as imagery, themes, and characterizationof 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...

(The entire section is 2427 words.)

Anne Laren (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Elizabeth Jolley with Jennifer Ellison (interview date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 entire section is 5939 words.)

Judith Freeman (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Emma Brooker (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Helen Daniel (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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?


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Elizabeth Jolley (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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?...

(The entire section is 4655 words.)

Adi Wimmer (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Harold Pinter


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Paul Salzman (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 324 words.)