Doing Life. A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley

By Wimmer, Adi | Antipodes, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Doing Life. A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley


Wimmer, Adi, Antipodes


BIOGRAPHY A great novelist and a dramatic life Brian Dibble: Doing Life. A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley. U of Western Australia P, December 2008, 334 pp. AU$ 29.95. ISBN978 1921401 06 0

Elizabeth Jolley died of Alzheimer's in February 2007 when Brian Dibble had been working on her biography for ten years. "Poor Brian" she joked when I spoke to her in July 2002, "I don't think he'll ever get finished with his book". Some of her close friends in Perth, fearing that Dibble would uncover things about which she was decidedly cagey, did not want the biography to appear at all, certainly not before her death.

What we remember best about Jolley is the late start of her writing career, and how phenomenally it took off when she was already sixty years of age. Although she had been writing regularly from the mid- 1940s onward nothing was ever published. In a TV interview she tells us that she had 39 rejections in just one year. Her first collection of short stories Five Acre Virgin was published in 1976 and had positive reviews but mediocre sale figures. This also applied to Palomino (1980) and The Newspaper ofClaremoni Street (1981). It was only with Miss Peabody's Inheritance (1982) that she received awards, critical attention, and finally fame. She published four more novels in the next four years, at an age when other people have retired. She also acquired a reputation for being whimsical and quirky, a kind of Gary Larson lady with old-fashioned spectacles who was always dressed unfashionably. At the end of her career she was, by common consent, among the five great contemporary Australian novelists.

Dibble's biography is impressively rich in details. He has very thoroughly gone though all sorts of Austrian birth and baptism records to establish who Jolley's forebears were (she was born to Margarete Fehr, a Viennese.) Jolley herself reported, and that was before Dibble started his research, how her maternal grandfather had been an aristocrat and a general in the k.u.k. army, and that his livelihood disappeared in 1918 with the Habsburg empire. That was her mother's account. It is the sort of fake autobiography that emigrants frequently construct - Barbara Baynton is a case in point. The general was nothing more than a Oberrevident with the k.k. Staatsbahn during WWI (not the Bundesbahn, as this was only created in 1923). The Fehr family, like the Buddenbrooks, had come down in the world and that was the main reason why Margarete accepted the offer of marriage from a Quaker relief worker, Wilfrid Knight. They were married in 1922 and Elizabeth was born in 1923.

In her review of Dibble's biography, Susan Lever posits that "Jolley's relationship with her husband, Leonard Jolley, is central to Dibble's biography." I don't agree. The "central drama" as Dibble puts it was her mother Margarete Fehr/Knight and an adulterous relationship - of which more in a moment. Margarete cast a shadow on Elizabeth's entire life. What are we to make of the fact that Elizabeth refused to name her child's father to her mother? (Her first daughter Sarah was born 30 April 1946, and Elizabeth lied that the father had been a TB patient who had died.) Even when she was dependent on her mother's baby-sitting help, she would not open up to her. This attitude perversely persisted until 1950. When Elizabeth moved in with Leonard, who was still married at the time, again she lied to her mother. …

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