Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Celebrating Elizabeth Jolley

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Celebrating Elizabeth Jolley

Article excerpt

When Elizabeth Jolley died in February 2007, the world lost one of the most distinctive literary voices of the late twentieth century. Jolley left a wide-ranging body of work--novels, short stories, radio plays, essays, poetry--unified by her persistent concern with social and sexual outsiders, with predators and victims. Her writing renders the pain of loneliness and loss with her characteristic wildly dark humour.

Angela Carter described Jolley's comic method as juxtaposing 'profound feeling with low farce, high camp with agonized lyricism', and she wrote of Jolley's fiction that it 'shines and shines and shines, like a good deed in a naughty world' (36, 37), a phrase which captures well that particular purity of heart that Jolley's work conveys, and that is especially evident in the autobiographical trilogy of the early 1990s. And her last novels reveal yet other emotional and linguistic registers. As well as these literary gifts, Jolley also bequeaths to us the example of her courage and persistence, when for years her work was rejected and yet she continued to write and to innovate, and never gave up. It is well known that she did not publish a book until 1976, when she was in her fifties. In 1983, when she turned sixty, she published the two novels that would first bring her national and international attention: Miss Peabody's Inheritance and Mr Scobie's Riddle (winner of The Age Book of the Year and the Western Australian Literary Week awards). Eighteen years and almost as many books later, her final novel was published in 2001. In 2006 there appeared a miscellany, Learning to Dance, edited by her friend and former agent, Caroline Lurie. Jolley said once, memorably, that she was known for her 'indecent writing' and that there was 'an indecent amount of it!' (Jolley).

There is no other writer like her, here or elsewhere, though British and American obituaries mentioned possible comparisons with Grace Paley, Muriel Spark, Flannery O'Connor and Barbara Pym; or Shirley Jackson as another exponent of the 'female Gothic'; or Edgar Allan Poe, and even Evelyn Waugh. Certainly she was a figure in the international literary world. From Miss Peabody's Inheritance onwards, her books were usually published in the USA as well as in Australia and Britain. And her work was known and loved beyond the English-speaking world: many of the novels were published in German, French, and Spanish translations, The Well (1986) also in Italian and Polish, and still others in Dutch (The Newspaper of Claremont Street, 1981) and Finnish (Miss Peabody's Inheritance). …

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