Elizabeth Jolley

The Australian film industry got going in the 1970s perhaps just a little before the resurgence of Australian publishing and perhaps for that reason there has been less interplay between Australian film and Australian writing than there might have been. Patrick White raged and roared about the prospect of Joseph Losey and Max Von Sydow making a film of Voss, but that was the tormenting hope of a more colonial dispensation. There have been bearable films of modern Australian classics like Stead’s For Love Alone and more or less shocking films of such nearly contemporary classics as Monkey Grip (a real monster despite Noni Hazelhurst and Alice Garner as child star doing their best) and, more recently, Lilian’s Story with Ruth Cracknell badly miscast. Cases like Fred Schepisi’s lean, pungent version of Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith are rarer than they should be though it is encouraging to hear that Mel Gibson owns the rights to My Brother Jack and intends making a film of it one of these days.

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Publishers are like invisible ink. Their imprint is in the mysterious appearance of books on shelves. This explains their obsession with crime novels.

To some authors they appear as good fairies, to others the Brothers Grimm. Publishers can be blamed for pages that fall out (Look ma, a self-exploding paperback!), for a book’s non-appearance at a country town called Ulmere. For appearing too early or too late for review. For a book being reviewed badly, and thus its non-appearance – in shops, newspapers and prized shortlistings.

As an author, it’s good therapy to blame someone and there’s nothing more cleansing than to blame a publisher. I know, because I’ve done it myself. A literary absolution feels good the whole day through.

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Would it surprise you to know that a number of our well-known writers write to please themselves? Probably not. If there’s no pleasure, or challenge, or stimulus, the outcome would probably not be worth the effort. If this effort is writing, it seems especially unlikely that someone would engage in the activity without enjoying the chance to be their own audience.

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Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel takes a leap into the past, to a large hospital in wartime England where Veronica Wright, an awkward girl just out of a Quaker boarding school, endures the discomforts and humiliations of a trainee nurse. As we have come to expect from this writer, there are all sorts of marvellous things tucked away in odd corners. Sharp observations of hospital routine – preparing bread and butter for the patients’ trays, chasing cockroaches with steel knitting-needles, shivering on night duty, and trying to keep warm in old army blankets – are mixed with passages of grotesque comedy, and with one or two memorable instances of the macabre, nowhere more effectively than in the death of a gangrene-ridden, maggot-infested patient.

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A mixture of courage and an innocent hopefulness seem to be the necessary ingredients for finding rewards and compensations during the painful searching after self-knowledge. Lark Watter, the student daughter of Henry and Mrs Watter, embarks, as so many do, on the voyage of self-discovery.

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A common approach when talking about women writers is to outline the scope of their work, preferably to demonstrate and affirm its versatility and, implicitly, its value. There’s no doubt that Helen Garner, for example, has suffered under critics’ and reviewers’ insistence that her work deals only with a ...

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A colleague asked if I thought that Elizabeth Jolley’s Foxybaby might have gone ‘over the top’. I assume she meant that the book might be ‘too much’ because the function of its preoccupation with (say) crime and sex, including incest and homosexuality, was not immediately apparent. The question is a reasonable one, but for two reasons I don’t think that her latest novel does go over the top: there is no theme used or technique employed in Foxybaby which has not appeared in Jolley’s writing before; and, ad astra (perhaps per aspera or per ardua), the book represents a logical but highly imaginative development from her most recent work.

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Elizabeth Jolley has been around as a writer for some time. Her work dates back to the late 1950s (she came to Australia from England in 1959) and her stories began appearing in anthologies and journals in the mid­1960s, but it was not until 1976 that her first collection, Five Acre Virgin and other stories, was published by the Fremantle Arts Centre Press. Since then, her rate of publication has been phenomenal, and it is perhaps no accident that it coincided with the rise of an indigenous Western Australian Press: three of her first four books were published by the FACP, which, in its few years of existence, has been responsible for the discovery of a remarkable amount of talent.

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The time is always four o’clock in the morning when Night Sister M. Shady (unregistered) is on duty at The Hospital of St Christopher and St Jude. The punctual milkman is swearing as he falls on the broken step, the elderly patients are having a water fight or an altercation or a game of cards. Whatever may or may not be going on, Mrs Shady will record with confidence ‘nothing abnormal to report’.

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