The Georges’ Wife, Elizabeth Jolley

6913835.jpg

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)

Advertisements

Elizabeth Jolley, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

ANZLitLovers Elizabeth Jolley Week June 4-11 2018

Image result for Elizabeth jolley images
Wikipedia: date, photographer not stated

Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) gets a chapter in Hughes-d’Aeth’s account of Western Australian Wheatbelt writers, Like Nothing on this Earth (2017) mostly on the strength of her most famous novel, The Well (1986). I wrote an essay on The Well for my degree, maybe 12 years ago, but it has been lost in moving house and at least two computer upgrades. Disappointing. I like to reuse my material and I had spent a season carting grain in the area where the book is set just a few years earlier.

Jolley, who had grown up in “the Black Country of the English Midlands”, moved to Western Australia with her husband and three small children in 1959. Hughes-d’Aeth says that although she had been working on stories and novels all her adult life, her formal career as a writer dates from the late 1960s – her mid 40s – when she began to have stories published in Westerly and Quadrant. Her first novel came out in 1980, her second, The Newspaper of Claremont Street – which draws on the author’s own life in Claremont and her search for a patch of land in the country to call her own – in 1981. The Well, 5 years later, was her seventh.

The Jolleys purchased their 5 acre hobby farm in 1970, at Wooroloo, 60 kms out of Perth in the Darling ranges. Hilly and well treed country in the main, on the Great Eastern Highway out of town, and still 50 km short of Wheatbelt country. Her account of the purchase and her feelings for the land are in Diary of a Weekend Farmer (1993).

Jolley first became acquainted with the Wheatbelt in the 1970s when she was roped into supporting an initiative for the Fremantle Arts Centre where she was giving classes in creative writing, which involved her in sending out books and supporting material to discussion groups in the country then in meeting with the groups as a travelling tutor. Jolley was obviously fascinated by her long, lonely drives

All the miles of wheat in all directions, folded and mended in places, are pulled together as if seamed, by little dark lines of trees, as if they are embroidered with rich green wool or silk on a golden background. In the design of the embroidery are some silent houses and sheds. Narrow places, fenced off and watered sparingly, produce a little more of the dark green effect. At the intervals, there are unsupervised windmills, turning and clicking with a kind of solemn and honest obedience. [Jolley, A Small Fragment of the Earth]

Jolley referenced her little farm in her first collection of (linked) short stories, Five Acre Virgin (1976). The first story to have a recognisable Wheatbelt setting was “The Long Distance Lecture” which appeared in 1979 in her second collection.

The road is well made and the wheat is standing in that golden stillness just before the harvest

contrasts with

… the township at dusk seemed to be a desolate scattered poverty; a shabbiness of blistered little houses, stacks of poles and empty drums gathered near a closed petrol station, and a wheat silo alongside a deserted overgrown railway line.

The paddocks and the townships it seems standing respectively for life and death. Jolley always seemed to see the Wheatbelt in gothic terms, beauty underlain by isolation and death, and overtly models this story on Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1907) in which a man travelling in arctic wilderness waits too long to stop and build the fire which might save his life.

She expanded on the literary lecturer in the Wheatbelt theme in the novel Foxybaby (1985) but it is in The Well that she brings the Wheatbelt to life.

Hester Harper has grown old on her father’s wheat sheep farm outside an unnamed town which is probably based on Brookton on the edge of the Wheatbelt closest to Perth. The Harper property is one of the larger farms in the district and Hester has proved a competent manager. But when she takes on a young woman, Katherine, as a servant/companion and her father dies, she abandons her roles as farm manger and pillar of local society in her infatuation for Katherine, gives up her homestead to the Bordens and their brood of sons, and takes up a little cottage on the edge of the property.

Coming home late from a dance, Kathy driving, they hit a shape in the dark, a man, a man who has broken into the cottage and stolen it later turns out Hester’s wad of cash. Hester dumps his body in the disused well they use for rubbish and from there it gets very gothic indeed.

For Jolley the endless fields of wheat are both isolating and lawless, providing a space, as in many of her works, in which women may operate free of men, free of authority. Veronic Brady, nun, writer, and ABC Commissioner points out “the tension in [Jolley’s] characters between the wish to exclude masculine agency from their lives, on the one hand, and a need, on the other, to find something of themselves in this masculine agency.” [Brady, Elizabeth Jolley, New Critical Essays]

Let me finish with a quote from Jolley, who despite drawing so heavily on her own experience insists, like Miles Franklin after My Brilliant Career, and countless others, that her work is fiction:

My fiction is not autobiographical but, like all fiction, it springs from moments of truth and awareness, from observation and experience. I try to develop the moment of truth with the magic of the imagination. I try to be loyal to this moment of truth and to the landscape of my own region or the specific region in which the novel or story is set. I have always felt that the best fiction is regional. [Jolley, Learning to Dance]

I know not everyone agrees with me, but “loyal to this moment of truth and to the landscape” (and good writing!) is what I most look for in a novel and it is what Jolley delivers in spades.

 

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, Like Nothing on this Earth, UWA Press, Perth, 2017

see also:
Hughes-d’Aeth on the Wheatbelt (here)
Hughes-d’Aeth on Jack Davis (here)
my review of The Newspaper of Claremont Street (here)
ANZLitLovers Elizabeth Jolley page (here)