Lovesong, Elizabeth Jolley

The edition I actually read was not the paperback pictured above but a Viking hardback with the most luxurious-feeling semi gloss paper and a little woven bookmark. Which means I couldn’t cart it around with me, for fear of damage, but I’ve had some time off and so got it finished.

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) as we all know, was born in Birmingham, England where she worked as a nurse, had a complicated married life, came to Western Australia, where she bought a little farm in the hills outside Perth, and quite late, began to teach creative writing and publish novels. This is important to keep in mind because it usually forms the basis of what she writes about. But not this time.

Lovesong (1997), one of her later works, is a difficult work to come to grips with, set in an unnamed (Australian) city with a male protagonist who appears to have been released into the community from an institution for the criminally insane (that is, for people who commit a crime and plead mental illness, or sometimes for people who are at risk of committing a crime, usually sexual). I found it very slow to get into, though I gradually became engrossed, and I think Jolley may have been concentrating on imagining/reproducing the thought processes of someone who was a bit bewildered to find himself where he was. That is, the problem she set herself was not ‘how do I tell this story?’, but ‘how can I best write what/how this man is thinking?’.

I still haven’t read Brian Dibble’s biography of Jolley, Doing Life, but I thought I should at least look up what he has to say about Lovesong. Jolley said, in an interview with Ramona Koval, “she was inspired to write the book by work she had done with women inmates at Perth’s Bandyup Prison and male prisoners in Fremantles’s maximum security jail; she was moved when she thought of the loneliness such men faced when they returned to the community.”

Dibble writes: “While some readers might regard Jolley’s last three books [Lovesong, An Accommodating Spouse, An Innocent Gentleman] as chaotic, lacking structure and control and more, what is remarkable about them is how they recapitulate Jolley’s entire oeuvre from three different points of view, the first focusing on the sexual outsider and the other two on the family.”

Dalton Foster, still lingering in his doorway, straightens his tie and wondering why his mother and aunt Dalton should come, all at once, into his mind, goes downstairs in search of the dining room and breakfast. He has not thought of his mother or aunt Dalton for some time. Perhaps the memories are a part of the experience of coming back into the community after working meticulously for half his life through a sentence and a cure in various special institutions.

This is not quite the beginning of the book. We have already spent some time, half a dozen pages, in Foster’s mind as he idly considers music, his mother and his aunt, and his new lodgings. And this is how we continue – we meet Mrs Porter, the landlady, and her lodgers; we meet another family, do-gooders who take in Foster one night a week; a young girl, in rags, in the park where he walks, who Foster follows -yes, that’s as creepy as it sounds – dreaming of befriending, helping. But all along Foster’s mind returns to his childhood, his ineffectual father, his mother, his father’s sister, aunt Dalton, who form a strange menage mostly ganged up on Foster senior; and to his years in Cambridge, studying, singing; circling round to/lightly touching on the choirboy whose approach seemingly leads to his imprisonment.

It bugs me that the novel has no definite location. It could be Perth – the lodging house backing on to the rail line in the relatively poor inner suburb of North Perth; his walks through parks and to the consul’s house in a better suburb, maybe Subiaco; the homeless sleeping under the bridges where a major roadway crosses from the north bank, to an island and then to the south bank of the river, which sounds like the Swan and Herrison Island. But Jolley doesn’t say, and she has “mile long” grain trains thundering behind the house, which is nice image but the suburban Fremantle line has probably not been used by freight trains for more than 50 years*.

Foster’s father was a consul for trade – his wife and sister, who formed a couple, with Foster’s father a distant third, were very contemptuous of “trade” – so they moved constantly, though never apparently to the most interesting European cities, and for a while were in Australia, in this city, and living in the same house as the do-gooder family, not that he tells them, or barely anything else either. Just sits quietly in the company of the teenage children, staying over sometimes on a bed made up on a sofa.

There is no plot, just a short chain of events – the two men in the room next to his introduce themselves, and may follow him when he walks in the park in the dark; Mrs Porter attempts to set him up with the ever hopeful Miss Vale; he makes a number of attempts to follow the little girl, eventually successfully, which leads to him being beaten up by the homeless community under the bridge; the teenage boy of the do-gooder family stands before him naked, apparently in invitation, and he flees; things come to a head with Miss Vale.

He is deeply sorry now. Sorry for Miss Vales because he is silently irritated with her the whole time. He is sorry that he has no qualities fit for a bridegroom. His dealings with women have always been mainly by accident.

Elizabeth Jolley is a stunning writer, and she slowly immerses us in the mind of this unlikeable person who nevertheless engages our interest and sometimes our sympathy. Your heart is constantly in your mouth in fear that he will do something grotesque, which thank goodness, he eventually does not.


Elizabeth Jolley, Lovesong, Viking/Penguin, Melbourne, 1997. 240pp. ex libris J. Terry

see also:
All our E. Jolley reviews at ANZLitLovers’ Elizabeth Jolley page (here)

*Railway stuff: A dual gauge rail line for freight was constructed through Perth’s outer southern suburbs in the 1960s to connect the ports at Fremantle and Kwinana (south-west of the city), via the freight terminal at Kewdale, to Midland Junction (east of the city) for all the narrow gauge wheatbelt lines, and on to Kalgoorlie to meet the standard gauge Trans Australia line. It is possible that prior to that, freight from the country came to the wharves at Fremantle via the city. I can think of a couple of earlier literary mentions of Perth’s rail system. One in Xavier Herbert’s memoir Disturbing Element when their furniture was brought from a country town to Fremantle by train (Herbert’s father worked on the railways); and when DH Lawrence travelled up from Fremantle to the city in a wood-fired steam train). And of course there’s the Dorothy Hewett poem In Midland Where the Trains go by.


26 thoughts on “Lovesong, Elizabeth Jolley

  1. I hadn’t heard of Jolley before but this sounds interesting. I find it difficult to read novels where there is a child in danger (which is sounds like there is here) though knowing ultimately that things turn out okay might make it easier to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the interview I quoted above the interviewer (Romona Koval) refers to Foster as a paedophile and Jolley very smartly slaps her down. He never gets very close to the girl, and we are never told why he was imprisoned initially, though of course Jolley gives his hints.

      Jolley was a much loved writer who only began writing novels in middle age. As I say, she had a very complex love life, which she writes about, though I’m not sure which of the novels are more autobiographical than the others. The George’s Wife which I reviewed some time ago covers both her time as a nurse in England and her unusual attitude to marriage. I really hope you give her a try.


      • The Vera Wright trilogy which includes The George’s wife, Cabin fever, and My father’s moon are all regarded to be autobiographical.

        Like Kate, this “Your heart is constantly in your mouth in fear that he will do something grotesque, which thank goodness, he eventually does not” got me in.

        But, I would have been in anyhow. I’ve read An accommodating spouse, and An innocent gentleman (aren’t her titles great) so must read this. This “she was moved when she thought of the loneliness such men faced when they returned to the community” just screams Jolley to me.


      • Thankyou for identifying the trilogy.
        Jolley does very well to make us want to follow and indeed feel sorry for someone so outwardly unlikeable. If, and Jolley doesn’t say so, but if Foster’s crime was to have sex with a choir boy then it is amazing to consider in how many older books by gay men that would have been something to boast about.

        Jolley must have been having an off day when she named The Well.

        I hope you have retained a copy of Lovesong to read yourself. If you want this one back just say and it will be in the mail pronto.


    • I do think you should try her. Much of her work at least touches on her own life so there’s probably at least one set partly in Birmingham – Vera in The George’s Wife begins her career in a hospital in an ‘industrial Midlands town’. The Well, her best known, is a psychological drama set on a farm east of Perth WA; but I’d say start with The Newspaper of Claremont Street (“The Newspaper” is a gossipy woman), a novella set in the streets near UWA where Jolley worked and on the little hobby farm she bought in the hills outside Perth.


  2. I get so frustrated with character-driven novels, especially if the characters are interesting. All I keep thinking is, “Make this person DO SOMETHING.” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. says every character needs to want something, even if it is only a glass of water. I agree. I always wonder what’s the problem with having a character study of a person who’s trying to do something, even if it’s walk across town or find their missing cat or whatever. I am curious about the author’s more autobiographical works, however; you mention she was a creative writing teacher, and that, of course, caught my attention.


    • I’m constructing an answer for you from a number of sources: –
      Jolley (1923-2007) began writing early in her twenties, but was not recognised until much later. She had many rejections by publishers, 39 in one year alone. Delys Bird suggests that it was the post-modern features of her writing – “motifs repeated within and between novels and short stories, self-reflexivity and open-endedness” – that made it hard for them to be published at that time.
      In the 1960s some of her stories were accepted by the BBC World Service and Australian journals, but her first collection, Five Acre Virgin was not published until 1976.
      Jolley taught creative writing at various tertiary institutions from the 1970s and was made a Professor of Creative Writing at Curtin University (Perth) in 1998.
      With the publication of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance and Mr Scobie’s Riddle (both 1983) her recognition and reputation immediately soared.
      [That’s the first time I’ve constructed a proper timeline for Jolley, I’ll have to use this comment in a subsequent post.]

      I’ve been half an hour at this answer, looking through various books and websites, and I still don’t know what to recommend. I had it in my mind that there was a trilogy of works dealing with her young life in England and her complicated marriage, but if there are, I can’t identify them. So, try The George’s Wife and see what you think.
      Meanwhile I have an excellent collection of works by and about her and perhaps I should review next Central Mischief, a collection of Jolley essays on the theme, I think, ‘why I write’.


      • Oh, I love reading author’s answers to the question “Why do I write?” I get tired of folks who response, “Because I’m a writer.” What a lazy answer. Many of us want to be a writer and end up with a stomachache just sitting at the desk too long thinking about being judged, which ideas matter, and if our stories “say” anything. The one I’ve worried the least about is whether my stories “say” something.

        Thanks for putting so much time and thought into your answer. I’m glad you can use it again because I feel bad that you spent half an hour responding to me. You are a Serious book blogger, sir.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I probably am ‘serious’. I opened my reply then went trawling, cutting, pasting to construct an response, constantly sidetracked, as much for my benefit as yours. And of course Sue just answers straight off the top of her head.

        Don’t worry about the half hour, I always say (and write) whatever is at the front of my brain without thinking ‘does that sound like a complaint, an accusation?’ Milly’s constant reproachful looks have slowed me down a little. The number of times I’ve had to ask, ‘did I offend your friend?’ Anyway, I’m between jobs so have half hours to burn.


      • You’ve studied and taught writing, so you can see the bones of a story more or less automatically. I read like I drive, just carried along without knowing what’s going on underneath. I have to be forced to look back at a story and say ‘Oh, she was sense, she was sensibility’. It don’t come natural.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. She fascinates me and I wish it was a little easier to locate her work overseas (or, that i could read e-books). Not long ago I found a collection of her short fiction at a college booksale and was absolutely delighted. But I do enjoy her novels (which all seem to be fairly short, even so). This is not one I recognize, but it feels very Jolley (and typically un-jolly).


  4. My brother is the opposite, he reads only ebooks because he can turn up the print size. You would think Jolley was good enough to be represented in all English speaking libraries, but that is just my insularity speaking. One day I’m going to have to do her justice and read all her novels from first to last.


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