Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Elizabeth Jolley’s literary reputation is based mostly on her novels and short stories, although it is quite possible that more people have heard her radio plays than have extensively read her other works. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation estimated that up to fifty thousand people were listening each time they aired her plays.

Her novels include Palomino (1980), Mr. Scobie’s Riddle (1983), Milk and Honey (1984), The Well (1986), The Sugar Mother (1988), My Father’s Moon (1989), Cabin Fever (1990), The Orchard Thieves (1995), Lovesong (1997), An Accommodating Spouse (1999), and An Innocent Gentleman (2001). The Well was adapted to a full-length radio play and also made into a film (2000).

Short stories, many published in journals, appear in the collections Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories (1976), The Travelling Entertainer and Other Stories (1979), Woman in a Lampshade (1983), Stories (1984), and Fellow Passengers: Collected Stories (1997). “Woman in a Lampshade” appeared as a short story and as a radio drama, and the Australian Broadcasting Commission also dramatized it for television.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Elizabeth Jolley’s first radio play, Night Report, won the inaugural Soundstage Radio Drama Special Prize (1975) from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Two Men Running received the Australian Writers Guild Award for original radio drama in 1982.

In addition to numerous honors for individual works, most notably for her novels, Jolley was awarded the Literature Board of the Australia Council Senior Fellowship in 1984. In 1986 the Western Australia Institute of Technology (now Curtin University) conferred on her an honorary doctorate. In 1987, she was named Citizen of the Year in the Arts and Culture and Entertainment and awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Australian Literature. In 1998 she was named one of Australia’s Living Treasures.

Her work has been translated into many languages, including Spanish, German, Dutch, French, and Greek. Her papers, held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia, include unpublished works: at least two three-act plays for stage, a film script, and numerous radio plays.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Elizabeth Jolley’s reputation was first established by her short stories, one of which, “Hedge of Rosemary,” won an Australian prize as early as 1966. The first works Jolley ever published were her short-story collections Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories (1976) and The Travelling Entertainer, and Other Stories (1979); although her novel Palomino won a prize as an unpublished work in 1975, it did not appear in print until 1980. A third volume of short stories, Woman in a Lampshade, was published in 1983, and Fellow Passengers: Collected Stories appeared in 1997. Jolley’s radio plays have been produced on Australian radio and on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Network. Her most important nonfiction work is Central Mischief: Elizabeth Jolley on Writing, Her Past, and Herself (1992).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Elizabeth Jolley had been writing for twenty years before her first book, a volume of short stories, was published in 1976. In 1975, her novel Palomino was given the Con Weickhardt Award for an unfinished novel. Palomino was not published, however, until 1980, after a second volume of short stories had already appeared. Not until 1984 was Jolley widely reviewed in the United States. Her honors and awards include a 1986 nomination for the Booker Prize for The Well, the 1986 Australian Bicentennial Authority Literary Award for The Sugar Mother, the 1987 Miles Franklin Award for The Well, the 1989 Age Book of the Year Award for My Father’s Moon, and the 1991 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for Cabin Fever. In 1993, she was awarded the inaugural France-Australia Award for Translation of a Novel for The Sugar Mother, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize for Central Mischief. The Georges’ Wife won the Age Book of the Year Award in 1993 and the National Book Council Banjo Award the following year. In 1988, Jolley was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Australian literature; in 1997, she was named one of Australia’s one hundred Living Treasures.

Sometimes compared to Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, Jolley is unique in her characterization and tone. Critics variously refer to her novels as fantasy combined with farce, comedy of manners, moral satire, and black comedy. Although most reviewers see a moral dimension beneath the slapstick surface of her work, noting her compassion, her wisdom, and her penetration of complex human relationships, some have insisted that Jolley is merely a comic entertainer. To most thoughtful readers, however, it is obvious that Jolley’s humor often derives from characters who refuse to be defeated by their destinies, who boldly assert their individuality, and who dare to dream and to love, however foolish they may appear to the conformists.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

It has been said that in the fiction of Elizabeth Jolley “it is entirely normal to be abnormal.” Discuss this statement in terms of the fiction you have read by Jolley.

What role do personal isolation and alienation play in the fiction you have read by Jolley?

Jolley is noted for engaging her readers actively in her fiction. Discuss some methods she uses to achieve this end.

What use does Jolley make of a narrator in staging some of her stories? How does this affect her point of view?

Discuss how Jolley teeters between reality and fantasy in her writing.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bird, Delys. Introduction to Off the Air: Nine Plays for Radio, by Elizabeth Jolley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. Bird provides information on the background and the production of Jolley’s plays as well as interpretative commentary on major themes.

Bird, Delys, and Brend Walker, eds. Elizabeth Jolley: New Critical Essays. North Ryde, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1991. Criticism and interpretation of Jolley’s works. Includes bibliographic references.

Daniel, Helen. “A Literary Offering, Elizabeth Jolley.” In Liars: Australian New Novelists. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. In this comprehensive study, Jolley’s fiction is compared to a musical composition by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of component literary fugues. The essay appears in a book devoted to Jolley and seven other contemporary Australian novelists, and includes a primary and selected secondary bibliography.

Jones, Dorothy. “Surveying the Promised Land: Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and Honey.” Semeia 88 (1999): 97-111. Analyzes Jolley’s work from a postcolonialist perspective.

Kirkby, Joan. “The Spinster and the Missing Mother in the Fiction of Elizabeth Jolley.” In Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth Century Novel, edited by Laura L. Doan....

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