Authors: Elizabeth Jolley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English-born Australian novelist, short-story writer, and playwright


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.{$I[AN]9810001100}{$I[A]Jolley, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Jolley, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]AUSTRALIA;Jolley, Elizabeth}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Jolley, Elizabeth}{$I[tim]1923;Jolley, Elizabeth}

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.

BibliographyBird, Delys. Introduction to Off the Air: Nine Plays for Radio, by Elizabeth Jolley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995. Bird provides information on the background and the production of Jolley’s plays as well as interpretative commentary on major themes.Bird, Delys, and Brend Walker, eds. Elizabeth Jolley: New Critical Essays. North Ryde, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1991. Criticism and interpretation of Jolley’s works. Includes bibliographic references.Daniel, Helen. “A Literary Offering, Elizabeth Jolley.” In Liars: Australian New Novelists. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. In this comprehensive study, Jolley’s fiction is compared to a musical composition by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of component literary fugues. The essay appears in a book devoted to Jolley and seven other contemporary Australian novelists, and includes a primary and selected secondary bibliography.Jones, Dorothy. “Surveying the Promised Land: Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and Honey.” Semeia 88 (1999): 97-111. Analyzes Jolley’s work from a postcolonialist perspective.Kirkby, Joan. “The Spinster and the Missing Mother in the Fiction of Elizabeth Jolley.” In Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth Century Novel, edited by Laura L. Doan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Considers Jolley’s use of single women in her fiction.McCowan, Sandra. Reading and Writing Elizabeth Jolley: Contemporary Approaches. South Freemantle, Western Australia: Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 1995. A collection of essays from a variety of critical perspectives.Manning, Gerald F. “Sunsets and Sunrises: Nursing Home as Microcosm in Memento Mori and Mr. Scobie’s Riddle.” Ariel 18, no. 2 (1987): 27-43. This comparative study takes up the similarities in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori and Jolley’s Mr. Scobie’s Riddle. The two novels share setting (a nursing home) and theme (age, loneliness, and alienation), and both authors make imaginative use of tragicomic devices to enrich their tone. These works attempt to discover an answer that will lead to the acceptance of death.Salzman, Paul. Helplessly Tangled in Female Arms and Legs: Elizabeth Jolley’s Fictions. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1993. A small but useful book containing information about Jolley’s fiction. Includes bibliographic references.Thomson, Alistair. “Landscapes of Memory.” Meanjin 61, no. 3 (2002): 81-95. Compares Jolley’s own biography with the themes and material in her fiction.Turcotte, Gerry. “Sexual Gothic: Marian Engel’s Bear and Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well.” Ariel 26, no. 2 (1995): 65-94. Feminist study of Jolley’s novel analyzing her use of the gothic as a way of challenging patriarchal constraints on female experience.Westerly 31, no. 2 (1986). Entitled “Focus on Elizabeth Jolley,” this special issue of an Australian journal provides essays on various aspects of Jolley’s work, including one on the way her fiction connects to form a continuum, one on her novel Milk and Honey, and another on her handling of displaced persons. Also includes fiction by Jolley.Willbanks, Ray. “Elizabeth Jolley.” In Speaking Volumes: Australian Voices, Writers and Their Work. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. An interview with Jolley, largely on her fiction.
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