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
… 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