Elizabeth Jolley was interviewed by David Headon on 22 May 1984 in Darwin for 8T0P-FM. During 1984 Fremantle Arts Centre Press published two books by Jolley: a collection of stories Five Acre Virgin and The Travelling Entertainer, and the novel Milk and Honey. University of Queensland Press republished Palomino. In Meanjin 4/1984 Joan Kirkby discusses these works, as well as two of Jolley’s earlier novels, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance UQP, St Lucia, 1983) and Mr Scobie’s Riddle (Penguin, Melbourne, 1983). Kirkby’s article is called ‘The Nights Belong to Elizabeth Jolley: Modernism and the Sappho-Erotic Imagination of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance’. In this interview Elizabeth Jolley discussed with David Headon some of the early circumstances of her life, her migration to Australia, and the difficulties of getting published from the west.
Biographical details on you are scarce. You were born in the English Midlands to an English father and a Viennese mother. How did that experience influence your later writing?
I don’t use the Midlands as a background — I tend to use the Australian landscape for my setting — but now and again the background from the Midlands comes in. The Newspaper of Claremont Street, for example. When you move to another country, certain things become very sharp in the memory and I do use them. And, of course, a bilingual background, where German was spoken in the house, made me a slow learner at school. Perhaps I am still a slow learner.
Your father was clearly a very courageous man, being a conscientious objector in the First World War. Not a popular stand in any country in 1914. What impact did his Quaker background have on you?
Though my father was not a Quaker to start with, he became a convert to Quakerism. He was a Methodist. During my childhood he was a Quaker, but then he went back to being an ardent Methodist, and was a lay preacher. But because he was a conscientious objector in the 1914-18 war, his father was so ashamed of him for being in prison that he turned him out of the house with a shilling, in front of the neighbours. And then my father did an even more disgraceful thing after coming out of prison — he left the Methodists and became a Quaker, and then went with the ‘Friends’ to Vienna to do relief work. That is where he met my mother. He married her over there, brought her back to the household where, of course, she was hardly welcome, and they had another wedding in England. Actually, my mother had a very hard life, I think, because of the family that she came into, though I didn’t understand it as a child. My father lived and worked in the Midlands, the slums really, and my mother was never really received. She had a difficult time.
Your mother was the daughter of an Austrian General. Did she ever talk about that?
No, not really. She often wept. She had obviously been accustomed, you see, to a much grander scale of living. But the worst part was her expectation of grandness in Britain. She had this idea that English people had castles and generally led a glamorous life. Well, coming to the Black Country, and the mean streets of the industrial Midlands was not at all what she had envisaged. My father was a very fine looking man. He had very good teeth and nice hair, and altogether I think she thought of him as being something that he wasn’t. It was a misunderstanding of backgrounds really. But he loved her so much and both of them put up with a great deal of unhappiness, because I suppose neither of them would ever have thought of breaking up their marriage.
When they were happy, they were very happy. But in between time there were the most awful family rows, with total lack of understanding. I understand it now, but at the time I couldn’t. My mother had a ‘Friend’, a lover if you like, that my father tolerated. Both men would go to their respective church services on Sunday and then come home to a dinner cooked by my mother and discuss the service. Then my mother would go with her ‘Friend’ for the rest of Sunday. Now in a way it was done in a very simple, very accepted way at a time when people didn’t do things like that. Then she would come back at night. My father would get very restless and prowl about the house waiting for her to come home. But again, this was their way of working something out, I suppose. This man that my mother was very fond of was extremely good to me and to my sister. He was the real lover; he brought presents and chocolates and clothes. If you think of the background where we lived, it didn’t fit in at all.
Was the period you spent at a Quaker boarding school memorable in any way?
Oh yes, very much so. I did go to school to start with, at a little infants school, and then to a small high school. My father took both my sister and me away, though, because he thought that school spoilt the innocence of children. I then went to a boarding school at the age of eleven, having been at home with a series of French and German governesses. They could never get on with my mother, so they didn’t stay very long, and usually they departed in tears. I seem to remember various Francoises and Gretls being packed up and taken to the station with boiled up faces, you know, red with tears, and my father being very humble and apologetic. When I was eleven, I sat for a scholarship for a Quaker school. Unfortunately, since my mathematics were quite out of step (I had been doing algebra and geometry with my father, but he left out the decimals and the fractions), I couldn’t pass the exam. But I did pass very well in English and got a half scholarship to a Quaker boarding school near Banbury. I hadn’t been to school and I hadn’t been away from home, so I wasn’t used to other boys and girls in a classroom. It was really a kind of torture. I went there by myself; my sister came much later. I hated the Quaker boarding school the first year, but I grew to love it very much. The teachers were extremely kind; we called them by their Christian name and their surname. We didn’t say Mr So and So. We would say, Barry Naylor or Mary Sykes or Gladys Burgess. That was a Quaker habit. The school had stopped saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. Some people still did say it, but we went into the ordinary use of ‘you’. I came out of that school with very high ideals. I signed a temperance pledge there which I broke shortly afterwards. And I came out without knowing anything about the use of money. We had very little money; we lived a very spartan and frugal life. We were allowed to change into ordinary clothes twice a week, but even those clothes were. . . you could have a kilt and a jumper and brown woollen stockings. We wore brown woollen stockings all the time anyway. I had no idea how to dress. I still don’t have any idea. It had that effect on me. I just don’t know what sorts of things to wear. I don’t know what my image is. I had very high ideals about pacifism, about drink, about gambling, and I was very much my brother’s keeper. It took me a long time to throw off a sense that I was responsible for people. This is a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. I would tend to see people’s problems in such a way that I would react to them. It was only as my own children grew up that I changed. I worried about things for them without at first realising that they were not worrying about them. I slowly learned not to worry so much.
What particular Quaker ideals have you clung to in later years?
Well, in The Newspaper of Claremont Street, for example. Weekly cares for Nastasya until she finds she can’t manage any more, and then, of course, she really dumps her. I think that experience of feeling that I must care for someone who is in a less fortunate situation than my own has clung to me very much. I might pick up somebody on the side of the road, because I think I should give them a lift, and then find I am involved in all sorts of things. This person is then taking advantage of me.
You were a nurse for some years. That seems to fit the pattern.
We were encouraged to take up the more noble professions, such as nursing or chicken farming or running boys’ clubs. Many old scholars from my school went and worked in the slums of London. Because of the privilege of your education, you could do something that would help. I don’t think I do anything that is worthy of my education at the moment. I sometimes feel a bit guilty that I am not doing things, like ‘Meals on Wheels’. I did work for the Save the Children Fund for a number of years. I seem to have let those things drop, but perhaps as one gets older one can do less anyway. But certainly a sense or feeling that I am not doing things for people when I should, is still with me.
To push the clock on a little, I know that you came to Western Australia in 1959 with your husband and three children. When did you meet your husband?
I met my husband when he was a patient at the first hospital I worked in. It was an Orthopaedic Hospital, a department of St Thomas’ in London. It was a very special sort of training school. Not everybody could go. On your application form you had to put in how many maids your mother kept. Well, my mother didn’t keep any maids, but I stuck down two to make it look all right. I got into St Thomas’, and I started off doing orthopaedic training in the country, and hence met my husband. He had very bad arthritis. It was thought he had tuberculosis of the joints, but it wasn’t. I suppose I fell in love with him then, and met him later on when he had left hospital and when I had left that hospital. I met him by chance in Birmingham. He was, by then, married to somebody else, and he was also a Quaker. It wasn’t an easy thing for a Quaker to separate from his wife. It was difficult, and he didn’t get divorced for many years. So we didn’t live together for a long time. My first child was born before we were married, and I lived as a housekeeper in a doctor’s house. I don’t usually divulge these sorts of things, but I don’t think it matters any longer.
Was it a mutual decision to leave Britain in 1959 and come to Perth?
Yes, that is interesting. My husband and I went from one place to another in Britain. He was first of all a librarian in a Theological College in Birmingham, then he went to Edinburgh, where he was in the Royal College of Physicians as Librarian. Then he was in Glasgow. We lived in Glasgow until he was more or less invited to consider the position of Librarian in Western Australia. He had always felt he would like to go to New Zealand or Australia, but hadn’t thought too deeply. So when this chance came up, he was obviously very interested and keen, and he thought he would like to go. I didn’t know anything about Australia at all, I regret to say.
Were you keen to go?
I am one of these devoted wives, who would go wherever her husband goes. And I suppose because we had had a very difficult time at the beginning, not being together, I didn’t want to stop him doing something that he wanted to do. So we all came out to Australia. And I am very glad we did. I wish we had come much earlier.
Did you settle in straight away?
No, it took me about two years to pick flowers to put in the house. I didn’t realise, but I was so unsettled that I didn’t arrange any flowers for about two years. I couldn’t get the seasons right. But I must say that people were very friendly and kind, and that made an enormous difference.
To move on to your writing. You’ve mentioned before in an interview that you have kept a journal virtually all your life. When did you begin to think about a creative writing career, or, indeed, sending the first trembling leaves off to a publisher?
Yes, I was writing right from when I was a little girl. My sister and I used to write stories, and I went on writing. But I didn’t start with my trembling submissions until about the middle 1960s, here. I had a very long and hard time of submitting and being rejected, and I came to understand that if you were in Western Australia, to break into eastern Australia was almost impossible. I got my first stories in by sending them to England and having them sent to the ABC in Sydney, from England. A very sorry thing that that should be, but I think the situation has improved. It is better now.
It is a little better, but the dreaded eastern hegemony continues.
True. We still get people who come over from the eastern states who talk down to the west — writers, in particular. It can be very dreary and miserable to listen to some visiting writers telling us how hard it is to get published. I mean, we know. That is why we are delighted if people in Darwin want our work or want us. It pleases us enormously to be invited here.
It certainly seems to be a natural connection. Going further with the earlier point, though, do you think that the West Australian emphasis, more recently, on regional writing, is in part a self-defence mechanism against this eastern pressure?
Yes, but I think that regional writing has always existed. You see, in Britain you have selections of Irish short stories, you have Scottish stories, you have English stories or you have European stories. Writers are regional. Their themes might be universal, but their backgrounds and their settings, because of where they live, very often will be their region. Australian writers go and live in Greece and Italy, and then use that background. British writers will travel or go and live somewhere else. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance has an Australian setting; I have also got a London setting, well, suburban London, and I’ve got a little bit in Europe. I’ve got the three things. So the writer can use various regions and put them together. But I like to think of myself as a West Australian writer, and I like to think that if my writing has some regional flavour, then that is what it is. Different flavours in writing are very, very important. That is why the BBC regional programmes are good. We should have, in the ABC, regions where work can go and be produced from there, instead of everything having to go to Sydney. That is quite wrong.
The images in your writing are very exact and precise. Are you that kind of writer who at the end of the day jots impressions down which become, as it were, a refrigerator full of materials to be used?
Oh, yes. I still keep journals. I won’t make the mistake of having the wrong plants growing in a region. I make a point of noticing that certain things grow in a certain place, and would never, for example, describe a creek in a place where a creek could never flow. I make sure about that. So I will make notes. My husband likes to talk about the landscape, and he will often describe something, or point out something, because my memory isn’t as good as his. He has a fantastic memory.
Librarian’s training no doubt!
Yes, and if I do see something or think of something, I will often tell him two words in the car and he will then remind me of those two words and that will recall what it is I want to write down. Because he really does not forget. I can’t quote from my own work even, but he can quote from anything. His biblical knowledge is fantastic. He had a very religious background. Not Quakerism — his father was an Anglican priest. If I want something for a character, I will describe my character a little bit and I will say she wants a poem or something. He will say, well what about, and then he will quote something, and give me lines from a poem that will so fit my character that it is very nice.
Your books do emphasise character. Granny Ackroyd, in Newspaper of Claremont Street, says that ‘people and trees is special’. It seems to be almost you talking.
Well, the thing is that somebody did actually say that to me when I was a child, or words to that effect. I suppose it has stayed with me all the years. That kind of thing that has been put into me will often come out through a character. I am interested in characters and I keep whole folders of characters. I don’t know whether you see any connection, but the old woman. Weekly, is in fact an extended exploration of the girl who is telling the stories in the first part of Five Acre Virgin (1976).. That girl, who is telling the stories in a rather nonchalant way, could in fact develop into the kind of character that Weekly is. In fact, when I first wrote Newspaper of Claremont Street, the stories in the first part of Five Acre Virgin were the flashbacks to Weekly’s childhood. But then when those stories were broadcast and published I couldn’t use them. I had to rewrite Newspaper of Claremont Street and give Weekly a childhood just a bit different. I felt that it might be a bit forced, you know, but in fact perhaps it was better because Victor really feeds on Weekly.
Your characters, and one thinks of Weekly as an example, are very much concerned with memories of the past and yet in the present they are most definitely survivors.
Yes, I think survivors is a good word, thank you. The characters do survive. In ‘Grasshoppers’ (The Travelling Entertainer), Peg is a survivor, so that one doesn’t have to worry. She will have a grief that she will never get over. But she will survive; she will survive on her own, though she is lonely. Bettina is also a survivor, but she needs someone to feed on. Nastasya, in Newspaper of Claremont Street, is a survivor, but can’t survive without a host to feed on. Weekly is an independent survivor. I am very interested in that. I think it goes back to my Quaker upbringing and the idea of the brother’s keeper, where some people need somebody to hang on to.
A last question. I am very interested in a point that Helen Garner made in a recent critical article on your work. In Meanjin 2/1983 she suggested that it was very difficult to tell what was early Jolley and what was late Jolley, because there are so many clear connections, some of which you have Just outlined. Would it be reasonable to say that your books are accretions, almost a Leaves of Grass in fiction?
I think of Whitman. Indeed, I know that you have quoted from Whitman in your work. When you are in the middle of it, you can’t see, but I think that is what it must be. A putting together of all sorts of things, which keep snowballing and adding. And of course I do work on the characters, you know, altogether.
David Headon is a cultural consultant and historian
Elizabeth Jolley (1923 – 2007) was one of Australia’s most celebrated writers.