Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2013

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (1983), by Elizabeth Jolley, read by Deirdre Rubenstein

Miss Peabody's Inheritance 001Miss Peabody's Inheritance (UQP) 001I first read Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) back in 1990, long before I kept a reading journal much less a litblog, so I have no record of my impressions then, only vague, fond memories of enjoying it, as I enjoyed all her novels.   It’s a pity, because it would be interesting to track back what I thought of the postmodern flourishes in Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, back then,  when I had never heard of meta-fiction.  (If the list at Wikipedia  is anything to go by, I had read a few examples of it, but not recognised it for what it was, having completed my degree in The Good Old Days).

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is a story about a writer creating a story.  The first lines begin with the enigmatic declaration that ‘the nights belonged to the novelist’ but the novelist’s character sketch for the headmistress Dr Arabella Thorne quickly segues into what seems like an ordinary novel, five pages broken only by the novelist’s promise to tell us more about one of the girls later. It’s easy to miss this brief insertion as the reader plunges into the novel, intrigued already by the eccentricity of this headmistress who invites a new parent to the bra-burning ceremony at her exclusive Pine Heights Boarding School that evening.  But that’s not all that’s unusual about Miss Thorne …

Before long, however, the reader begins to sort out what’s going on in this book.  The author reveals both the novelist, Diana Hopewell, and – in much more detail – her infatuated correspondent, Dorothy (Dottie) Peabody.  Dorothy leads a very dull life, working in a dreary office job by day and – with the help of her neighbour Mrs Brewer – caring for her querulous old mother by night.   She is surprised and delighted to receive a reply to the fan letter she sent to the novelist, and the correspondence grows.  Diana Hopewell sends her successive drafts of her latest novel and Dorothy sends further flattering responses along with her plaintive dreams and anecdotes that reveal the paucity of her life.  As Dorothy’s mother becomes more and more fractious, Diana’s letters become Dorothy’s sole pleasure, and she finds herself becoming more and more absorbed in the lives of the characters, as if they were real people.

Diana’s novel turns out to be the droll cautionary tale of Miss Thorne (a.k.a. Prickles), her two rather batty friends Miss Edgeley and Miss Snowden, and a student, Gwendaline Manners.  Miss Thorne has ambitions for her ‘gels’, but her plans for Gwenda – who has been ‘orphaned’ by her father’s second marriage, are more than merely intellectual.    When these four set off for a holiday in Europe all kinds of unexpected things happen, fuelled by the lack of inhibition that besets many a traveller when far away from home, and exacerbated by the ladies’ fondness for a remarkable amount of liquor.  (A propensity which appears to be shared by Miss Peabody).

As Guy Savage points out in his review at His Futile Preoccupations, this is (like much of Jolley’s work) a subversive novel.  All these characters are lonely misfits, looking for love.  Miss Thorne, for all her jollity, and her nemesis Mr Frome despite his bonhomie, are seeking companionship, and neither of them care who they hurt in the course of their pursuit.  The reader is lured into this world as partisans, much as Miss Peabody is, while the novelist – as we were warned at the outset – pulls the strings.

Novels like this don’t age.  Jolley’s wry humour is just as apt today as you can see from this, my favourite snippet.

Miss Peabody is taking her first airline flight:

Miss Peabody quickly slipped the letter back into her new handbag and, imitating the other passengers, obediently ate the contents of the little white tray placed before her by the stewardess.  She ate the crumbed sausage, the olive and the pineapple ring and, without shame, still copying the others, she inspected and then ate the fruit salad and ice cream.  Unaccustomed, she almost ate the moist tissue.  It was folded in blue and silver foil and looked attractive like an unusual sweet.
(p. 144, UQP edition).

This is not the only mistake that Miss Peabody makes, as the thin line between truth and fiction blurs for her.

The narration by Deirdre Rubenstein is a delight.  She captures the variety of voices and her portrayal of Miss Thorne is superb.

Author: Elizabeth Jolley
Title: Miss Peabody’s Inheritance
Narrator: Deirdre Rubenstein
Publisher: Louis Braille  Audio, 2003 (First published by University of Queensland Press (UQP), 1983
ISBN: 0732027292
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond: Miss Peabody’s Inheritance


  1. A belated thanks for the mention. I’ve read a few Jolley novels and this one is my favourite so far. I bought a few copies for other people and it was a hit with everyone.


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