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