“The Georges’ Wife”, by Elizabeth Jolley – A book review.

This is a book review I wrote for Amazon, reproduced for this blog.

Fiction is most compelling when it replicates the intrigues and uncertainties of life. Furthermore the best fiction springs from personal experience. In my opinion this is why Elizabeth Jolley, the author of “The Georges’ Wife” has become recognised as such a fine novelist. She writes fiction that is gripping, credible and relevant.

Even the curious title is deeply thought-provoking. Vera never marries Mr George. The Church Bells of the very last chapter is a school-girl memory of the Sunday morning call to worship, not a belated formal celebration of a durable union between a man and a woman. In what sense could Vera have been wife to Mr George’s attentive sister? The very suggestion outrages conventional morality.

The George duo rescue her from homelessness and penury by granting her a secure position of paid servitude as their maid, denying her the honourable status and authority of wife even when Mr George grasps the opportunity to add sexual benefits to her unwritten job description as maid. He baulks at acknowledging this to his sister, even although she senses the change and is tearful the next morning after they first sleep together.

To what extent does Elizabeth Jolley betray in this book her feelings towards the already married Leonard Jolley to whom she became pregnant as a young trainee nurse during the difficult years of World War II? He was an older man, a sophisticated University graduate whose love of literature and music and similar conservative religious views won her heart. She was his nurse when treated for suspected tuberculosis of the hip but eventually diagnosed as a manifestation of rheumatoid arthritis.

Although charming and kind to her, he proved to be a duplicitous womanizer, a cad. Having had his fun he did not safe-guard her good name and support her adequately when she became pregnant. He brought her shame in the eyes of her Quaker family and nursing friends, ended her training, and forced her to seek menial tasks to survive.

To add insult to injury he self-righteously enlisted her help in not even informing his own family of his indiscretion. When he did act to resolve his dilemma it was deeply hurtful and difficult for his wife, and broke the trust of his doting four-year old daughter Susan. Leonard did secretly marry Elizabeth, and became increasingly dependent on her. They lived first in Scotland and in 1959, they migrated to Perth in Australia. Leonard passed away in 1994 the year after this book was first published in Australia.

Vera never complained of her unmarried lot with Mr George. She was grateful for the security and companionship her unusual liaison provided, but craved more. Undoubtedly it was why she turned to the intellectually stimulating but alarmingly poor friends Noël and Felicity who scavenged their coal supplies from a nearby slag heap, and were grateful when Vera brought them a cucumber she found which had fallen to the road from a passing vehicle. Tragically Noël contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, and passed on the germ to Vera.

To their credit the Georges supported Vera and her two girls during her illness, and afterwards when she studied Medicine, but was it the loving relationship it might have been?

Elizabeth’s own story, hinted at in the reminiscences of Vera, but recorded accurately in Brian Dibble’s detailed biography, is much more riveting for being true. Intelligent, and well-educated, Elizabeth was born of a good German-speaking family with deeply held Pacifist scruples. She felt acutely the cutting reproaches of her efficient but brusque mother while her tolerant and loving father was the inspiration for her own fortitude in coping with her marital difficulties.

I enjoyed reading “The Georges’ Wife” and rate it as the best of her books that I have read thus far.

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