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.
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. .