(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Dorothy Peabody, a middle-aged spinster in London, has sent a fan letter to Diana Hopewell, an Australian romance writer, who has responded with a copious, if irregular, stream of letters. The correspondence breathes life into Miss Peabody, whose job is tawdry, and whose personal life is smothered by a bedridden, bossy mother. The letters contain the draft and working notes of a novel in progress. It looks at first glance like a tale of an outwardly very proper trio of spinsters. The writer’s predilection, however, is clearly for simmering sensuality. Miss Peabody’s fan letter unwittingly reveals as much. Referring to Miss Hopewell’s earlier Angels on Horseback, she has written: “The beautiful young schoolgirls and their strange and wild riding lessons brought something exciting into my life.” In reading the novelist’s color-coded and flamboyantly scripted draft, Miss Peabody fails to recognize, but is engaged by, the writer’s sensuality.

In the new work, the spinster trio is headed by Arabella Thorne, the headmistress of the Pine Heights girls’ boarding school. She travels to Europe with her longtime assistant Miss Edgely, her old friend Miss Snowdon, and a young pupil named Gwendaline Manners. The spinsters are on one level stock types, intent upon manners and refinement, although Miss Edgely also resembles another stock-character type, the honest, uneducated, and rather mopey factotum. The three women also resemble mischievous...

(The entire section is 593 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is Elizabeth Jolley’s fourth novel. It was an instant critical and popular success, being short-listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Prize, a signal achievement even though it did not win the top award.

Dorothy Peabody is a sixtyish typist in a large London firm, where she has worked for almost forty years. Her uneventful life is a dreary round of caring for her demanding, bedridden mother, riding a train to London, working mindlessly all day, taking another train home, and repeating the previous night’s chores of getting her mother ready for the night, after the neighbor who cared for her during the day has departed.

Nothing varies this dull existence until Dorothy writes an adulatory letter to an Australian writer named Diana Hopewell, author of Angels on Horseback, a trashy romance with vaguely erotic undertones that Dorothy does not understand. Astoundingly, Miss Hopewell replies, describing her exciting life on a beautiful farm, interspersing pages from her work-in-progress, and asking Dorothy about her personal life. A lively correspondence ensues, and Dorothy’s depressing life becomes exciting and suspenseful as she looks forward to receiving the letters and answering them.

The novel has multiple narrators, none of them reliable, as Jolley uses the novel-within-a-novel structure to tell three separate stories—what Miss Hopewell tells of her life, what Dorothy replies, and the excerpts from Diana’s book about three middle-aged unmarried ladies of very respectable demeanor in public but dubious morals in private. The three women embark on their annual holiday in Europe, encumbered by a shy, motherless sixteen-year-old girl who has nowhere to go when school is closed for vacation (one of the ladies being a headmistress).

The sections dealing with the three women and their young companion are written...

(The entire section is 782 words.)