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."