Elizabeth Jolley

People are usually surprised when they discover I write so much of my work in longhand. Elizabeth Jolley surprised even me when she said she wrote her works with a fountain pen, not filled internally, but by regular dipping in ink.

It gave me a strongly visceral sense of the intimacy that hand-writers seem to need: her careful forming of words, and then phrases, her neat commas and full stops (Elizabeth neglected semi-colons: well, she actually refused them) and it suggested the rhythm of her mind moving ahead of the actual words, off into the literary territory she made her own.

For twenty years that careful, brilliant writing went unpublished. She posted manuscripts off and waited, sometimes for twelve months, only to be told there was no likelihood of publication. Again and again she persevered with this (I’m inclined to say suffered, but she was stoic and needs no rhetorical wrench on this) until eventually Fremantle Arts Centre Press took her first collection of short stories, then another, and so Elizabeth Jolley, the author, began startling readers and writers across Australia. Twenty or more books followed very quickly, as previous manuscripts were re-written and then new works and new directions developed. She had become a phenomenon. And she became one of the most read and most loved novelists in Australia.

Years later she discovered that publishers used pretty much the same few men (invariably) as manuscript assessors and these men did not like her womanly frankness and her wry take on fictional characterisation, and nor did they like her subtext of lesbian relationships. She had the laugh on them. Her work became famous for its eccentricity and mordant humour, for an innocence shifting into far more worldly intimacies. Her style played directly into the grotesque and she soon became known for a unique blend of the mortifying and the humorous, sometimes within the same few sentences. Reading her was sometimes to feel sad, and then amused, and then to be caught into a kind of knowing but pleasurable embarrassment. She wrote like no-one else. Doubles seemed to occur everywhere in her work: idiosyncratic and comically exaggerated characters who were oddly then deeply unsettling, a breezy sort of satire that turned far darker on re-consideration. Mirth and malice. Her weirdly gothic novel Milk and Honey confused some readers with its intense focus on damage and strangeness, but many loved it. I did. Her novel of parable as rural gothic – The Well – won her the Miles Franklin Award and, incidentally, stalled a manuscript I had been mulling over. Mine appeared much much later, called The Well Mouth, and in a one review of it Elizabeth’s novel is alluded to. Her later shift into a fiction more closely based on her life, beginning with My Father’s Moon, also lost her some critical support but I am not alone in thinking these later novels are probably her finest achievements.

Most people who knew her also knew of another double: the incisive and astute observer behind the public personae of the gentle and even rather batty old lady. She was famous for this. She would call everyone Dear and smile sweetly and when she wanted to she would pretend to have missed the point of some conversation, or public question, or even, sometimes, of a critical question made to her in an interview. It was a mask but it was also a sign of an essential modesty. She was a kind person. She enjoyed the simple loyalties and privacies of friendship. She delighted in her children and grandchildren. She devoted herself to Leonard, her increasingly arthritic husband; and when he eventually became bed-ridden she even swapped her writing routine from night writing – these preferences are stubbornly adhered to in most of us – to the morning, rising at 4.30 am to begin. She was, after all, the person who said: “It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone will sleep.”

She and I first met at the 1980 Adelaide Writers Festival. We were both attending our first national writers’ event and were equally excited and – being beginners in the social swirl – equally lost. During the week she heard that her first novel Palomino was in print. I well remember her depth of pleasure, her sense of relief, too, I think. A few years later, thanks to Brian Dibble and Ross Bennett, we were both teaching Creative Writing at Curtin University. At the end of every semester Ross Bennett would gather the Creative Writing staff down at a small Thai restaurant in Fremantle where we would have hilarious evenings, often with Elizabeth playing yet another self, the wicked raconteur. During those years I wrote what was the first Australian review of Patrick Susskind’s very strange (if not perverse) novel Perfume. It was an era of judgemental attitudes and I was expecting a backlash for having written an approving review of what was, let’s face it, a story about a man who murdered pre-pubescent girls in order to distil their body scent. A few weeks later I received a letter addressed to Salom the Poet. Ah, Elizabeth (she always addressed me thus. Alas, no more…). Inside, hand-written, with her fountain pen dipped in ink, she said how much she had enjoyed the novel and how she wished she had written it and, failing that, she wished she had written my “wonderful review” of it. That is what Elizabeth Jolley was like. Her death has no double – it is just sad.

 Note: Well, I still write poems in longhand but after the labour of my two earliest novels (my apprentice work in fiction) I’ve changed to writing novels directly into the computer. Odd thing: writing first drafts on a keyboard makes my poems worse and my prose better.