The Well – After close to 30 years, Andy finally gets around to reading Elizabeth Jolley…

March 5, 2014

… and is pleasantly surprised, and impressed, if also slightly creeped out, and maybe even a bit confused.

I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Jolley was on my literary radar in the mid to late 80s, if not at high school then certainly at uni. But for whatever reason I never got around to reading her, apart from (possibly) the occasional short story here and there. I’m not even convinced I’ve ever read a short story of hers. I am, as I said a couple of times last year, an outrageous literary sexist.

thewellThe Well is one of Jolley’s best known works, although to my knowledge she doesn’t really have a stand-out work and there are others – Palomino, Foxybaby – that Netty and I could have read. But The Well it was, on my suggestion, and I won’t be surprised if those other couple of novels, and maybe a few others things, have been downloaded to my iPad Mini in the next 12 months. Because, yes. She passed the test. She is worth revisiting. Although, admittedly, that is partly influenced by the fact that most if not all of her books are around 200 pages long. As opposed to someone like Orhan Pamuk, whose Red Book was great, but whose books are all insanely huge.

So anyway. The Well.

If this novel (and, if I remember rightly, some others of Jolley’s) lodged in my brain long before I read it, it’s because of a reputation for its kind of weird, kind of creepy, kind of not-quite-there lesbianism. Neither of the main characters is explicitly attracted to other women – in fact Katherine, the young “servant”, is obsessed with John Travolta (insert gay joke here), while her employer, Hester, is moved to tears at one stage by the innocent reminder that she never married, was never desired, has never been in love. Although she was, maybe, at one point, in love or at least obsessed with her nanny – who was in love with – and pregnant to – her dad …Anyway. There is a rather poignant point in the novel where Hester is reminded of the fact that no man has ever desired her (or at least that’s how she sees things), and this causes her some anguish, and it’s really nicely done. It’s a few lines. It’s nothing huge. But it reverberates. It sticks. It works well.

But also, Hester has this seriously weird shit going on with Katherine. And Katherine, at the beginning of the book, is 15. And Hester is what – in her 60s, maybe? I assume. That was Jolley’s age when she got this novel published. Not that those things necessarily have any correlation whatsoever.

There is a creepy, possibly homophobic, undercurrent to this novel. Hester dotes on Katherine and Katherine sometimes seems to take advantage of that, although at other times seems to be ignorant of it. Hester is deeply jealous of Katherine’s friendship with another girl from the orphanage, Joanne, who seems to know a bit more about the world than Katherine (and maybe even Hester) does. Another creepy element – Hester insists on reading all communication between Katherine and Joanne, and Katherine is OK with that. My family moved from Melbourne to country Victoria when I was 10 and I maintained, for a few years, mail contact with one friend (just the one. It was Glenroy. Fucksake, you think there were that many people worth maintaining contact with in Glenroy in 1979?). My mother was a bit of a religious nutjob back then but even she did not insist on reading my letters to my friends. Seriously. That is messed up. But Katherine has no objection.


The novel revolves around an accident in which a thief (bizarrely, erroneously referred to as a “mysterious creature” on the back of my secondhand 1987 edition as well as Netty’s brandspanking new edition) is caught in the bullbar of Hester’s four-wheel drive, and then dispatched by Hester down the titular well. This is where things get weirder, and creepier, because as Hester lies in bed with a migraine and Katherine manically rants about her conversations with a man (yes, a man, not a mysterious creature) in the well who is alive, not dead, and who is sometimes charming and sometimes psychotic and sometimes generous (a $100 note? In Western Australia? In the ’80s? Didn’t Aussie greenbacks only come in when the Aussie currency went plastic in the early 90s?). And you start to think Hang on, how much of what Katherine is saying is true, but that sort of pushes you a bit further and you have to start to think Hang on, how much of what Hester is saying is true? Because while the novel is written in the third person it is written entirely, in the third person, from Hester’s point of view. We’ve all heard about the unreliable narrator. But unreliable third-person narrative? Not something that’s really ever occurred to me before, although a quick google search reveals “unreliable third-person narration” is in fact a thing. So there you go.

Anyway, Jolley, with her queasy, odd story, her slightly left-of-centre approach to grammar and punctuation – not breaking rules in the way other writers did before her, simply nudging and stretching- makes her a little unique. And while the novel isn’t remotely political the farm ownership sub-plot is interesting because after Glenroy I ended up in rural Victoria and, in the mid-’80s, family farms were becoming a thing of the past, being bought up by the rich neighbours to form bigger, more efficient, more profitable businesses. That’s an inadvertent element to a novel that is mostly concerned with much stranger things.

And it’s good, Not great, maybe. But really good.


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