December 2008 – January 2009

Arts & Letters

Between a muddle & a mystery

By Drusilla Modjeska
Brian Dibble’s ‘Doing Life’

If, by her own admission, order was not a "strong point" for Elizabeth Jolley, it is a badge of honour for her biographer, Brian Dibble. And well it might be, for Jolley spent her writing life unsettling biographical facts that he has spent years bringing to order. Her novels are so deftly entangled with the material of her life that she has both laid out the terrain and erected a very effective shield. Her best work - the trilogy My Father's Moon (1989), Cabin Fever (1990) and The Georges' Wife (1993) - is in that bastard form, the semi-autobiographical novel. Through the character of Vera, we are familiar with the broad outline of Jolley's life: an apologetic and devoted father, a demanding mother; early years of homeschooling before the Quaker boarding school that she left in the summer of 1939; her return to her German-speaking home to find it full of refugees; the wartime hospitals where she trained as a nurse; the arrival of an illegitimate child, casting her into dreadful domestic jobs of the sort available to an unmarried mother during the grim years following the war; her marriage and move to Australia. In a sense it is all there, but the question for the biographer is: In what sense is it there? The "little dance in writing", Jolley wrote towards the end of her life, can give us the truth - illustrate it - without necessarily telling it.

‘Muddle' is a word Jolley liked to use of her early life, and it turns up a good few times in Dibble's Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley (UWA Press, 334pp; $34.95). It's a good English word that indicates a well-meaning, girlish mix-up - but not exactly the word for being pregnant to a married man, being prone to triangular relationships and leaving the hospital before she gained her nursing qualification. That the muddle of these years is refracted again and again through her fiction - the pain of it often raw on the page - makes Dibble's task all the harder, for Jolley's "fabulating intelligence", as JM Coetzee calls it, opens a wide, clouded gap between biographical source and fictive transformation.

Faced with the challenge - and the responsibility - of becoming Elizabeth Jolley's first biographer, with access to diaries and other material that will now remain closed until after her children have died, Brian Dibble has made his move on the side of order. From the introduction, which lays out his strategy, it's clear that the psychoanalytic, speculative path is not for him. Like Richard Ellmann, he approaches biography through detailed, even "obsessive" (his word) research. And like Ellmann, he takes the "social self" as the "real self", apparently sharing the notion that while a more interior, psychological self might press upon the social one, it does not have an independence that can be given biographical shape. As a consequence he uses his meticulous research to map the ascertainable ground for the early life of Monica Elizabeth Knight (‘The British Years') and then for the professional life of the writer we know as Elizabeth Jolley (‘The Australian Years').

Monica Knight was born in 1923. Her father, Wilfred Knight, was "an introspective, serious-minded man descended from no-nonsense Methodist dawn-to-dusk dairying people". He was educated as a "charity case" at a church school, where he was bullied, but did well enough to go to the University of London. As a young man during World War I, he was imprisoned as a pacifist and disowned by his father. It was a profoundly humiliating experience, though it brought him into contact with a Quaker chaplain and strengthened his interest in socialism, theology and psychology. After the war, pragmatism took him into school teaching, and aspirations he had not yet lost took him to Vienna, where he asked Freud to "make him a psychoanalyst". Freud's reply - "Young man, I do not have the time and you do not have the money" - was another humiliation. But the worst and the greatest was to come with his marriage to Margarete (Grete) Fehr, whom he met in Vienna. She was the daughter of a man who, Dibble establishes, was neither a general nor a judge, though the fable stuck, serving as an indicator of the higher, more cultured social milieu she had relinquished in order to marry Wilfred. She returned with him to the English Midlands, where he resumed life as a teacher, riding to school each day with his case tied to his bicycle. Grete Knight was not a happy woman. "Given to moods", she was one of those people for whom nothing is enough - even, in her case, the love of two men. The other was the curious Mr Berrington, a barrister, a man of some wealth and standing, whom Wilfred occasionally banned from the house but otherwise endured as another humiliation to be overcome with the love of God.

These parental figures and their drama are recognisable throughout Elizabeth Jolley's fiction. Think of the hungry, devouring women who hoard their loves. Think also of the erotic cross-currents, the repeated patterns of triangular loves, mismatched expectations and longings cathected onto punitive figures. When Jolley edges in closer to the semi-autobiographical mother, as in the trilogy that begins with My Father's Moon, she conceals the full extent of her dislike of a woman she did not mourn - either when she left for Australia, in 1959, or when Grete died, 20 years later. It comes as a shock to read quotations from Jolley's diaries that show just how much she hated her mother.

By contrast, the father of My Father's Moon is redeemed from the cuckold on his bicycle to a grief-laden figure running along the platform as the train pulls out, taking his daughter away to school, to the hospital, to domestic work, to the port where she'll embark for Australia. Jolley grieved for Wilfred in many ways, over many years. She grieved for the constancy of his love and her blindness to him, for the incapacity of the child to give back what is given by the parent. "The wound," a character says in Lovesong (1997) - "the idea is that the suffering in the lives of artists and writers has a deep connection with creativity." It's here, in this relationship, in this wound, that a dark truth lies. It's what gives My Father's Moon gravitas; it's part of the bedrock of Jolley's work and, possibly, of the interior self that is both given expression and protected in her writing. A stab at a psychological, more interior self might look to Jolley's identification both with Wilfred's vulnerability and with his capacity to endure. She understood his humiliations all too well - erotic, social, intellectual - and bore her own version of them, and yet she had the resilience to hold to the possibility of becoming a writer over decades of silence and rejections. It's not - or not only - notice that a writer wants, but a sense of the world pressing back, of readers to complete the transaction, of a wider conversation. Otherwise it becomes a monologue in the writer's head, a form of madness if it remains there too long, and also a source of humiliation as the rejections roll in; for Jolley there were 39 in one year. "Oh god grant me the power to be a writer," she wrote in her diary in 1944. It was more than 30 years before her first collection of stories was published, in 1976. Palomino, the first novel, followed in 1980. Then the rush of work that had been dammed all those years.

Rereading the trilogy alongside Brian Dibble's biography is like looking at a house from disparate vantage points. Jolley's writing moves from the inside out, while Dibble looks for Jolley from the outside in. The value of the view from the nearby hill is that it does bring order to the muddle. Dibble has researched family background and connections, the school she went to, her teachers and fellow pupils, the girls at camp with her in Germany in the summer of 1939; he's tracked the careers of doctors at the hospitals where she trained, and investigated the wartime regimes and rigours of nursing, the movement of wounded soldiers evacuated from D-Day. He has placed her early life in a social and historical context, and identified people who can be identified as characters in the fiction. The other side of this strategic approach is that the woman herself, that interior being - the child on the floor inside the house, the storytelling girl with her notebooks - eludes us. What do we make of the young Monica Knight whose dolls' house was filled with nymphomaniacs and murderers? Of the schoolgirl who considered Crime and Punishment "jolly good"? Or of the young woman who lay on her bed in the nurses' quarters as the girls, experts in the signs of class and confidence, compared themselves in minute detail?

And what do we make of Leonard Jolley?

He is a challenge of another order. Monica first encountered him as a student nurse at Pyrford, where he was a long-term patient suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and given to serial flirtations with the nurses. But instead of marrying one of them, he married Joyce, with whom he'd been a fellow student at the University of London, and took Monica as his mistress in a triangle that mimicked her parents and Mr Berrington. Monica fell in love with both of them, it seems, and spent time with them in a sub-bohemian literary environment that she found intellectually stimulating but which left her anxious and self-doubting. Highly attuned to social and cultural hierarchies, she feared Joyce's derision and envied Leonard's literary confidence. The loneliness of the nether world inhabited by the unmarried and the illegitimate is vivid, even beneath the ribald, rather heavy-handed humour of the early fiction. In the trilogy, it is stark and raw. Again, Dibble has done the hard work, documenting Monica's progress through the households and institutions she drudged for, putting a ground of social history beneath the pain of exclusion.

Leonard Jolley is a hard character to like, and hard for a biographer to put in a context that makes sense to a contemporary readership. The father of two daughters born to two women in the same year - he gave them identical dresses - he was monstrously self-regarding, and subjected both Joyce and Monica to subterfuge and daily cruelties. Dibble is curiously silent on Leonard's marriage to Joyce and on their divorce, perhaps out of delicacy, perhaps because the murky realm of emotion is resistant to order. Even the subsequent marriage to Monica is dealt with hastily. He is more comfortable tracking Leonard's career as a librarian that, in 1959, brought him - accompanied by Elizabeth, as she now called herself, and their three children - to a position at the University of Western Australia, in Perth. There, true to form, he proved himself acerbic and disagreeable, alienating colleagues, students and neighbours. She, also true to form, took a series of menial jobs: cleaning, door-to-door sales, nurses' aide. In one of the more bizarre episodes, she presented her wares at the doors of the wives of Leonard's colleagues, inviting embarrassments that she seemed to relish. Is it sufficient explanation that this was a way to find material, or escape Leonard, or pay for her typing?

The explanation Dibble gives for Elizabeth's commitment to Leonard through a long and punishing marriage rests on a shared intellectual regard and understanding. I'm not convinced that this regard cut both ways - why, for instance, did Leonard not pay for her typing? - but I take the point that it was in a sense Leonard who made Elizabeth Jolley, the writer. It was he who suggested the use of her middle name; more importantly, she shadowed his - and Joyce's - university study of the English modernists, learning to read with a sophistication that would bear fruit in the trilogy, her modernist masterpiece published at the height of postmodernism. It might be a tribute to his education of her, but it is also a savage portrayal of a marriage. Good writing, they say, is the best revenge.

It'd take a biographer of the order of Hermione Lee to get under the skin of this punishing marriage, and to enter the fabulating mind that used "the little dance in writing" to remake the experience of England into an Australian literary success. However, the transformations of fiction are not within the scope of Dibble's biographical strategy, and that, I suspect, is just how Elizabeth Jolley wanted it. She knew as well as anyone that, as Oscar Wilde put it, Judas inhabits the biographer. She could trust her long-standing friend and colleague to set one record straight while leaving intact the mutable disorder of another. She accepted the risks of appointing a biographer who would uncover her slippages of a surface truth - the warts he refers to in his introduction - safe in the knowledge that the wound would lie with her, undisturbed.

Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection drew the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit revealed the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

In This Issue

Barack Obama at campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio. Image: TonyTheTiger at en.wikipedia

Once upon a time in America

Getting elected in Zanesville, Ohio

‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ by Paul Kelly & Kev Carmody

Illustrations by Peter Hudson & Gurindji schoolchildren
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The black polo

Southern discomfort

Tasmania’s art scene

More in Arts & Letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

More in Books

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”

Black and white close-up photo of Sigrid Nunez

Animal form: Sigrid Nunez

The celebrated American author’s latest book, ‘The Vulnerables’, completes a loose trilogy of hybrid autobiographical and fictional novels

Robyn Davidson in Ghanerao, Rajasthan, circa 1990, walking witha a camel and three women

An open heart: Robyn Davidson’s ‘Unfinished Woman’

The author of ‘Tracks’ takes stock in middle age, in a memoir encompassing her mother’s tragic early death, mental health, and her relationship with Salman Rushdie

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality