Like so many other writers, there was more to Elizabeth Jolley than meets the eye. Considerably more. After becoming acquainted with her work for the first time, via the 1986 novel The Well, this turns out to be not too much of a surprise.
One of Australia’s best-known, multi-award-winning novelists, English-born Jolley – a nurse by training – started writing in her early 20s, but did not make it into print until her early 50s. She quickly made up for lost time, publishing 15 novels, three non-fiction works and several collections of short stories and plays before her death in 2007, at the age of 83. She won just about every award going around the local literary traps, including two Miles Franklins – one for The Well.
Latter-day pictures of Jolley show the stereotypical grandmotherly type – bespectacled, not terribly well-dressed, perhaps ever-so-slightly dotty – an image she apparently cultivated and encouraged. Of course I had heard of her, but she had never really been on my reading radar. And then, by chance, I stumbled across an episode of Australian Story broadcast on the ABC late last year.
Susan Swingler (nee Jolley) was a four-year-old girl when her father Leonard left her and her mother Joyce. For Elizabeth, who had borne him a child around the same time (they had met during World War II and began an affair; at one stage a pregnant Elizabeth even lived under the Jolleys’ roof, with an also-pregnant Joyce who was presumably oblivious to the fact that Elizabeth was also carrying her husband’s child). Leonard and Elizabeth eventually emigrated to Western Australia, married and had two more children. However, in the interim – according to Swingler – Elizabeth would pen letters to Leonard’s family in England that were made out to be from Swingler. Because Leonard had neglected to tell his parents and siblings that he had left his first family. All of which is detailed in Swingler’s 2012 memoir The House of Fiction.
Reviewers and commentators subsequently have opined that this, in hindsight, explains a lot about Jolley’s writing and themes; obviously I can’t pass comment on that, having only read The Well. But, rightly or wrongly, I can’t say I didn’t go into reading the novel without my opinion having been slightly coloured by these revelations. “You manipulative, home-wrecking old biddy!” I thought to myself, “I don’t want to read your books!”
But Andy firmly put down his foot and insisted on Jolley’s inclusion; seeing that I had finally – after several years – persuaded him to add Anna Funder’s Stasiland to the Reading Challenge, I didn’t really have a leg (a foot, a leg … ha ha, geddit? Sigh) to stand on. (Coming up in November, thrillseekers! Stay tuned!)
Now, I’m no “literary sexist” – and nor do I think is Andy, despite several protestations to the contrary. I freely admit that my reading preference is overwhelmingly older Caucasian males, for reasons I can’t put my finger on. And in addition to my probably unreasonable personal misgivings about Jolley, initially I wasn’t too sure about The Well. Until I got to the end. And then it all made sense. Well, it didn’t really – but that was actually the point. Jolley is one helluva clever writer – and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense – and The Well is one helluva book.
As it opens, countrywoman Hester Harper and her young charge Katherine are driving home from a party in the nearby township (somewhere unspecified in rural Australia) when their vehicle, commanded by the latter, hits something on the winding dirt track. From there, the reader backtracks through Miss Harper’s immediate past.
The only daughter of a successful, wealthy farmer and landowner, the never-married Hester lives with her elderly father. An astute businesswoman herself, she is nonetheless psychologically burdened by her disability – a lame leg – and plain looks. She takes in Katherine, a young girl from the local orphanage, with whom she forms a strong bond that fast develops into an exclusionary, co-dependent relationship, marked by profligate spending and lavish extravagances atypical of Hester’s previous austerity.
After her father’s death, Hester is persuaded by her father’s friend and advisor Mr Bird to rent her homestead to Mr Borden and move into a small cottage on a secluded corner of the property. Hester eventually agrees to sell her property, excluding the cottage, to Mr Borden, considerably boosting her financial bottom line. The only threat to Hester’s happiness is the impending visit of Kathy’s orphanage friend Joanna, whose correspondence the older woman possessively monitors.
The Bordens throw the celebratory party from which Hester and Kathy are returning when they hit something in the home stretch. Hester gets out of the car to examine, declares to Kathy that “it’s not a roo”, that it is entangled in the vehicle’s bumper bars and needs to be immediately despatched into the well next to their cottage.
Then the novel really kicks into gear, sending the reader down twists and turns, throwing out red herrings aplenty and provoking doubt on every page. Is the well’s inhabitant actually one of Borden’s itinerant workers who has robbed Hester? Is he still alive? Was it Kathy who really stole Hester’s money? Or is all this just a feverish figment of the delirious imagination of Hester, caught in the grip of a horrendous migraine? The reader is left none the wiser, especially when the novel takes a post-modern turn at the end, turning Hester into the storyteller and thus granting her the ability to literally write her own ending.
By the end of the book I had done an about-face, from initially fearing it was a wandering, meandering mess in need of a good editor to really getting it by the final pages. I finished The Well having a grudging admiration for Jolley’s masterful ability to break the literary rules and get away with it. Pretty impressive stuff, all round.
It’s still weird for a grown woman to write letters to her husband’s family pretending to be her step-daughter though …