I first came across Elizabeth Jolley’s writing in Meanjin in 1979. A story called The Bench (now retitled Adam’s Bride in her Penguin collection Woman in a Lampshade) opens with these sentences:
All small towns in the country have some sort of blessing. In one there is a stretch of river which manages to retain enough water for swimming in the summer; in another, the wife of the policeman is able to make dresses for bridesmaids, and in yet another, the cook at the hotel turns hairdresser on Saturday afternoons.
This is a perfect introduction to one of Jolley’s dominant modes: the confident, attractive generalisation, the use of the word ‘blessing’, the easy feeling for the detail, both natural and human, of life in the country, and respect for the minor skills and generosities of ordinary people.
Jolley is sixty, was born in England, and lives in Perth. She has published six books of fiction in the last eight years: Five Acre Virgin and The Travelling Entertainer, short stories (Fremantle Arts Centre Press), Palomino, a novel (Outback Press), The Newspaper of Claremont Street, a novel (Fremantle), and in Penguin this year, Mr Scobie’s Riddle, a novel, and Woman in a Lampshade, a collection of stories. I have listed the books in order of publication, but they have certainly not been published in order of writing: the order of writing, without consulting Jolley herself, would be hard to establish, for the world of her imagination is so unified, and her themes and images have been so thoroughly worked and reworked, re-examined, re-arranged and re-used, that one could dive in at any point in any of the six books and not be able to say with confidence, ‘This is early Jolley’ or ‘This is late’.
Jolley operates with an inspired thrift. She returns unabashed to what she finds evocative and rich and not yet properly understood or exorcised. It’s not just a matter of recurring characters, though that’s part of it. Certain images, phrases, whole sentences, whole paragraphs, whole trains of events emerge again and again, in a manner which at first unnerves, like a half-remembered dream or a flicker of déjà vu, but which finally produces an unusual cumulative effect. She will take a situation, a relationship, a moment of insight, a particular longing, and work on it in half a dozen different versions, making the characters older or younger, changing their gender or their class, gaoling or releasing a father, adding or subtracting a murder or a suicide; and these repetitions and re-usings, conscious but not to the point of being orchestrated, set up a pattern of echoes which unifies the world, and is most seductive and comforting.
What are these images, so industrious but never threadbare? The timbered valley, the rooster which has just lost a cockfight and is too ashamed to peck at its food, the old man who designs his wine labels before he has even bought the land, the brick path made by the nine-year-old boy, unexpected rain coming into an open shed, the ribbed pattern of a vineyard, the old man whose ‘freshly combed white hair looked like a bandage’, the child’s mouth ‘all square with crying’, the dream-like ‘lawns made of water’, ‘the great ship with a knowledge not entirely her own’, the half-eaten pizzas discarded in the laundry after a party, the person who crushes herbs in the palm of one hand and sniffs at them, the pile of firewood that the old husband lovingly maintains so that the housewife ‘only had to reach out an arm for it’, the father who, when his small daughter writes a sentence, ‘kissed the page’, the observation that ‘water is the last thing to get dark’. These things are some of Jolley’s icons.
Her characters, too, are part of this strange net of familiarity, and are held in it: that weird trio, always in paroxysms of laughter or rage, the mother who cleans houses for a living to support her feckless son and her anxious daughter — the daughter as often as not the narrator; mother as landlady or vice versa; pairs of sisters; pairs of lesbians, one much older than the other; migrants humiliating themselves to earn a living as salesmen; crazed European aunts who sob with homesickness and knit ‘wild cardigans’; harmless impostors, simpletons and idiots; couples ill-matched intellectually; savage nurses with vast bosoms and shameful pasts. And running through all six books is the strong connecting tissue of land, land, land: the obsession with the ownership of land, the toiling and the self-denial and the saving for it with such passion that denial itself becomes the pleasure; land that people bargain for and marry for and swindle for; land with strings attached; land to be deprived of which can drive people mad; land that flourishes, land that is sour and barren; land that is stolen from ageing parents by children and sold; land with healing properties, land without which life has neither meaning nor purpose. ‘All land’, say her characters over and over, ‘is somebody’s land’.
But how can I have got this far without mentioning that Elizabeth Jolley is a very funny writer? The novel Palomino is the only one of the six books which is devoid of her weird humour, and this is one of the reasons for its failure. Her humour is not cruel, though some people have used this word to describe the novel Mr Scobie’s Riddle. The bottom line, for Jolley, is love. What makes us laugh in her books is the friction between humour and pathos. She is droll, sly, often delicate; not averse to the throwaway line (‘Matron Price, while she had her scissors handy, bent down and cut off what remained of Mrs Murphy’s hair’; a baby ‘dressed with simplicity in a grimy napkin’); she is offhand, with a batty sideways slip that I find hilarious; and she is capable of the most skilful construction and priming, as in the first nine pages of Mr Scobie’s Riddle which set out the whole ghastly, frantic moral sink of St Christopher and St Jude’s Hospital for the Aged in a brilliantly comic exchange of official reports between Night Sister Shady (Unregistered) and the dreadful Matron Price.
Hospitals are rich mines of humour and pathos. The hospital in Mr Scobie’s Riddle is almost a character in itself. Hilda’s Wedding (in Woman in a Lampshade), one of her most slyly funny, surreal and painful stories, is set in a hospital where the narrator is a relieving night nurse. In Jolley’s hospitals, patients are helpless victims, and the lowly workers — cleaners, cooks, junior nurses, maids — are under such pressure from an unseen, wilful and corrupt authority that their lives become warped. Their struggle to maintain some form of dignity and also of fun takes strange shapes:
‘It’s very informal everywhere tonight’, I told them. ‘There’s chocolate cake in Matron’s office and someone’s fixed a wireless in the broom cupboard, there’s to be dancing later.’
Smallhouse and Gordonpole…emptied the bins too and they were allowed to smoke which was fair enough when you saw what was sometimes thrown away from the operating theatres.
St Christopher and St Jude echoes with the strangled cries of the furious cook; there is always somebody crying somewhere at night; all night a card game is in progress in the dinette, where the hospital itself is being gambled away by Matron Price’s feckless brother — a grown-up version of the charlady’s son of many another story. There are only two medical treatments available: epsom salts and menthol camphor. Bowels are unreliable; there is lentil stew and lemon sago for every meal, burnt. Matron Price is engaged in a battle to get the senile patients to sign over their bank accounts to her. It is the most horrible place.
Mr Scobie, allowed to take little walks, often passed by a bakery. Every day he stopped to admire the golden fresh bread displayed…He went inside. He bought a doughnut and carried it back to St Christopher and St Jude to eat it after tea.
As he entered the hall of the hospital, Matron Price and the cook, leaving the office together, came towards him. He hoped they would not see the little paper bag with the doughnut in it.
‘Oh, Mr Scobie dear, you should not buy rubbish like that’. Matron said. ‘It won’t do your bowels any good.’ ‘What’s wrong with the food you get here?’ the cook said. ‘Anyone’d think you didn’t get enough to eat here. At least it’s home cooking here and you know what’s in it. That’s what I always say.’
Not wanting to be discovered eating the doughnut, Mr Scobie tried to find somewhere to put it in Room One. There really was no hiding place. He put the paper bag on the floor beside his bed.
Later, when he ate it, it was cold and heavy, lifeless. It tasted unpleasant, as if it had absorbed all the smells of the hospital.
Pathos is a risky mode. If the humour doesn’t come off, the pathetic thing can be left stranded, wet and dripping. This happens: a little slide that’s too easy, a too blatant twanging of the heart strings, a too convenient car crash. Sometimes she is a bit heavy-handed with the adverbs, or one of the family’s comic brawls loses its rhythm and collapses. But even a clumsy, flustered, amateurish story will have a nugget of sense at its centre, an image that surprises, a simple — even a crude — stroke that comes off and almost saves it; or else she’ll strike a note that only a woman of her age would have the nerve or the knowledge to go for: some low-toned remark that will flip a situation over or make a sudden quiet of acceptance. The Shepherd on the Roof, a story in Five Acre Virgin (out of print, I believe), shows this knack she’s got, of letting one mood of a relationship suddenly overwhelm its opposite, while both are still sounding:
‘You’ve got coleslaw in your beard’, I told my husband after supper. He wiped it off before he kissed me.
‘I do love you very much’, he said. ‘Even though you’re such a nasty piece of work’, he held me close to him.
‘I don’t know!’ I said. ‘Whatever keeps us together!’
‘Mutual contempt’, he said and kissed me again.
I lay beside him and listened to him snoring. I thought of the children and how there seemed no place in the world for them. My husband often says he can’t understand why they won’t pretend to study, like Tessa’s children, and get a government grant. But I think, like me, he does understand. And then I thought of Mr Stannard wanting his shed and not being able to have it. The kitchen tap dripped and I could hear the stream rushing and the unchanging noises of the frogs and I wanted to wake my husband and talk to him. I wanted to say, ‘Let’s not quarrel and argue any more’.
She is not quite at home with contemporary idiom. There is something irredeemably between-wars about the feckless son ‘the Doll’, Mr Scobie’s racy nephew Hartley, and their ilk: you can’t help seeing them in two-tone shoes and brilliantine, their slang is dance-hall, and she doesn’t seem to be doing it on purpose. Sometimes these anachronisms jar; sometimes they have a shock effect that makes your head spin. This slight sense of uncertainty is compensated for, however, by her ability to make an unerring choice of detail:
Like yesterday I had only two people in all day, just two little boys who looked at everything…spilled all the marbles…and then in the end they just bought themselves a plastic dagger each.
‘A plastic dagger each’: what a bullseye of verisimilitude!
Because Mr Scobie’s Riddle is about an old people’s home, some critics have taken a sociological approach to it, as if Jolley were making an impassioned plea to the general public to soften its heart towards the aged. She’s much tougher than that and much more of an artist. What she says about old people reminds me that one day I shall be one of them: she provokes not condescending sympathy but rushes of ‘pity and terror’:
His hand, flapping, caught the door post on the way back. The frail skin, brown mottled and paper thin, was grazed and broken…Quickly she tore up a piece of old rag kept for padding up the old women and bound up the bleeding hand.
An expression like ‘kept for padding up the old women’ has the same effect as the half-understood references to adult sexual life that one reads as an eight-year-old: revulsion and fear, coupled with a sense of fate.
Life is pretty grim, in Elizabeth Jolley. People are disappointed, weak, frightened for their children, ill with homesickness, struggling against hostile circumstance, skating close to chasms — and some of them are right over the edge, dispossessed, helpless, deregistered, blackmailed, incontinent. But they are all battlers. Even if fantasy is the best they can do, they keep going. There is the possibility of love, of communion with land if no human being wants you; the regenerative power of land and of nature.
In the quiet moments of soft rustlings between the bursts of singing, a noisy crow, flying over the neglected gardens of St Christopher and St Jude, cried the tragedy and the gift of half-remembered places, of distant towns and villages, of mountains and rivers and of wharves and railway stations. The crow, swooping closer, still crying, brought to the doors and windows of St Christopher and St Jude the sound of wind rushing across endless paddocks, the steady hopeful clicking of windmills and long country roads leading to serene crossroads. Another crow, in another garden, crying loneliness, seemed to answer the first one. When the crows were silent, the voices of the doves could be heard: a contented sound, perhaps a language of reason and of acceptance and resignation.
And in the last chapter of Mr Scobie’s Riddle, when the old men have died and the mad woman has not been able to escape Matron’s clutches, there is still the symbol of the tents, fragile, optimistic, temporary structures, clumsily erected in hope.
Helen Garner is an Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist.