Elizabeth Jolley, the award-winning Australian writer, published her first collection of short stories in 1976. I didn’t read it. I was perfectly happy with Victorian novels. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I began to read contemporary fiction: after being reduced to tears by a famous author (now dead) during an interview about his 1,000-page book (a freelance assignment I’d received the night before, along with the book, and he knew I hadn’t finished it), I vowed that nothing like that would happen again. I became an earnest reader of book reviews and contemporary novels. Oh, lord.
In the 1980s I read some brilliant books, among them Elizabeth Jolley’s very strange, well-reviewed comic novels. Persea has recently reissued several of Jolley’s novels, and sent me a few. (So I now have a backlog of 24 free books from publicists, down one, and read this because I like Jolley.).
Are Jolley’s novels comedies? Whimsically surreal? Modern or post-modern? It’s hard to know how to take them. In Foxybaby, an utterly odd and entertaining novel (which I reviewed here), Alma Porch, a writer, takes a job teaching drama at a “Better Body through the Arts Course”–an arts program with dieting– at an obscure college in an abandoned Australian town. The lesbian principal of the college, Miss Pyecroft, with her obsequious girlfriend, Miss Paisley, sabotages Alma’s teaching and invites Alma to an orgy. And part of the novel is the “film treatment” of Alma’s new novel, which the students will act out.
In Jolley’s dark comedy, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, she also mocks the domination of an unlikable principal of a school. The portly headmistress of a girls’ school, Doctor Arabella Thorne, is an intellectual but is also a lesbian lecher. She arranges bra-burning ceremonies for her students, loves to watch a student disco dancing, and invites a fat virginal student, Gwendaline Manners, whose father has ceased paying her tuition, on a trip to Europe, obviously with plans of seduction. Miss Thorne’s lover, the illiterate secretary Miss Edgely, is upset, and her friend, Miss Snowdon, matron of the Queens’ Hospital, also thinks it is unwise to bring along a student.
Many of us have at one time or another known a Miss or Mr. Thorne. Not Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, mind you, but perhaps an inhabitant of Thornfield, like Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre). The grotesque characters in Jolley’s novel have names that are faintly reminiscent of Victorian novels, though they seem not to have much relation to them: Miss Edgely (Maria Edgeworth?), Miss Snowdon (Villette?), Mr. Frome (Ethan Frome?).
Miss Thorne is a horrifying character, I am sure we will all agree. But then she doesn’t even exist, except as a comic character in the mind of Jolley’s character, the novelist Diana Hopewell. The novel begins with the line: “The nights belonged to the novelist.” And the narrative begins with Miss Thorne’s walk in a pine plantation, and her musings about the school.
After three pages, the narrative switches to Miss Dorothy Peabody, a naive middle-aged typist who devotes her nights to reading letters from the novelist, Diana. Their correspondence, which they embarked on after Dorothy sent a fan letter, is the highlight of Dorothy’s life. Diana sends her long sections of the novel she is writing about Miss Thorne.
As [Miss Peabody] lit the gas under the hateful little milk saucepan she let her mind wander pleasantly. Whatever would Miss Thorne do with Gwendaline Manners in Europe! What an idea to take a schoolgirl on an expensive holiday like that and to pay all the expenses! It was beyond Miss Peabody’s experience to understand why Miss Thorne should do this. What would the girl’s parents think? It seemed an impulsive thing for a woman in Miss Thorne’s position to do.”
Dorothy and Diana are very lonely women, as we learn as the book continues. But does Diana even exist? Well, yes, she seems to, but Elizabeth Jolley’s novels are so strange that at one point I wondered if Miss Peabody was imagining everything. The names: Diana/Dorothy (Diana = the goddess Diana, and Dorothy = god’s gift)? (I don’t believe any reviewers suggested this, but I often react thus to the unreality of Jolley’s novels.) Eventually Miss Peabody has a drunken breakdown and starts talking to herself.
Poor Miss Peabody. Her mother is an invalid, and her social life consists of office parties where she gets drunk and people ignore her. At home she reads Great Expectations to her mother and writes her letters to Diana.
It’s not much of a life, but she begins to make things happen after the excitement of Diana’s letters. It’s not much–but it’s something. Especially when she conceals the fact that her key is in her handbag and… But it’s really nothing much, and I won’t give it away.
This preposterous, quirky novel is not my favorite by Jolley, but it is spare, gracefully written, and eminently readable.