Monica Elizabeth Jolley is considered one of Western Australia’s most important writers. Born in England of an English father and an Austrian mother, she was brought up in a German-speaking household and educated first at home and then at Friends’ School, a Quaker boarding school in Sibford, Oxfordshire. She completed orthopedic nursing training at St. Thomas Hospital, London, in 1943 and three years later the general nursing training at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. In 1959 she moved to Western Australia with her husband and their three children.
For the next twenty years Jolley worked as a nurse, a door-to-door salesperson, a flying domestic, and, after 1974, a part-time tutor at Western Australia’s Fremantle Arts Center. During this period she wrote much but published very little, and what she published attracted little attention until the publication in 1976 of her first book, Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories, a collection of short stories written during the sixteen preceding years. Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories is important because it reveals both Jolley’s preoccupation with certain themes and her ability to handle those themes realistically and with original, often bizarre, humor. The publication of Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories marked a turning point in Jolley’s writing career, after which Jolley became increasingly prolific. With her third novel, Mr. Scobie’s Riddle, she established herself as one of Western Australia’s more important writers.
Three years after the appearance of Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories, Jolley published a second collection of short fiction, The Travelling Entertainer, and Other Stories. Like the stories in the first collection, the longer pieces in The Travelling Entertainer, and Other Stories came from the period before she became known. This second collection reveals for the first time the extent to which Jolley’s writing tends to be work in progress. Both Five Acre Virgin, and Other Stories and The Travelling Entertainer, and Other Stories contain elements to which she returns repeatedly. This tendency to rewrite material and reuse themes and techniques is likewise evident in the novels Palomino and Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, both of which are concerned with love between women and both of which are revisions of earlier works.
One of Jolley’s favorite themes is the obsession of the dispossessed with owning land. Many of her characters are migrants or loners, as is, for example the cleaning woman in The Newspaper of Claremont Street. Called “Weekly” (or “Newspaper”) because of her penchant for spreading gossip, she labors toward the one goal of owning a few acres of her own, a goal that becomes “a daily vision”; because of this vision the money she earns scrubbing the floors of others has for Weekly “the fragrance of roses and honeysuckle and fresh country air.”
Mr. Scobie’s Riddle, which some consider her best novel, focuses on a question about life itself. Mr. Scobie is a former piano teacher who has been forced to move to a nursing hospital for the elderly, an institution operated and overseen by a matron named Price and a night attendant named Shady. This setting provides a framework for Jolley’s examination of such themes as aging, nursing homes and hospitals, loneliness and loners, music and literature and their relationship to life, writers and writing, and love between women. These themes are handled expertly, primarily because of Jolley’s humor, often a consequence of her well-developed sense of incongruity. Mr. Scobie’s Riddle, despite its setting, avoids being depressing because of Jolley’s ability to discover the ludicrous even in the grimmest of situations.