Jolley established a place for herself both in Australian and world letters with stories devoted to society's misfits. Portrayed with wit and compassion, her characters are quirky and unpredictable, prompting critics to headline reviews of her work with phrases such as "Dotty and Disorderly Conduct," "Aussie Oddities," and "Jolley Aussies." Although Jolley was lauded for invigorating Australian fiction with a new comic vein, her high humor is often a means for revealing profound feeling. Much of her work, in fact, deals with loneliness, loss, and attempts to establish relationships, even if unconventional.
It was just one such unconventional relationship that for many years made Jolley, in the words of Time reviewer Paul Gray, "one of Australia's best-kept literary secrets." The author, who immigrated to Australia with her husband and three children in 1959, held numerous jobs during the 1960s and 1970s. She wrote during those years, publishing in periodicals and anthologies, but had little luck securing a book publisher. The latter seventies saw the publication of two collections of short stories, Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories and The Travelling Entertainer, as well as the broadcast of several of her radio plays, but it was not until 1980 that a small Australian press agreed to release her first novel, Palomino.
Palomino was originally drafted in the late fifties and early sixties, then reworked in the seventies (a typical pattern for Jolley, whose stories often evolve from one another as they are repatterned). The novel explores the lesbian relationship between sixty-year-old Laura, a deregistered obstetrician and gynecologist, and a much younger woman, Andrea. Andrea, it also happens, is pregnant with her own brother's child, thus adding an incestuous motif to the book. Prior to 1980, Australian publishers considered the book too controversial. As Jolley told Ward in a 1986 interview for the Washington Post Book World: "I've gotten rejection letters which say that nowhere in Australia is there an audience for this kind of material. . . . Other countries were publishing those kinds of books and stories; nobody would look at them here, they just didn't want to know, they were terrified. . . . Most people like to live comfortably within certain little boundaries. . . . That's the clue, the idea of being threatened."
Mixed reviews greeted Palomino 's publication. Some critics had sentiments similar to Ward's assessment that "considered as a first novel, Palomino is remarkedly assured and distinctive, stating clearly . . . the preoccupations which shape all of Jolley's writing." Others saw it as a somewhat anomalous work, claiming it lacks much of the absurd quality now associated with the author's vintage writing.
Jolley's second published novel, however, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, has been generally regarded as classic Jolley. As Gray described: "It is brief, deceptively simple, eccentric and entirely in keeping with the comic, macabre nature of her best fiction." The book's protagonist is Margarite Morris, a cleaning lady referred to as Newspaper, or Weekly, because she spreads news from one home to another as she makes her cleaning rounds. Although she wears her employers' hand-me-down clothes and is often the object of derision, Weekly--called "a bit barmy" by a New York Times Book Review critic--is saving her money to fulfill a secret dream: the purchasing of a house in the country where she can retire, escaping her present life.
Weekly's dream is threatened, however, when a widowed former employer, Nastasya Torben--"Narsty," Weekly dubs her--moves in with the domestic and begins to dominate her life. The ensuing struggle between the two "has all the classic elements of comedy and tragedy," wrote Judith Freeman in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. And in an interview with James Idema recounted in the Chicago Tribune, Jolley herself called the book "a metaphor for taking on more than one can manage." Also, "I have dealt frequently in my writing with overdevotion," she explained, "the dependence that sometimes grows between people, the fear in one of hurting and losing the other. That can be a strangling fear." Weekly, however, overcomes her problem in an ending, according to Freeman, that "is swift and black-humored."
With the publication of her third and fourth novels Jolley began attracting attention outside of Australia. The third, Mr. Scobie's Riddle, won the 1983 Western Australia Week Award for fiction and the 1983 Melbourne Age Book of the Year Award, while the fourth, Miss Peabody's Inheritance, garnered acclaim for making the New South Wales Premier's Prize shortlist. The books, suggested Thomas M. Disch in a critique for the New York Times Book Review, should be "read in tandem" if their self-reflexive narratives are to be most appreciated.
Mr. Scobie's Riddle, set in St. Christopher and St. Jude's Hospital for the Aged, features a variety of characters destined to live out their days in an institution whose personnel are more concerned with schedules and efficiency than meeting individual needs. The home, contended A. P. Riemer in a Southerly review, is "a place of dislocation." Most of its residents are demented or senile, and all of them are trapped. They are neither able to function independently outside the facility nor allowed to live normally within it.
Mr. Scobie, a retired music teacher, and Miss Hailey, a former school teacher and unpublished novelist, are two residents who through their dreams and memories try to make life tenable. They are also the vehicles by which Jolley gives voice to her sentiments about the condition of the artist. Riemer observed: "We may recognize in Mr. Scobie's Riddle not merely some of the preoccupations of recent Australian fiction, but also an allusive, parodistic image of the novelist who, through the very pursuit of an `art' which finds its inception, and perhaps, proper milieu in another world, is as `crazy' as Miss Hailey herself."
Like Mr. Scobie's Riddle, Miss Peabody's Inheritance uses the novelist-within-a-novel device. The story divides its attention between Miss Dorothy Peabody, a London typist living a very circumscribed life, and Australian novelist Diana Hopewell whose lesbian romance, Angels on Horseback, Miss Peabody admires. Miss Peabody writes a venerative letter to Diana, who not only writes back but also sends pages from her work in progress. Awakened to the possibilities of life through Diana's work, Miss Peabody begins to confuse fiction and reality, ultimately leaving her job and flying to Australia. She arrives only to find that her idol has died. Miss Peabody was not forgotten, however. Diana left her devoted fan her unfinished manuscript, Miss Peabody's "inheritance." Disch suggested that the novel is more "artfully self-reflecting" than Mr. Scobie's Riddle. In his opinion, Jolley's purpose in examining the relationships among novelist, reader, and fictional characters has less to do with literary theory than with "an old-fashioned concern for morality, in [Miss Peabody's] case the morality of imaginative experience."
Foxybaby is another novel presenting a fiction-within-a-fiction. This time the setting is a summer weight-loss school for women run by Miss Josephine Peycroft, who believes in a "Better Body Through the Arts." The pivotal character, Miss Alma Porch, is a teacher and writer--the sort of "goofy lady novelist" Robert Coover identified in the New York Times Book Review as a "Jolleyean archetype." Her job is to direct a drama workshop, and the text she selects is her own, not yet complete, Foxybaby. As Miss Porch's pupils begin to relate to the characters in her play they reveal, according to Michiko Kakutani's New York Times critique, how Jolley has used "overall narrative structure to reflect and refract the relationships that exist between the author of a work of fiction, its characters and its audience." Foxybaby, summarized a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, is "an unusual novel about the genderless erotic adventure of writing."
Many critics have maintained that the author's sixth novel, Milk and Honey, represents a bit of a departure in the Jolley canon. In this tale of a cellist, his wife, and his obsession with another woman, Jolley abandons her typical third-person narrative for a monologue, producing a work that is "darker, richer and more complicated" in tone, according to Peter Ackroyd's New York Times Book Review appraisal. The reviewer also acknowledged it as a "more haunting and ultimately more profound" novel than its predecessors.
In its successor, The Well, Jolley recapitulates some of the themes and techniques for which she is best known. Nevertheless, "nothing in Jolley's previous work prepares one for The Well," contended reviewer William H. Pritchard in the New Republic. The novel centers on Hester Harper, a lame spinster living on her dying father's farm, and her relationship with the younger Katherine, an orphan Hester brings to live with them. After Hester's father dies, the two women continue to live a companionable if somewhat bizarre life together. Then one evening, returning from a dance with Katherine at the wheel of the car, they strike a man down.
Panicking, the two women decide to dump the deceased down a disused well, a repository for other unwanted objects in their lives. With "a psychological precision verg[ing] on the relentless," in the words of Los Angeles Times reviewer Richard Eder, Jolley details the women's mounting hysteria. Hester believes the dead man is the thief who stole her money and insists that Katherine descend into the well and recover it. Katherine refuses, claiming that the man is alive--and that he has conversed with her, proposing marriage. The story, opined Eder, dissolves into "a dreamlike blackness in which reality and hallucination are undistinguishable."
Jolley's subsequent novel, The Sugar Mother, was published in 1988. Although its protagonist, the stuffy middle-aged literature professor Dr. Edwin Page, is obsessed with his bodily functions, he "is less obviously a misfit than some other Jolley characters," according to Washington Post Book World contributor Elizabeth Ward. When Edwin's obstetrician wife, Cecilia, goes abroad on a yearlong research fellowship, the dependent Edwin is left to fend for himself. On the evening after Cecilia leaves, Edwin's neighbors, Mrs. Bott and her twenty-year-old daughter Leila, come to Edwin for help, having locked themselves out of their home. Learning that Cecilia is away and that she and Edwin are childless, Mrs. Bott converses with Edwin, extolling the surrogate motherhood trend ("sugared mothers," she pronounces), and eventually invites herself and her daughter to live with the not inhospitable Edwin.
Subsequently, Edwin falls in love with Leila, who later reveals that she is pregnant, and Mrs. Bott convinces Edwin that Cecilia, upon her return, will welcome Edwin's baby, carried by a surrogate mother. "It is at this point that the novel begins to disturb," contended Ward. By the eve of Cecilia's return Edwin is uncertain of what he wants, and the novel's conclusion, according to Stephen McCauley in the New York Times Book Review, "sustained over the last forty pages, is almost unbearably tense." The critic added that The Sugar Mother is Jolley's "warmest novel, her most moving and possibly the best introduction to her fiction."
In My Father's Moon, Jolley tells the story of a young Englishwoman, Vera Wright, who becomes a nursing student during World War II and falls in love with a married doctor. Soon, she is pregnant by him, but he is killed during military training, and she has to bring up their daughter alone. The sequel, Cabin Fever, shows Vera forty years later, a successful psychologist, recalling, in no particular order, her wartime experiences, postwar privation, unsatisfying jobs, and other aspects of her life.
"The fascinating thing about `Cabin Fever' is that it tells essentially the same story [as My Father's Moon ], but the main difference is one of perspective," commented Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Elizabeth Ward. Added Times Literary Supplement critic Patricia Craig: "It is as if the author can't get this theme out of her head until she has had another go at probing it." Craig found Cabin Fever as much about the nature of memory as anything else: "It is not so much the story that interests [Jolley] as the act of recalling, and the effect on the page of certain recollections." The recollections do not form a complete story of Vera's life; there is no information about the fate of her daughter, or about how Vera attained her professional status. Craig, though, termed Jolley's "studied reticence" effective: "If she seems unduly economical with the facts, and if her selection of incidents is somewhat fitful, she nevertheless succeeds in communicating the oddity and pungency of the period in question (the late 1940s)." Vera's memories, Ward remarked, show the character trying to "make sense of a life full . . . of `pain and trouble, disorder and sorrow' and yet constantly hopeful." Frederick Busch, writing in the New York Times Book Review, praised Jolley's style and tone: "Although her prose seems direct, there is a complexity that simmers beneath it." He asserted that "to read `Cabin Fever' is to come in contact with an interesting, wounded, somber mind," and he called the novel "a poignant celebration and farewell."
In her short fiction, as in her novels, Jolley has frequently dealt with quirky, unconventional characters and has displayed an offbeat sense of humor. "Her sympathies lie with obscure and eccentric individuals who construct a world for themselves in a hostile, categorically-minded society," noted Bruce Williams in a Westerly review of The Travelling Entertainer. Stories in this collection include "The Long Distant Lecture," concerning a professor's panic as he loses his way to a speaking engagement, and "The Performance," about a man in a mental hospital telling his life story to a fellow patient. Hospitals are a recurrent setting in Jolley's writing, providing a venue for "the meeting of sinister and absurd," as Helen Daniel put it in the book LIARS: Australian New Novelists. A surreal marriage ceremony takes place in a hospital in "Hilda's Wedding," in the collection Woman in a Lampshade; in "Surprise! Surprise! from Matron," from Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories, a nursing home is the prize in a poker game. Other recurrent subjects in Jolley's stories include recent immigrants to Australia and the desire for land ownership.
Some of Jolley's short stories have a strong relationship to her novels. Several critics have found the germ of Mr. Scobie's Riddle in "Surprise! Surprise! from Matron." "The Libation" from Woman in a Lampshade is "virtually a sequel" to Palomino, Daniel commented; this story features a woman visiting the room where her female lover died the week before. The title character of The Newspaper of Claremont Street is featured in the story "Pear Tree Dance," also from Woman in a Lampshade. Commenting on Jolley's tendency to revisit characters and themes, Daniel observed that the author "disrupts the narrative line and interweaves rival fictions to draw forth the possibilities of time and place and consciousness that intersect within a given moment. The continuum of her work is extraordinary, each component of it setting up reverberations of others and revealing its dynamic character, such that a later work may cause us to see an earlier one in a new light." In an essay for Meanjin on Jolley's body of work, Helen Garner noted that the author's "repetitions and re-usings, conscious but not to the point of being orchestrated, set up a pattern of echoes which unifies the world, and is most seductive and comforting."
Jolley's offbeat creations have their detractors. "Uneven as a novelist . . . Jolley is if anything less impressive" in the stories in Woman in a Lampshade, asserted Anne Laren in Kirkus Reviews. Laren found that Jolley's "pathos too often slips over into mawkishness--while the dollops of quirkiness seem self-conscious and strained." Garner, however, contended that even when Jolley's stories are overly facile or sentimental, they have something to recommend them. "Even a clumsy, flustered, amateurish story will have a nugget of sense at its centre, an image that surprises, a simple--even a crude--stroke that almost saves it," Garner maintained.
Jolley once told CA: "I am always deeply touched that people have read my work and commented on it. I think, as a writer, I have learned a great deal about writing from these comments." In the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, she noted, "My fiction is not autobiographical but, like all fiction, it springs from moments of truth and awareness, from observation and experience. I try to develop the moment of truth with the magic of imagination."
From: "Elizabeth Jolley." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2007.