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