Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is in many ways typical of Elizabeth Jolley’s fiction. It, like other novels, presents apparently responsible but in reality irresponsible middle-aged spinsters and an elderly female novelist. It includes another Jolley archetype: the young, blossoming, dancing young woman whose carefree nature is awesomely sexual, awesomely vital.

Lesbian love affairs are also common in Jolley’s fiction. In other novels, such liaisons do not always have the scandalous flavor of Miss Thorne’s involvement with her student. In this novel as in others, however, the love affairs, if they are scandalous, are rarely scandalous simply because they are lesbian. They are expressions of what Miss Thorne refers to as “a need matching needs in other people.” This is not to say that Jolley’s sympathetic depiction of her characters’ behavior signifies approval. She is in the tradition of empathetic, moralist wits such as Oscar Wilde and, more recently, Barbara Pym.

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance also exemplifies Jolley’s deft formal innovation. Her innovations are functional, unobtrusive, and playful. Their purpose is suggested by Diana Hopewell’s obsession with avoiding cliches, an obsession that is an odd one for a writer of romance novels. Jolley pointedly contrasts her formal innovations with those of the so-called postmodernists—Miss Thorne is at one point baffled by a passage of bombastic, incomprehensible postmodernist literary criticism.