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(Monica) Elizabeth Jolley Biography

Elizabeth Jolley comments:

Nationality: Australian. Born: Monica Elizabeth Knight in Birmingham, England, 1923; moved to Australia, 1959; became citizen, 1978. Education: Friends' School, Sibford, Oxfordshire, 1934-40; St. Thomas' Hospital, London (orthopaedic nursing training), 1940-43; Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham (general training), 1943-46. Career: Salesperson, nurse, and domestic, 1960s. Part-time tutor in creative writing, Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia, from 1974; part-time tutor in English from 1978, writer-in-residence, 1982, and since 1984 half-time tutor in English, Western Australian Institute of Technology, Bentley; half-time lecturer and writer-in-residence from 1986, and since 1989 honorary writer-in-residence, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia. Writer-in-residence, Scarborough Senior High School, Winter 1980, and Western Australian College of Advanced Education, Nedlands, 1983. President, Australian Society of Authors, 1985-86. Awards: State of Victoria prize, for short story, 1966, 1981, 1982; Sound Stage prize, for radio play, 1975; Wieckhard prize, 1975; Australian Writers Guild prize, for radio play, 1982; Western Australia Week prize, 1983; The Age Book of the Year award, 1983, 1989; Australia Council Literature Board senior fellowship, 1984; New South Wales Premier's award, 1985; Australian Bicentennial National Literary award, 1986; Miles Franklin award, 1987; Fellowship of Australian Writers Ramsden plaque, 1988; Australian Literary Society Gold Medal award, 1991, for Cabin Fever; The France-Australia award, 1993, for translation of The Sugar Mother; The Premier of West Australia's prize, 1993, for Central Mischief; National Book Connail Banjo award, 1994, for The Georges' Wife. D. Tech.: Western Australian Institute of Technology, 1986. Officer, Order of Australia, 1988. Agent: Caroline Lurie, Australian Literary Management, 2-A Armstrong Street, Middle Park, Victoria 3206.



Palomino. Collingwood, Victoria, Outback Press, and London, Melbourne House, 1980; New York, Persea, 1987.

The Newspaper of Claremont Street. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981; New York, Viking, 1987; London, Penguin, 1988.

Mr. Scobie's Riddle. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1983; New York, Penguin, 1984; London, Penguin, 1985.

Miss Peabody's Inheritance. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1983; New York, Viking, 1984; London, Viking, 1985.

Milk and Honey. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984; New York, Persea, 1986; London, Viking, 1987.

Foxybaby. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, and New York, Viking, 1985; London, Viking, 1986.

The Well. Ringwood, Victoria, London, and New York, Viking, 1986.

The Sugar Mother. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and New York, Harper, 1988; London, Viking, 1989.

My Father's Moon. Ringwood, Victoria, and London, Viking, and New York, Harper, 1989.

Cabin Fever. Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1990; London, Sinclair-Stevenson, and New York, Harper Collins, 1991.

The Georges' Wife. Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1993.

The Orchard Thieves. Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1995.

Lovesong. Victoria, Australia, and New York, Viking, 1997.

Short Stories

Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1976.

The Travelling Entertainer and Other Stories. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1979.

Woman in a Lampshade. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1983; New York and London, Penguin, 1986.

Stories. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1984; New York, Viking, 1988; London, Penguin, 1989.

Fellow Passengers: Collected Stories, edited by Barbara Milech. Ringwood, Victoria, New York, Penguin Books, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Talking Bricks," in Summer's Tales 2, edited by Kylie Tennant. Melbourne and London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1965.

"The Rhyme," in Westerly (Nedlands, Western Australia), no. 4, 1967.

"The Sick Vote," in Quadrant (Sydney), vol. 12, no. 5, 1968.

"The Well-Bred Thief," in South Pacific Stories, edited by Chris and Helen Tiffin. St. Lucia, Queensland, SPACLALS, 1980.

"Mark F," in The True Life Story of …, edited by Jan Craney and Esther Caldwell. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1981.

"Night Report," "It's about Your Daughter Mrs. Page," and "Poppy Seed and Sesame Rings," in Frictions, edited by Anna Gibbs and Alison Tilson. Fitzroy, Victoria, Sybylla, 1982.

"Night Runner," in Room to Move, edited by Suzanne Falkiner. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1985.

"Bathroom Dance," in Transgressions, edited by Don Anderson. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1986.

"Frederick the Great Returns to Fairfields," in Portrait: A West Coast Collection, edited by B.R. Coffey and Wendy Jenkins. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1986.

"This Flickering, Foxy Man, My Father," in Vogue Australia (Sydney), October 1986.

"Mr. Berrington," in Australian Literary Quarterly, April 1987.

"Melon Jam," in The Crankworth Bequest and Other Stories, edited by Jennifer Haynes and Barry Carozzi. Adelaide, Australian Association for the Teaching of English, 1987.

"A Miracle of Confluence," in Landfall (Christchurch), no. 2, 1988.

"727 Chester Road," in Southern Review (Adelaide), vol. 21, no. 3, 1988.

"The Fellmonger," in Eight Voices of the Eighties, edited by Gillian Whitlock. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989.

"My Mother's Visit," in Westerly (Nedlands, Western Australia), vol. 34, no. 4, 1989.

"The Widow's House," in Expressway, edited by Helen Daniel. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989.

"The Goose Path," in Best Short Stories 1990, edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes. London, Heinemann, 1990; as The Best English Short Stories 1990, New York, Norton, 1990.

"The Widder Tree Shadder Murder," in Crimes for a Summer Christmas, edited by Stephen Knight. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1990.


Woman in a Lampshade (broadcast 1979). Published in Radio Quartet, Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1980.

Radio Plays:

Night Report, 1975; The Performance, 1976; The Shepherd on the Roof, 1977; The Well-Bred Thief, 1977; Woman in a Lampshade, 1979; Two Men Running, 1981; Paper Children, 1988; Little Lewis Has Had a Lovely Sleep, 1990.; Off the Air: Nine Plays for Radio. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin Books, 1995.


Diary of a Weekend Farmer. Fremantle, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993.


Travelling Notebook: Literature Notes. Fremantle, Western Australia, Arts Access, 1978.

Central Mischief. Ringwood, Victoria, Viking, 1992.


Manuscript Collections:

Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Critical Studies:

Articles by Jolley and by Laurie Clancy, in Australian Book Review (Melbourne), November 1983; Helen Garner, in Meanjin (Melbourne), no. 2, 1983; "Between Two Worlds" by A.P. Riemer, in Southerly (Sydney), 1983; "The Goddess, the Artist, and the Spinster" by Dorothy Jones, in Westerly (Nedlands, Western Australia), no. 4, 1984; Joan Kirkby, in Meanjin (Melbourne), no. 4, 1984; Martin Harrison, in The Age Monthly Review (Melbourne), May 1985; Elizabeth Jolley: New Critical Essays edited by Delys Bird and Brenda Walker, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1991; Bio-Fictions: Brian Matthews, Drusilla Modjeska, and Elizabeth Jolley by Helen Thomson. Townsville, Queensland, Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, 1994.

(1991) In my writing I try to explore and celebrate the small things in human life. I am interested in people and their needs and feelings. I work with imagination from moments of truth and awareness. Characters stay with me for years.

* * *

Elizabeth Jolley has had perhaps the most meteoric rise to fame of any Australian writer during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Apart from stories in anthologies and journals Jolley had had no work published until 1976 when, at the age of fifty-three, her collection Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories appeared under the aegis of the newly formed Fremantle Arts Centre Press. Since then her rate of publication has been as phenomenal as the rise in critical acclaim of her work. The stories were written over a period of sixteen years prior to publication in book form and show already her peculiar combination of unsentimental realism and original, often bizarre humor. The title itself suggests one of the most pervasive themes in her early work. "There's nothing like having a piece of land," a protagonist in several of the stories says. "Having a piece of land" is crucial to the characters in these works, many of whom are dispossessed or migrants or both. They have come from Vienna, where the author's father grew up, or the Black Country of England where she herself lived, or Holland from where the recurring figure of Uncle Bernard migrated. They struggle all their lives to buy the talismanic five acres only to find out that they cannot live off them. They lie and blackmail in order to stay on other people's land. Adam, in "Adam's Wife," one of the most powerful and somber stories that Jolley has written, even marries a retarded woman in order to gain possession of her miserable shack and few acres.

Jolley's second collection, The Travelling Entertainer, contains her longer stories from much the same period and shows her going back and revising and reworking the same material—themes, characters, landscapes, situations and motifs, even names. As well as the preoccupation with land again, the stories contain many elements that appear throughout her work: allusions to music (especially Beethoven), to literature (especially Tolstoy), the interest in nursing homes and hospitals, the figure of the defeated salesman, the migrants from Holland and the Black Country including Uncle Bernard again, and the first of Jolley's many treatments of lesbian relationships and of women offering themselves to other women as a form of comfort or consolation or even occasionally as a means of achieving power. A lesbian relationship is at the center of her first and least typical novel, Palomina, which was written partly in the late 1950s, partly in 1962, and then rewritten over 1970, 1973, and 1974 before finally appearing in 1980. It is a lyrical, even reverential account of a love affair between a sixty-year-old deregistered doctor and another woman barely half her age. It is totally devoid of her usual humor and sense of the incongruous and despite the then controversial subject the two women behave with such relentless nobility towards each other that they threaten to become merely boring. The Newspaper of Claremont Street is vintage Jolley, not her most profound book but a delightfully amusing and at times quite poignant one. The heroine of this novella is a cleaning woman known as Newspaper, or Weekly, because she gathers gossip from her rich clients and passes it on to the rest of the community.

Mr. Scobie's Riddle placed Jolley instantly in the forefront of Australian novelists. Set in the appalling nursing home of St. Christopher and St. Jude, the novel gives full vent to her penchant for mordant and grotesque humor; it is both hilarious and horrifying and yet its triumph is that it avoids the extremes of seeing the aged people of the home as either the victims of society's cruelty and indifference on the one hand, or merely comic eccentrics on the other. Woman in a Lampshade is an assured collection of stories, though there is little in it to surprise readers of the author's earlier work, while Miss Peabody's Inheritance is an earlier novella, rewritten, which cuts back and forth between two separate and interrelated stories. At the end of the book, the two stories, set in England and Australia, converge in an unexpected way to make a comment on a theme that increasingly concerns Jolley in her later work: the relationship between life and art, and between reality and fantasy.

Throughout the 1980s Jolley continued her prolific output, confirming her reputation and winning all major Australian literary awards at some stage or other. The short novel Milk and Honey is a strange parable and a darkly disturbing, somber book. Foxybaby, on the other hand, returns more to the bizarrely comic and almost surreal mode of Mr. Scobie's Riddle. The Well is a fusion of Grimm fairytale (there are many images and motifs to do with fairytales) and psychological thriller, about two women who lower a man down into a well after they believe they have killed him in a car accident. The significance of the well itself, as both fact and symbol, steadily expands as disturbing ripples swell out from the initial action. The title of The Sugar Mother refers to the surrogate mother used by one of the characters in this strange but delicate novel in which most of the meanings are both subterranean and suggestive, the comedy present but muted and somber.

But perhaps Jolley's finest achievements came later, with the publication of My Father's Moon and Cabin Fever. Here Jolley has returned to her roots, to what Yeats called "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart," in order to reassess her life and work. What the critic Helen Daniel said of My Father's Moon—that it is "the novel at the heart of all her work"—is equally true of its successor and the two books read in fact like the first two parts of a closely autobiographical and linked trilogy. Their protagonist is Vera or Veronica Wright and the setting is England in all the misery of its immediate postwar austerity. My Father's Moon depicts Vera as a young girl, growing up to become a student nurse during the war and becoming pregnant by a worthless doctor. By the time of Cabin Fever her lover is dead, she has given birth to a daughter and become a qualified nurse. Vera speculates at one point on "Whether things are written down or they dwell somewhere within and surface unbidden at anytime." The two novels are a record of that unbidden surfacing, a confrontation with the events of the past and all their shaping of the novelist's subsequent art.

—Laurie Clancy

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