Up till now I have read only one Elizabeth Jolley, The Well, which I wrote on during my studies 12 or so years ago. I would have used my essay as the basis for a post, being shameless in my recycling, only I cannot find it. My old 3” back-up discs are not well-labelled. I also have Brian Dibble’s 2008 Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley in my TBR, if only I could get to it.
Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) was born and grew up in England, and began training as a nurse before entering a complicated marital relationship with Leonard Jolley, with whom she emigrated to Western Australia in 1959. According to Wikipedia (there is no ADB entry), they lived in the comfortable middle class Perth suburb of Claremont until 1970 when they purchased a small orchard at Woorooloo in the Ranges on the outskirts of the city.
Jolley had always been a writer, mostly of short stories, but remained unpublished until 1976. Shortly after this she began to teach one of the earlier Creative Writing courses, at WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin Uni.). Her first novel, Palomino was published in 1980. The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981), a novella really, was her second.
No one knew or cared where the Newspaper of Claremont Street went in her spare time. Newspaper, or Weekly, as she was called by those who knew her, earned her living by cleaning other people’s houses.
And so we begin. ‘Claremont Street’ is an imagined long street in Claremont, mostly residential but with a very old fashioned mixed-business grocery cum haberdashery store. Weekly lives in an old rooming house at one end, opposite an intrusive block of flats, and her clients live along its length. Weekly, who was brought up ‘in service’, cleans and helps out at dinner parties. At the end of each day she plonks down in a chair in the store and gives off a few items of news.
The story has a timeless feel which makes it difficult to place, but Weekly’s friend Nastasya was a teenager during the Russian Revolution and she and Weekly appear to be similar ages. By the time of the story Weekly is in late middle age so perhaps the setting is the early 1960s, before supermarkets had wiped out all the old grocery stores.
We learn that Weekly and her mother had been in service in England, and had emigrated to Australia when her father was killed in an accident. An older sister goes to work in the wheatbelt and we don’t hear of her again, but Weekly’s younger brother, Victor, who had been doing well at school in England, becomes a young con man, hanging around and taking what he can from Weekly and her mother, until at last, owing too much to the wrong type of people, he too disappears.
Weekly and her mother were in service in a large house. House cleaning was the only work they knew. Between them on swollen feet, they waited on Victor, cherishing him, because they knew no other way. And Victor, as he grew older, made his own life which they were obliged to hold in reverence because they did not understand it.
All the time, as Weekly works and saves, we are on the edge of her thoughts, listening in …
It was if her mother’s sigh persisted through the years, sadly and quietly, in the noise of the leaves flustering in front of the broom. Weekly added her own sigh and then shook off the thoughts. It was such a long time ago now.
Eventually Weekly gets a little car, persuades one client to give her an old car they have for sale, and another client, not to be outdone, to pay for her driving lessons, and begins to drive out into the country to seek out a little farmlet to which she might be able to afford to retire.
The fly in the ointment is that Nastasya, who has been used all her life to be waited on, has moved into Weekly’s room and Weekly doesn’t have the heart to abandon her. Twice they head for the ‘hospital’ (nearby Graylands, formerly the Hospital for the Insane) only for Weekly to turn back. So finally Weekly takes Nastasya with her, to the shack on a few acres in the hills and there she comes up with a solution to her need for isolation and quiet that is as shocking as it is funny.
Jolley’s writing is exquisite and her characterisations are brilliant. She writes with great feeling about what it is to be an older woman, but more than that, she writes with insight on what it is to be, in Australia.
Elizabeth Jolley, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 1981. Audio version, The Association for the Blind of WA, 2009, read by Coralie Ellement