Elizabeth Jolley, one of Australia’s most distinguished novelist of the 20th century, migrated with her librarian husband Leonard to Australia in 1959, settling in the beautiful West Australian city Perth. Although she had trained and worked as a nurse during and after the Second World War, she developed an aptitude for writing. completing 23 literary works before her death in 2007. I am reading a trilogy of her previously published novels titled the Vera Wright Trilogy published in 2010 by Persea Books, New York. This is an ideal introduction to her literature since these three books are outstanding, and in sequence represent an autobiographical insight into her own life.
The first volume “My Father’s Moon” has been previously reviewed. This post introduces the second, “Cabin Fever”.
On occasions both before and after her little girl was born, Vera did sink into a deep malaise bordering on depression. She was not physically sick, but over-whelmed by feelings of isolation, and loneliness. She longed for sympathetic friends with whom to share her experiences, and her love of beauty, music, and literature. More than anything else, she was desperate for the love and support of the now deceased married surgeon who had fathered Helena. It was a difficult time for Vera. She had to finish working at the large public hospital where she had trained, and leave without notice, her many nursing friends, to create a new life nurturing her daughter Helena.
On one occasion when she was staying in a hotel even the sounds of the plumbing pipes were alarming, and the heat of her room became unbearable, as her imagination distorted reality. But she does not succumb to her low spirits. The tenor of her story is not all gloom and introspection.
I loved the story of how, pregnant belly camouflaged in her overcoat, she came to the rescue of her parents’ German refugee neighbour, Frau Meissner, who had locked herself out of her house. She begged Vera to enter the house through the narrow bathroom window as she had as a young and trim lass. Vera should never have tried in her state but she did, despite her mother’s vehement protestations.
I wish I could have witnessed her clumsy attempts. First she clambered onto the dustbin, then to a ledge above the coal-house door, and then onto the flat coal-house roof. That was the easy part! The little bathroom window was still out of reach. Like a fireman she mounted a down-pipe, and by stretching to her full height, managed to open the window latch, and pull herself up into the “squashy” space. It was one thing to enter this orifice but a much more difficult task to negotiate her bulging midriff. It was just too bulky. She feared she was impossibly stuck, but then remembered a midwifery manouvre. She wriggled and turned her abdomen to the side whilst pulling and shoving with all her might. Something had to give, and eventually it did. With nothing to hold onto, she suddenly lurched forwards head first, into the slimy green bath; triumphant!
In the first volume a young Vera was narcissistic, somewhat indifferent to the needs of others, a gossipy, partying girl, who loved the arts. In the second after her fortunes declined, she becomes empathetic and caring, but determined not to be belittled.
Vera now realizes that Bulge, the girl from boarding school days she looked down upon, and with others cruelly bullied, possessed admirable qualities and was an observant and talented writer. She determined to emulate her.
She noticed the plight of others, including the homeless bedding down in the freezing cold of New York on a street side-walk.
She experiences remorse for her ill-treatment of those who had shown her love and kindness; none more so than Magda, the wife of the surgeon with whom she had her affair.
The Vera of “Cabin Fever” is a more likeable and admirable person. The quality I came to most admire in her, is her pluck, in being willing to be ostracized from friends and society by keeping Helena. She goes out of her way to befriend the grieving Magda, and resumes her nursing career. In her alter-ego Elizabeth Jolley, she later refines her writing skills to become a passionate and successful novelist. .