“Moonstruck”

I wrote this book review for Amazon, and take the liberty of reproducing it here.

I purchased a paper-back copy of “The Vera Wright Trilogy” a month ago and have now finished reading the first volume “My Father’s Moon”. I wanted to read this compilation of three of her best novels because they are recognised as the most autobiographical of her 23 literary works, and I wished to understand Elizabeth Jolley as a person, as well as an Australian writer of the twentieth century with an international reputation, who passed away in 2007.

I was disappointed when the book first arrived, and I thumbed through its pages. There was no plot. It was a collection of disjointed, out of sequence reminiscences, as they had sprung to her mind. Numerous characters entered the narrative with little introduction, only to be abandoned without mention as they sank from her memory.

But then I started reading “My Father’s Moon” from the beginning and became increasingly absorbed with her yarn, knowing that in the fictional character Vera Wright, she has related her own intimate experiences as a school-girl maturing into womanhood. Her recollections, still vivid, express her inner thoughts and feelings, some cherished, others painful.

The opening scene is a painful one. To her parents’ dismay she had become pregnant out of wedlock, and had bravely chosen to keep her child Helena, despite the ongoing shame and hardship for single mothers then. On her own, Vera returned to live with her parents, but soon became all too aware of her Austrian mother’s disapproval, and disappointment. When her mother reproached her for “breeding like a rabbit” and then made a pitch for custody of Helena, a shamed Vera could bear the humiliation no longer. In anger she flung the baby’s milk bottle across the kitchen, and vowed to go and never return, taking her toddler with her.

Although he shared his wife’s restrictive Quaker beliefs, her father expressed no criticism. He loved her too dearly to wound her further with his words. Instead he tried to comfort her with the thought that when she saw the moon, wherever she was, he would see it too, and would be thinking of her.

It was also precious to her how he always accompanied her to the railway station when she left home, whether it was for school, the hospital nursing home, or on the last occasion for a bleak, impersonal institution at which in return for her domestic labour she would be able to obtain food and lodging, and early school for Helena. On such occasions her father would linger chatting with her until the train doors closed, and as the departing train gathered speed, he would run along the platform for final glimpses, until at the end of the platform, he would stand waving and waving until he lost sight of the train in the distance.

Elizabeth Jolley in her stories of Vera Wright, expresses regret for having treated some kind folk, including no doubt her own family, shabbily. She had always tried to be honest in her self-assessments, and in these stories, she is apologetic over events in her life of which she is not proud. It must be said by way of explanation rather than excuse, that we all are victims, or beneficiaries, of the circumstances in which we live.

Her most formative years were adversely affected by the outbreak of the Second World War with Germany. Although she was born into a caring middle-class home, and received a good Quaker boarding school education, she missed the security of the life she knew at home. When after she finished school she chose to become a nurse, contrary to her mother’s wishes, she needed, as did all nurses of the day, to live in crowded hospital nursing quarters.

Institutional life cut short the family nurturing she craved, but as a result she became more resourceful and independent. She was industrious in her study and became an outstanding student who successfully competed for high grades, as well as for the respect and affection of others. Naively, she did not always foresee the reverses that life can bring; reverses she had to endure and manage on her own.

What conclusions have I made of Elizabeth Jolley’s character after reading the first volume of her trilogy? It seems to me that she was a lovable and loving girl. She was smart and popular, vivacious and fun-loving, one everyone wished to befriend, even if it meant over-looking her tendency to scheme and connive to secure the things she coveted. She became capable when needed, of imaginative fabrications more often than not, for the benefit of those she loved.

Australians have adopted Elizabeth Jolley as one of their own, and are proud of her successes and many awards. But she writes more feelingly of her early life in the more culturally aware United Kingdom, than of the less cultured Australian society to which she migrated with her husband in 1959.

Touching as they do on some of life’s most moving events, her works will endure, to be read and enjoyed in the years to come. I would encourage others to study her books, and to make their own conclusions about her life and works.

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A Book Review – My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

This book (My Brilliant Career) has resided beneath a pile of my new, but similarly unread volumes, for three to four years. An “Aussie Classic”, it is a book I thought I should read for its literary merit but one I feared, when author Miles Franklin declared in the Introduction that it had no plot but was just a “yarn” about her own life, would have little ongoing interest for me. Not so.

 
She may have been just sixteen when she embarked on such an ambitious undertaking, but even at this age her story-telling skill, and her intimate insight into the rigors of farm life in country New South Wales, I found riveting. I loved her book. She rejected a factual autobiographical account, rich in detail but lacking in interest. She chose instead to relate the awakenings of the mind to the joys of the arts and living, and the heart to the stirrings of love and human affection, in contrast to the soul-destroying tedium of the life of the principal character Sybylla Melvyn.

 
Most autobiographies are somewhat egotistical records of the author’s life achievements. She openly admits to egotism. But her book is far from boastful. She is eloquent in defending her contrarian out-bursts and in doing so is self-deprecating to an extent which reflects a poor self-image largely a result her mother’s  sermonizing, and want of understanding of her talents, and aspirations.

 
This is a romance contrary to the author’s denial, but it is one with a difference. Sybylla’s attitude to marriage reflects her mother’s experience of servitude to her husband and children in a largely loveless union. When a love-sick wealthy nearby property owner attempts to kiss her on her seventeenth birthday, she strikes him across the face with his stock-whip. Remarkably he does not retaliate, nor is his love for her diminished. I do not believe that all such events in the story are exactly autobiographical. I think it likely that there is literary licence and perhaps hyperbole.

 
The Introduction contends that the reader need “not fear encountering such trash descriptions of beautiful sunsets and whisperings of wind”. Yet in the last paragraph of My Brilliant Career is the most stunning description of a sunset you could ever read.

 

 Miles Franklin’s revulsion for her life of boredom and stultifying menial chores, and her passion to create a more stimulating life for herself independent of the support of others, led her to reject marriage for a literary and public life career. It was a decision for which Australians can be grateful.

This tale of the harsh Australian bush, and those who struggled  to eke out a living from it more than a century ago, is one of enduring appeal. She has made many other contributions to Australia’s literary heritage including the funding of the prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, from her estate when she died in 1954 aged 75.