The Georges’ Wife, Elizabeth Jolley

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Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) is one of our most important recent writers. Astonishingly, she doesn’t have an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, though her husband does. I’ve read some (too few) of her novels and have owned Brian Dibble’s apparently definitive biography, Doing Life (2008) for a number of years without actually getting round to reading it.

Consequently I come to The Georges’ Wife (1993) with only the scantiest background knowledge off where it fits either autobiographically or in relation to her other work, though I’m vaguely aware she was in one or more unusual marriages. I decided to maintain my ignorance and to read this book in isolation as it were, which is not really my usual position.

Jolley is quite obviously a lover of words, and in this she seems similar to Gerald Murnane, both older writers writing carefully, beautifully about their fictional younger selves. We advance in bits and pieces as the older protagonist, Vera as we eventually learn, recalls from time to time bits and pieces of her younger life.

Vera is on a ship being asked for her story; she is pushing an old Mr George in his wheelchair; she is a doctor with her own surgery; then she is acting as maid to Miss George, Mr George at university, teaching. We learn she has daughters, a six year old and a baby, was a nurse during the War and is now training to be a doctor. Vera and Mr George, 22 years her senior, grab moments to be together as lovers. We learn, not straight away, who was the father of the first daughter, who was father of the second. There was a couple before Mr and Miss George, and after. Vera’s mother and father are not happy about the relationships she enters into, but do not condemn her for the babies, or not directly.

‘Tell me about yourself, Migrant’, the rice-farm widow says to me. So I tell my widow things about myself. When I tell her about Felicity and Noël her mouth is so wide open, as she listens, I can see her gold fillings.

From Harold Avenue we turn … My heels, the heels of my shoes, newly repaired, sound on the new surface of the road, like a trotting horse, a little trotting horse. Like a toy horse, Mr George makes this observation saying, at the same time, that his feet are not making any noise on the road.

In many ways this is a novel about couples, about Vera seeing her life through her connections with couples. Her mother and father, her father’s sister and her live-in companion, Mr and Miss George, Felicity and Noël, Magda and Dr Metcalf who came before the Georges.

‘I shall always love you and want you,’ [Mr George] told me then, ‘but in the end we all do have to leave each other. Even when I do leave you, ‘he said, ‘I shall have given you myself and you will be different because of knowing me.’

As a contrast to the couples around her, Vera always makes a third, but is fascinated by her opposite, widows, who are singles, Gertrude who came before the story starts, her mother’s friend, Mrs Pugh, the ‘rice’-widow on the ship (who has actually moved on to sheep farming), Miss George, who she has to be reminded is actually a spinster.

Is there a story? Sort of. Vera completes her training and gains a residency at the old hospital in the industrial Midlands town where her parents live and where she was originally a nurse. She falls in with Felicity and Noël, Cambridge educated ‘hippies’ in a dirty, falling down farm house on a scrap of pasture between factories and coal mining slag heaps. Her children back at the Georges’, cared for by Miss George and an au pair, and later in boarding school. From Noël she catches TB – hard to remember how prevalent it once was, and how fearful my father was of us boys catching it – and spends a year in a sanitorium.

We discover she is on board a ship to Australia where she and Mr George have separately been offered positions, and much of the second half of this (quite short) book has Vera reflecting on her friendship with the widow and Mr George’s discomfort with that. In later years Vera thinks as much about the Widow as she does about Mr George, though she only sees her one more time, a brief idyll on the widow’s sheep station.

We end almost as we started, Vera pushing Mr George along the now-familiar streets of  an unnamed Australian city and Vera has come, belatedly, to a revelation.

We, Mr George and I, are a couple.
‘We do not seem to be like a couple.’ I say.
‘Vera, what is it you are saying? What did you say, Vera?’ Mr George wants to know.
‘We do not,’ I tell him, ‘seem to be like a couple.’
‘Why do you bother, Vera,’ Mr George replies, ‘with such an ugly word?’

This is astonishing writing that captures exactly the quality of remembering incidents in detail but in an order that conforms only to some inner logic of its own.

 

Elizabeth Jolley, The Georges’ Wife, Penguin, Melbourne, 1993

see also:
Lisa at ANZLitLovers Elizabeth Jolley page (here)
Meg’s guest review at ANZLitLovers (here)

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26 thoughts on “The Georges’ Wife, Elizabeth Jolley

    • I’ve never been offered a load to Tassie, I might have to come as a tourist. Your bookshop sounds irresistible. And check Lisa’s E Jolley page, you may have bought a book she doesn’t have a review for yet.

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      • Hobart has several excellent book stores. Fullers, an independent shop with a great cafe and staff turns 100 yrs old next year and another excellent second hand and some new books is Cracked and Spineless. He has a funny fb page full,of young university students and others who follow him. Battery Point has Kookaburra books. There are probably five or six long running book shops here. Tassie has a lot of readers especially in the Hobart area. Let me know if you get here and I’ll provide a book shop tour.

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  1. Hi Bill, this is one I haven’t read, but some of the plot points seemed familiar, so I think that must come from my reading of the Dibble bio.
    It’s disappointing that Jolley’s legacy seems to be fading: I have been searching my Op Shops thoroughly in my quest to find out-of-print novels by Rebecca West, and I went to four yesterday, plus two more last Tuesday. I didn’t find any West, but I didn’t see any Jolley either. Where have all those Jolleys that were in the best sellers lists gone?
    I will add your review to the Jolley page at mine:)

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  2. This part of her trilogy featuring Vera, which started with the unforgettable My father’s moon. I haven’t read the other two, Cabin Fever or The George’s Wife. But I have them.

    Anyhow, I agree with your re her writing. Whenever I return to her, I fall in love with her all over again.

    BTW Rest assured she WILL appear in ADB. They have a practice/rule that the person must have been dead for a certain number of years. They are currently working on people who died between 1991 and 1995. Leonard Jolley died in 1994 and his entry only went live last year I think. (I know a bit about this because I have written – a decade ago now – an entry for them.)

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    • I suppose I didn’t think ADB were prejudiced against her, but for important people shouldn’t the bios be ready waiting, like newspaper obits. I might be too old to make use of it if I have to wait another 10 years!

      Anyway. I’ve looked through my unread Australians, who get less and less ordered every time I add to them, and I don’t seem to have those two earlier Jolleys so had better head off down to Freo. (if only I could escape from under trucking paperwork).

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      • Fair question Bill, but ADB sees itself as a bit more academic than a newspaper obituary. Therefore I think they need the space of time to let the dust settle to enable a better whole of life assessment. I think that’s the reason. Of course it could just be that there’s a backlog of people to write about and they are 20 years behind, but I think it’s more than that.

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    • I was going to ask how a person gets into the official book. I’ve read several times on this blog that a husband was included, but his writer wife was not. It’s interesting that someone must be dead a good while to officially count.

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      • There are many women in the ADB. Pretty well all the early feminists, last time I checked, and early women writers for example. It is run out of one of our top universities and is rigorous in its processes. I think any person of note in any field will be there in time!

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      • Thanks Sue. The Q and the A appeared in my in box while I was sleeping (en route from Perth to Adelaide). I’ve got nothing to add Melanie but yes I prefer the ADB entry – over wiki – if there is one and grumble when there is not.

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  3. Thanks for another good review, Bill. The circularity of the novel sounds like ‘The Well’, & the layering of Jolley’s stories made much more sense after I read Susan Swingler’s ‘The House of Fiction’. It wasn’t particularly well written, but it was illuminating.

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