(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is clearly in the modernist tradition: formally complex, antilinear, shifting points of view, stream-of-consciousness representation of inward thoughts, experimental structure. Yet there is nothing difficult about the reading; Jolley does not confuse or confound the reader. One critic refers to the wonderful “duet” of stories in the novel; Jolley is able to balance reader interest in Peabody and in the story involving Thorne, interweaving images and ideas of fiction and the importance of the imagination throughout. The form and structure of the novel thus embody the message, for a major theme is the awakening of Peabody to the importance of imagining herself into new possibilities of living. As Joan Kirby points out in her study of Jolley, Diana Hopewell is a muse for Miss Peabody. Through Diana’s writing, the English spinster is transfigured: She takes up the mantle of imagination, of creator, both for the unfinished novel and for herself.

This sense of the importance of the free play of imagination is also particularly evident in the story of Thorne and her unorthodox ways. Thorne “has a liking for introducing people to fresh exciting experience.” The very fact of her “existence” in the fictional space of fantasy inspires readers (certainly including Peabody) to their own awakenings. Thomas M. Disch, writing in The New York Times Book Review (November 18, 1984), suggests that Jolley’s motive for exploring the complex three-way relationship between novelists and characters and readers is a concern for the morality of...

(The entire section is 652 words.)