Elizabeth Jolley was born Monica Elizabeth Knight on June 4, 1923, in Birmingham, England, and was raised in a largely German-speaking household. Her British father met her Austrian mother in Vienna in 1919. Although her father was a schoolteacher, Jolley and her younger sister were educated at home by a succession of French and Austrian governesses and by a series of “wireless lessons,” radio lectures on specialized subjects. At age eleven Jolley was sent to a Quaker boarding school near Banbury Oxon. At seventeen she began training as a nurse at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, completing her training in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham from 1943 to 1946. In 1959 she moved to Western Australia with her husband Leonard Jolley, a university librarian, and with their three children they settled in Perth and for a while lived on a small farm.
Jolley’s first public recognition came from radio. Six of her radio plays were produced, and many short stories appeared before the publication of her first novel, Palomino, in 1980. Her work began attracting attention in the mid-1960’s, and by the early 1980’s she emerged as one of Australia’s leading authors.
In the 1970’s Jolley joined the faculty at Curtin University, in Perth, Western Australia, where she is professor of creative writing and writer-in-residence. When designing its largest theater complex, the university chose to honor Jolley by naming it for her.