A couple of years ago I wrote of Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and Honey “I am flummoxed by this book, Jolley’s third [of 15], which doesn’t feel like an Elizabeth Jolley at all”. Recently I have been reading Jolley’s later works, and Kim at Reading Matters has reviewed The Orchard Thieves and that flummoxed feeling persists/needs to be interrogated.
It is obvious I expected Jolley to always write autofiction, but the last of those appears to have been The George’s Wife. It seems Jolley has another mode, not fantasy, but maybe a dreaminess at one remove from reality, which applies to Milk and Honey, to her later works, and to a lesser extent to a couple of others, The Newspaper of Claremont Street and The Well which have at least some grounding if not in Jolley’s life then in her geography.
An Accommodating Spouse is written in the third person, but is entirely the thoughts, memories and actions of one man, “The Professor” (of Literature) on the occasion of the twenty first birthday of his triplet daughters. You immediately ask, do I condemn Jolley for writing as a man? No, I do not. When a women writes as a man I as a man learn a lot about women, what women think about men. You however, being mostly women, can only ask does Jolley think the same things about men as I do?
As with The Orchard Thieves and Lovesong, there is very little sense of place, and in fact, less than in those two, which at least seem to provide glimpses of Perth. I think we may infer, from trips undertaken by his daughters and by the Professor’s mother, Lady Carpenter, that we are overseas from England and presumably in a city in Australia, but certainly no more than that.
The professor has a twin sister, whom he hardly knows and who plays no part in the story; he is married to Hazel and Hazel’s twin sister lives with them –
Neither of the sisters could be described as pretty or even good-looking, rather they possess a particular energy and an unusual sense of humour which takes over from time to time. Hardly humour, he tells himself whenever he recollects, if he has to, one of their frolics. There was one night when Chloë was in the bed instead of Hazel.
Chloë doesn’t respond when he strokes her and that’s the end of that. As I said, he and Hazel have triplets, now attractive young women. The professor has a woman on his staff, Florence, who has professed her love for him at some time in the past. They arranged to meet but at the last minute he had to go shopping with Hazel, and the opportunity was if not lost, at least postponed indefinitely as Dr Florence took in a female ‘companion’, Bianca. Hazel seems aware of this thing between her husband and Dr Florence and maybe even sets them up.
There are also two boys, 10 and 12 but also referred to as ‘twins’, who are meant to be adopted by Dr Florence and Bianca but who end up spending weekends with Hazel (and Chloë) and the Professor. Why they do and why they are in the story, I don’t know.
In a comment on modern youth, though not any modern youth I’ve ever met, on the night of the twenty-first the band and all the daughters’ guests declare themselves (without prior warning) to be vegetarian and teetotal.
Chloë reaches, with her muscles, into the freezer for a spinach quiche, and Hazel puts out a jug of iced water. The Professor, relieved, steps into the protection of his own thoughts and his wishes for Dr Florence to arrive. Or rather he wishes to slip away from the nightmare of scattered guests who do not seem to know any party behaviour, especially the triplets and their special guests.
At the end of the book Hazel has a tear in her eye, but says (ostensibly of the lawn which has suffered during the party), ” she is sure there isn’t anything between them which can’t be managed.”
What is the point of the story? That a dreamy professor of Literature, lost in his Classics, must come to terms with his scantily (and sometimes un-) clad daughters who, it turns out, are doing a bubble bath commercial shoot in the middle of their party? Maybe. But anyway I enjoyed it.
Elizabeth Jolley, An Accomodating Spouse, Penguin, Melbourne, 1999. 255pp.
Lisa/ANZLL’s Elizabeth Jolley page (here)