Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 8, 2009

An Innocent Gentleman (2001), by Elizabeth Jolley


Source: [1

An Innocent Gentleman (2001) is Elizabeth Jolley’s last novel.  She died in 2007, treasured as one of Australia’s finest writers, and an inspiration to older writers because her career began when she was in her 50s.

I read her first novel, Palomino, (1980)  when I discovered it in the early 80s, and I bought a Jolley novel with every birthday book voucher I got thereafter.  She was prolific, reliably producing something wonderful to read every year or so….The Newspaper of Claremont Street in 1981, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance AND Mr Scobie’s Riddle in 1983,  Milk and Honey in 1984, FoxyBaby (1985), The Well (which won the Miles Franklin) in 1986, The Sugar Mother 1988, My Father’s Moon in 1989, and Cabin Fever in 1990.  Then a bit of a gap till The George’s Wife in 1993, The Orchard Thieves in 1995, Lovesong (1997), An Accommodating Spouse in 1999, and finally An Innocent Gentleman in 2001.

Source: [2]

The Great Hall – Source: [2

It was a bit of a shock when these fascinating books stopped coming, because even though  in the late 90s I had had the pleasure of hearing Jolley do a  reading in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria, and had therefore seen her, grey-haired and in sensible skirt and cardigan, I had never thought of her as an old woman, and it was awful to learn that she had developed dementia and was in a nursing home.  I felt, as I’m sure many others did too, that it was like learning that Iris Murdoch had Alzheimer’s disease; impossible to imagine this spiky, witty, highly intelligent writer as a querulous old woman not in control of her faculties.

I loved many things about Jolley’s writing, not least that all the books are deceptively simple.  She had a wicked sense of humour…like Jane Austen she could make me pause in rapt admiration at her cunning bon mots, her sly black comedy, and her eccentric cast of misfits.  She was experimental in her themes and writing style, playing around with subtle sarcastic narrators and reworking her strange characters in successive books.

An Innocent Gentleman
In a Jolley novel, every character, every plot development, every page is what it seems, and yet not what it seems.  An Innocent Gentleman seems at first such a simple story, mere domestic happenings against a backdrop of WW2 which seems remote and irrelevant.   But then the oddity of events piles up, and the irony of the title provokes one puzzle after another.  Who can the innocent gentleman be if it certainly isn’t Mr Hawthorn?  Is anybody innocent in this complex web of relationships, seemingly played out in the dull suburbs of the Midlands?

There’s an excellent review of An Innocent Gentleman at Salon 101.

Update 15.9.09

I can’t take this back to the library without sharing a couple of gems:

Because of earaches, spiders, bad dreams and the various illnesses of childhood, the children slept in separate rooms, one with the father and the other with the mother.  Affectionately the father has maintained the arrangement is the ideal form of contraception.  He has said this in company judged carefully as suitable for such a remark.  Nothing said in bad taste of course.  Though it was known that there comes a time when certain things, if said too often between the same people, become merely repetitive, tiresome and meaningless.  (p33)

and this, when Muriel, the mother takes some books to sell at the second-hand bookshop:

The rough narrow shelves and the frayed baskets of shabby books, the feeling of being shut in poverty, were all too much.  She felt alone and helpless and depressed.  She was unable to imagine the books finding a place in this shop and then, later, with someone who would cherish them.

She imagined her feelings to be those of a mother on leaving a graceful, well cared for and callow little child in the derelict yard of a school summer camp, especially if the little child was crying, begging not to be left, the little face flushed, full of grief and shame…

The owner of shabbiness was hidden behind a cloth screen.  There was a sound as if someone was muttering over accounts.  The mother, Muriel, did not wait to try in an unconvincing way to make a sale.  She understood sadly that books, like unprofessional stamp collections, were impossible to sell.  Books, people seemed to have the silent thought, books are for giving away.  People expected to have books given to them.  I’ll taken them, these books, off your hands… (p38)

and this, Henry’s preparations for writing his woeful poetry:

At the weekend, Sunday afternoon, Henry, as usual, made time for a savage preparation for his writing.  He mopped the linoleum in the front bedroom.  He folded up clothes and put them away and he put out other clothes for washing.  He made the bed with clean sheets.  And then, after clearing the dressing-table top, he spread out his  pages of poetry.  He was interested in the sonnet. (p63)

Even the punctuation is cunning!

[1]  Source:

[2] Source:


  1. As I’m sure you know, I loved this book as I have all of hers that I’ve read to date. Like many of her stories it seems to be about the difficulties in forming and maintaining meaningful human relationships. Perhaps it’s totally ironic – no-one is innocent thought some might appear to be on the surface!!


  2. I’ve only ever read one Jolley (I know, the shame), which was The Well, but it was when I was at school and I don’t much remember it. I really need to rectify the situation and read some of her stuff. Is there any particular title you would recommend, Lisa? A particular favourite?


    • I really liked Foxy Baby, but I read it such a long time ago that I can’t really remember why. I need to, and will re-read it. Perhaps The Orchard Thieves would be a good one to start with? Like all EJ stories, it’s multi layered, but what I took from it was the question: what happens when a child never leaves home and lives with the parents for a very long time – how does one reconcile the expectations of the siblings who have expectations about the family home and their potential inheritance? Lisa


  3. And I’ll butt in here (back from holidays so time to read the blogs again). My favourite one to recommend is her novella The newspaper of Claremont Street. I think it’s a great introduction to her dark wit and tight style.


    • Yes, good thought. Just mentioning it makes me want to read it again:)


  4. Welcome back!


  5. […] at ANZLitLovers is also an Elizabeth Jolley fan, and has reviewed this […]


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