“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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Book Review – “Cabin Fever” by Elizabeth Jolley

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”.


“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.

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. 

Book Review – “The House of Fiction” by Susan Swingler.

Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The House of Fiction” by Susan Swingler

Leonard, Susan, and Elizabeth Jolley

http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2012/05/17/3504998.htm

MPS (Mrs Pop-Star) is a regular listener to Richard Fidler‘s superb ABC interview program “Conversations” and heard Susan Swingler interviewed recently. Pop-Star happened to be within ear-shot, and became engrossed in her story too. What he heard whet his appetite to read her book. Within a few minutes, he had purchased and down-loaded it from Amazon to his new Paperwhite Kindle, and started to read  her fascinating story.

The story of Susan’s paternal loss.

Susan Swingler tells of her life with her mother Joyce, after her father Leonard Jolley left them in 1950 when she was just  a four-year old. Although so young, she had vivid memories of  her charismatic father and clung to his promise when they parted, to soon be with them again. Over the years of absence, her heart grew fonder, and she refused to believe that he would not honour his promise.

Then Joyce told her she and Leonard were now divorced. Leonard had remarried.

“Did she know his new wife”? Susan asked of her mother?

“No” Joyce evasively replied.

This was part of a deceit that lasted until just before her 21st birthday. It was only when she needed Leonard’s permission to marry that she discovered details of the family secret and cover-up.

After Leonard left, life was a struggle for the independently minded Joyce, who declined to seek help from her devout Exclusive Brethren parents because they had not approved of her having a University education.

In 1955 industrious Joyce was able with a deposit of just 51 pounds, to purchase a 2650 pound 2 bedroom cottage in Exeter. To help pay the mortgage, she took in tenants, and Susan shared her mother’s bedroom. With their own home, Joyce was able retrieve from storage Susan’s toys and other items from when she lived with Leonard in Birmingham.

One afternoon when her mother was out Susan came across a chest, inside which she found out of fashion clothes, and other items, including her mother’s old diary. She thumbed through it, noting an entry for her birth-date on June 3, 1946. And then she came across a letter with the spidery handwriting of her father on the envelope. It was written by Leonard to Joyce at the time of their separation. Somewhat guiltily she read on, and two sentences down she saw her name. She could hardly believe what she then read. For Pop-Star the sentence was perhaps the most poignant moment of the book

“I think it would be best if you told Susan I was dead”.

Devoted “daddy’s girl” Susan, only then accepted the harsh reality, that her father really wanted to end all contact with her. But why? And why was Leonard ready to go to elaborate lengths to hide from his own Exclusive Brethren family the truth of his own infidelity, divorce and remarriage; even migrating to Perth in Western Australia to avoid all contact.

Susan uncovers the family secrets

It is Susan’s incessant quest to understand the events of her birth that keeps the reader so engrossed. Gradually she gains insights into family events and personalities, and eventually  learns more of the triangular relationship between Leonard, his wife Joyce, and his nurse Monica Knight.  When Monica became pregnant, she moved into the Jolley household.  Five weeks after Monica had a baby girl, Joyce gave birth to Susan. It was an impossible situation for family harmony and stability. After four years of indecision, he eventually resolved the situation without explanation to Susan, by leaving them to live with Monica, who changed her name to Elizabeth. Although angry and disillusioned, Susan could not forget her father and remained committed to meeting him.

It was only near the end of his life that she was able to arrange a meeting with him in his Perth home. His now famous wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jolley, carefully supervised the meeting. It ended disappointingly for Susan. There were many questions she planned to ask her frail and hesitant father but when the chance at last was there, her resolution faltered,  and the opportunity passed. Throughout the interview he hardly took his eyes off Elizabeth, and it was only when saying goodbye that he gave her, what to Susan was surprisingly sweet, a smile of farewell. This at least gave her some assurance of a fondness that had always been so distant.

The last chapters of Susan’s book followed another journey to Australia, where she was able to read the biography of Elizabeth Jolley and meet  the author Brian Dibble. She then read the more autobiographical of Elizabeth Jolley’s novels. Finally she was able with permission to view the letters written between Leonard and Elizabeth. They, along with her diaries and other writings, are stored in trust at the Mitchell library in Sydney for 30 years from Elizabeth’s death in 2007.

This is a book that reveals intimate details of relationships that may be too personal to be made public. To the end, Leonard Jolley maintained his reserve, and was unable to welcome the daughter who had loved him so constantly, and craved his attention. In forfeiting his relationship with her, he did not deserve her.

This book has so much of human interest to ponder. The deepest ties are those between parent and child in need of nurturing.

But it is not always appreciated that grandparents may feel deprived  when denied contact with their grand-children following marriage break-downs. They too grieve when their grand-children suffer.