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Elizabeth Jolley, 21 April 1989. Photo by Julian Cowan, Newspix

The Bard of Eccentricities

Nathan Hobby
The centenary of writer Elizabeth Jolley’s birth prompts a literary biographer to revisit her complicated life and work.

‘Birthdays are for childhood,’ Elizabeth Jolley wrote for a newspaper on the occasion of the Bicentenary of Australia in 1988. She granted that an exception could be made for a major birthday, a 21st, a 40th, or, presumably, a 100th.

If she were with us still for her own centenary on 4 June 2023 we could expect mischief in some form — an article or an interview that would leave us perplexed, amused or inspired, perhaps all three. For the Bicentenary she was commissioned to write a novel and so, to celebrate 200 years of British colonisation of Australia, she turned in The Sugar Mother (1988), a bawdy and dreamlike story of an academic’s midlife crisis.

Jolley was a superstar of Australian literature in the 1980s and 1990s. Her comic, macabre world is populated with eccentrics and outcasts. Sex and desire in many forms are always bubbling under the surface, as are complex psychologies of need and control. A cleaning lady is driven to desperate measures by her neighbour in The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981). Two women living on a farm run over a creature at night and throw the body into a well in the 1986 Miles Franklin Award-winning, The Well, adapted for film in 1997. Jolley’s semi-autobiographical Vera Wright trilogy, My Father’s Moon (1989), Cabin Fever (1990) and The Georges’ Wife (1993), is regarded by some as the pinnacle of her work. Writer Philip Salom sums up her writing so well as ‘mirth and malice’.

Part of the Jolley legend was her unlikely success after decades of struggle, during which she took on cleaning and sales work to pay her typing bill. ‘Thirty-nine rejections in one year and a failing door-to-door salesman,’ she recalled. Her first book, Five Acre Virgin and other stories, was published in 1976 when she was 53. She became a central figure in a blooming Western Australian literary scene, visiting book clubs and teaching creative writing at the WA Institute of Technology, now Curtin University. Her fame grew and she became a crowd favourite at literary festivals, adopting a dotty bag-lady persona for public appearances.

Elizabeth Jolley, 21 April 1989. Photo by Julian Cowan, Newspix
Elizabeth Jolley, 21 April 1989. Photo by Julian Cowan, Newspix
Writer and broadcaster Ramona Koval remembered her as a ‘tricky customer … skittish and impossible to corral. And very entertaining.’ Tim Winton, a student of hers, wrote, ‘For someone with such an unbusinesslike mien, she was rather good at taking care of business — and then covering her tracks.’ But Jolley’s literary executor Caroline Lurie saw her old friend’s persona in a different light, not as performance but as undisguised anxiety for herself and others.

Jolley’s 15th and final novel, An Innocent Gentleman, appeared in 2001. In the lead-up to her 80th birthday in 2003, a newspaper article revealed that she had been admitted to a nursing home with dementia. Helen Garner, her correspondent for 20 years, visited her but found it was too late to truly say goodbye. When Jolley died in 2007, newspapers around the world ran obituaries, including The Times, Le Monde and the New York Times.

Jolley inspired great devotion in her Curtin University colleagues Brian Dibble and Barbara Milech. Their Elizabeth Jolley Research Collection, now held at Curtin University Library, was a Borgeslike project commenced pre-internet to capture not just every book, story, letter to the editor and recipe published by Jolley but even every newspaper article that mentioned her. Simultaneously, Dibble devoted decades to researching and writing a biography of Jolley. He had access to Jolley herself and to all her papers for many years, but his biography, finally published in 2008, holds back in what it reveals. ‘Everyone wants the life of a writer to be public, [but] there were things she wanted treated with discretion,’ he said.

Dibble’s extensively researched authorised biography does lay out some of the complexities of Jolley’s early life previously glimpsed in her fiction and non-fiction. She was born Monica Elizabeth Knight in Birmingham on 4 June 1923 to a pacifist English father and an Austrian mother. As a young nurse, Monica Knight became entangled with a couple named Leonard and Joyce Jolley. Monica and Joyce gave birth to babies five weeks apart in 1946; Leonard was the father of both. Eventually, Leonard left Joyce for Monica and persuaded her to use the name Elizabeth. Elizabeth, Leonard and their children moved to Perth in 1959 so that Leonard could take up a position as University Librarian at the University of Western Australia.

Four years after Dibble’s biography was published, its muted account of Jolley’s marriage was unsettled by the revelations in Susan Swingler’s memoir House of Fiction (2012). Swingler is the baby born to Leonard and Joyce. When Leonard left Joyce, who remained in the UK, he made her promise to have no contact with his siblings and parents, a promise she held to. From Australia, Leonard had pretended to his family that he was still married to Joyce and that his daughter with Elizabeth Jolley was actually Swingler. As part of the ruse, faked letters written in Swingler’s name were sent to her paternal grandparents, Leonard’s parents; Swingler is certain Elizabeth Jolley wrote them. Swingler re-established contact with her father but Jolley usually wrote to her on Leonard’s behalf. Swingler came to see Jolley as subtly but firmly in control of Swingler’s interactions with her estranged father and half-siblings in Perth. When literary critic Susan Wyndham asked Swingler what the effect of her book would be, she said that while Jolley’s reputation ‘as a person’ might be affected, she hoped her reputation as a writer ‘won’t be tarnished. I hope it takes people back to her books.’

If Swingler’s memoir sent people back to Jolley’s books, it didn’t last for long. Jolley’s popularity had been fading in the new century since her flood of publications stopped. Dibble quoted a blogger named ‘Andrew E’ who observed in 2006, ‘Now you hardly hear of her.’ There was a period of renewed interest after her death and many of her books were republished between 2008 and 2010 and are available today as ebooks. However, only a few are still in print and have a physical presence in bookshops and public libraries.

Jolley’s bestselling phase is in the past, but she still has some devoted lovers of her work. Lisa Hill, author of the ANZ LitLovers blog, hosted an Elizabeth Jolley week for Jolley’s 95th birthday in 2018, inspiring several bloggers to contribute reviews of Jolley’s books. Jolley also has a Twitter account (@elizabethjolley); the novelist Laura McPhee-Browne tweets wise and beautiful lines from her work.

Memorials to Jolley were established in her lifetime, and afterwards, but they don’t always last — two different lecture series in her honour have fallen by the wayside. Still going strong, however, is the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, one of Australia’s richest and most prestigious short story competitions, founded in 2010. At Curtin University stands the Elizabeth Jolley Lecture Theatre, named in her honour in 1994. One memorial that should endure is Elizabeth Jolley Crescent in the Canberra suburb of Franklin.

Another aspect of Jolley’s afterlife is her collection of papers, held by the State Library of NSW. Consistent with Winton’s assessment of Jolley’s acumen, she organised her papers before her death, selling them to the Library in seven batches between 1987 and 1999. In total, there are 91 full archive boxes; stacked up, they would make a 14-metre tower of paper. Jolley’s diaries from 1940 to 1985 are embargoed until the death of all her children or 30 years after her own death, whichever is sooner, with the Library able to exercise discretion after that date.

But beyond the embargoed diaries, Jolley’s papers are full of riches. Her literary correspondents range across generations and genres — Thea Astley, Bryce Courtenay, Mem Fox, Kate Grenville, Gillian Mears, Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant. Like the relic of a saint, a lock of Jolley’s hair has been saved from a Valentine’s Day poem she sent to Leonard in 1951. And there’s the suitcase she brought with her in 1959 when she began her new life in Australia. It looks far older, carrying the initials of a stranger named ‘RDB’, a sticker for the Southern Railway to Tunbridge Wells Central, and another sticker for P&O Orient labelled ‘JOLLEY’. It speaks of possibilities, migration and a patina of stories.

An old brown suitcase with two thick leather straps.
Suitcase belonging to Elizabeth Jolley

If the fading of Elizabeth Jolley’s reputation is startling, it is not particularly unusual; Australia is not good at remembering its literary past. Just as we celebrated Jolley at her peak, we focus now on new work, the books that speak most directly to the present moment. But posthumous literary fortunes can change, and Jolley’s darkly humorous fiction has a timeless quality. One film adaptation can make all the difference, as it did for Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. Or in Jolley’s case, when her diaries open by 2037 and another biographer has a chance to tell her story more fully, biographical revelations might return readers to her work for a new spring.

It’s not easy being a dead writer, your profile relying on biographers, journalists, publishers and changing mores rather than your own new books. Happy 100th birthday, Elizabeth Jolley — may your work find the readers it deserves in your second century.

Dr Nathan Hobby is a special collections librarian and archivist at Curtin University Library in Perth. His book The Red Witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (2022) is published by Miegunyah Press.

This story appears in Openbook winter 2023.

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