Milk and Honey, Elizabeth Jolley

Brona’s AusReadingMonth Bingo, November 2019 – [WA]


I am flummoxed  by this book, Jolley’s third, which doesn’t feel like an Elizabeth Jolley at all and in fact reminds me quite a lot of Janette Turner Hospital’s (20 years later) Orpheus Lost (review) – the music, the weird family isolated in a house in the country, the locked up family member.

The protagonists in this novel are Austrians, or of Austrian descent, migrants to an unnamed and relatively un-Australian country, to escape the Nazis. I can’t claim any expertise re Jolley, but I have found those of her books that I have read relatively ‘local’, deriving from her living in Perth and owning a little farm in the hills. Milk and Honey (1984) is not like that at all. The atmosphere of the novel is European Gothic and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been started or at least conceived before she left England (in 1959 when she was 34).

Skip-reading Brian Dibble’s biography of Jolley, Doing Life, I see that in the 1960s Jolley was “revising old novels”, including The Prince of a Fellow which became Milk and Honey, and selling door to door –

Jolley felt that, whether selling to the ladies of the Tuart Club or to the women of Swanbourne, Watkins work was essentially awful, but she knew how such work brought her in contact with the sort of people and the kind of experiences she wrote about best. (Dibble, 2008, p.152)

Jacob, the central character in Milk and Honey is a musician, a cellist, and his love interest Madge is a violinist, but Madge is supported by her door-to-door salesman husband, who ends up taking Jacob on as a trainee/assistant, and the products – soaps and bath crystals and so on – that they sell, or more often don’t, are pretty much the products Jolley was flogging for Watkins.

The story is narrated by Jacob, who seems barely aware of what is happening around him. His mother dead, his vintner father sends him as a teenaged boy to live with the ageing Heimbachs, Leopold and his sisters Heloise and Rosa, to go to school, which he doesn’t for very long, and to study music. Leopold has two children, Waldemer who is simple, and Louise, 3 or 4 years older than Jacob. The Heimbachs had left a prosperous life in Austria, escaping first to Switzerland and then on. Leopold’s wife and the children’s mother had been abandoned, without comment, because she was Jewish.

Jacob’s father dies. His uncle and aunt sell the vineyards to property developers and Jacob is wealthy, though much of his money, that which isn’t siphoned off by his uncle and aunt, is kept in trunks at the Heimbach’s. Because Jacob is so unaware, the novel has an unreal quality, and much of what is happening around and to him we have to infer.

Jacob’s principal interest is to have sex with Madge, an older woman in the provincial orchestra in which Jacob plays. All the novel revolves around him finding ways to get away with her for an hour or a day.

Meanwhile, Jacob retaliates to be being teased by Waldemar by punching him, and Waldemar falls down, dead it seems, of heart failure, though it later turns out he has been hidden in the attic where he is cared for by his aunts and (a little too lovingly) by his sister. Louise and Jacob become engaged and subsequently married without any intention on Jacob’s part.

Was I waking? was I dreaming? Of course I remembered I was supposed to marry Louise. It had been arranged that day I became the owner of my father’s land.

I was a bird in a snake’s eye. I had never thought it could be avoided. If I thought anything, it was, ‘Not Yet. Not Yet.’

This afternoon I had been on the point of merging into Madge but now I was married. To Louise.

The wedding night is a fiasco, they subsequently sleep separately, but Jacob is gradually made aware that Louise is pregnant.

The climax builds as Jacob uses his money to attempt to find a way to spend more time with Madge while continuing to live within the constraints imposed by the Heimbachs. Leopold dies. It becomes increasingly obvious that Heloise and Rosa know about Madge.

There’s a fire, foreshadowed from the beginning, when the novel opens with Jacob and Louise living in poverty with their daughter. Louise working in a factory, Jacob working with Norman, Madge’s husband.

As Dibble writes, “There is no end in sight to this tangled web of dependency and deception in the name of love.” But did I like it? Not really.


The barbarians are inside the gates. UWA Press, Australia’s second oldest university press, is to cease publishing. Yes, the state (Labor) government continues for now to support Fremantle Press formerly Fremantle Arts Centre Press, but for how long.

Jess White wrote today on Facebook: “This is absolutely dreadful news: The University of Western Australia has decided to shut the doors on @uwapublishing (my publisher!). This press is run by the wonderful, vibrant Terri-Ann White who is a smart & savvy businesswoman, & who produces beautiful books. As well as this, who will publish WA’s stories now??” and links to a story in The Australian (which I will leave you to find, or not, for yourselves).


Elizabeth Jolley, Milk and Honey, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1984

Brian Dibble, Doing Life, UWAP, Perth, 2008

More Elizabeth Jolley reviews, including mine, on ANZLitLovers’ Elizabeth Jolley page here

21 thoughts on “Milk and Honey, Elizabeth Jolley

  1. I must comb through my TBR to find if I have any Australian lit – this has reminded me to do that. I won’t find this book on there, though, and I must admit I’m glad!


    • I’ve seen the petition in a number of places in Facebook (Jess, Westerly, ALS) but haven’t signed it. I’ve signed a few refugee ones and then got chased about other stuff for ages. Politicians, including the Greens, don’t know how to let go. Oz Lit is dead to the universities and it is pointless to pretend otherwise.


      • I know, it drives you crazy if you sign a petition and then get pestered nonstop for all these other causes that their algorithm thinks you’ll support. But I have successfully unsubscribed from in the past and if I can’t do it this time I’ll set up my own ‘algorithm’ and program it all to end up in my junk mail.
        With so many things, action seems futile, but I always think, if I’m asked in the future what I did, I want to be able to say, I did what I could, even if it wasn’t much.


      • I won’t say to my kids “I did what I could”, they do far more than I ever did. There were always 3 options as far as I was concerned: Live the revolution. Live an ordinary middle class life. Drop out. And I chose to drop out.


  2. Yes, I felt like you Bill, but I signed it, because like Lisa I have successfully unsubscribed from before so reckon I can do it again.

    Bill, this sounds very Jolley to me – the Gothic-ness, the music, the love triangle, and yes the Europeanness. Her family heritage was European as I recollect, and My father’s moon was set in England. Also some of her Australian books, like MissPeabody, has characters going to Europe?

    That said, I didn’t read to the end of your review because like Lisa, this book is on my TBR pile. I decided a while ago not to read all Jolleys because I wanted to savour them, but somehow as a result they keep getting relegated.


    • I could sign. I could protest the closure of UWAP. I could lament that Melbourne University Publishing is now restricted to text books. I could cry about Sydney abandoning its Chair of Aust.Lit. but what would be the point. Universities have been corporatised just as effectively as every other government function and serve the interests of no one but donors to political parties, ie, the rich, who have no interest in and reasons to oppose, unfettered discussion. Sign. Sign. Sign. It will make you feel better but the world we thought we had has gone and will not return in our lifetimes or our children’s.


      • The world we thought we had was a fleeting fiction.

        Some would say it’s apathetic to give up! Others would say petitions do nothing. I say nothing because I don’t have the energy to do more.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Your description of the novel was so wild that I was surprised that you ended by saying you didn’t like it! What went wrong, Bill?

    I have to say, the fact that the lovers play different instruments is a good thing. Many excellent musicians I learned from when I was still studying violin were married couples who played different instruments, such as violin and viola. If they played the same instrument, boy howdy, were they just asking for trouble. The competition for first chair of a section is about as vicious as dancers and their psychotic antics to be the lead part.


    • I guess that is true of any couple who are in the same profession, very difficult not to be jealous when one of you gets a promotion or plum posting before the other. Not the problem here – Jacob never really stops being a child. His desire for Madge is childish, they way he is cossetted and manipulated is childish. The theme of the novel to a large extent is his failure to come of age, and your question has made me realise that is what I found unsatisfactory about it.


  4. Something about Jolley always rubs me the wrong way, & just your review of her book was enough to make the hackles on the back of my neck rise!
    So bravo for finishing a book you’re not sure if you liked.
    And thanks for another fascinating contribution to #ausreadingmonth 😊


    • I’m enjoying #ausreadingmonth. I have books for all the states and territories now except Tas – hopefully I’ll think of something on the last day. Maybe my library has Flame Tip (very topical!). I’ve mostly enjoyed those few Jolley’s I’ve read, though Sue, above, suggests this one is typical. I’ll just have to read more and find out.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Brona. Why? I find her writing is so interesting because she tackles complex human emotions and relationships. Actually, thinking about her now, I can see why, she and Garner related well. They are both fearless in their own way about the less appealing and/or less conformist sides of human relationships – the selfishness, the jealousy, the infidelity – but also the accommodations. And both use spare, lean prose.

      I guess I have just explained why?

      Liked by 1 person

      • For me it was an issue of trust. I didn’t believe her stories. I wasn’t surprised to hear about her complicated personal life afterwards. But I was only in my 20’s – perhaps 30 years of reading later, I might see more of the compromise or accomodations instead of being annoyed!


      • You might, Brona. I was in my mid-30s when I read her and loved her offbeat or skewed view of people and the world. So different … about how alienated people can feel. I’ve always been drawn to people feeling alienated I think.

        Liked by 1 person

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