Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2016

Doing Life, a Biography of Elizabeth Jolley (2008), by Brian Dibble

Doing Life Such an interesting cover photo, isn’t it?  I can’t decide if Elizabeth Jolley has been caught fending off intrusion with determined irritation, or if there’s a hint of a smile there.  Or even if the photo was staged or impromptu.  The image certainly captures the enigma that she was…

(Monica) Elizabeth Jolley (neé Knight, neé Fielding) AO (1923-2007) was born in England and came to Australia in the 1950s, to become in time one of Australia’s best-loved writers.  Her first novel was published in 1980 when she was 53, and from then on new novels came thick and fast, every year or every other year until 2001.  Fifteen altogether, along with short stories, plays and works of non-fiction too.  She was amazingly prolific.

Intrigued by an offline conversation about Jolley with Sue from Whispering Gums, I pulled Brian Dibble’s 2008 biography off the TBR and began reading.   Dibble has used an interesting way of structuring the biography: guided by Hazel Rowley’s advice that a biography must be a ‘good read’, Doing Life begins with a section called ‘Flowermead’ (which was the name of the Knight family’s home):

a Knight family history with three embedded ‘pen-and-ink’ portraits, one of each of Jolley’s parents from the time before they met, and one of the older friend of the family who figured directly in their lives for twenty years and in Jolley’s until he died when she was thirty.   They are people who have invited an unusual amount of speculation from Jolley’s general and academic audiences, and so beginning with their stories obviated the need to try to insert them into subsequent chapters.  (p.xii)

Dibble suggests that some readers might want to skim or skip this section if they’re not interested in Jolley’s family remote and proximate, real and virtual – but I don’t recommend it.  As many Jolley enthusiasts will know, Jolley’s father bore his wife’s love for the enigmatic (and underfoot) Mr Berrington with fortitude, and this influenced Jolley’s interest in depicting sexual triangles.  Dibble’s portrait brings Wilfred Knight to life, detailing his heroic imprisonment as a conscientious WW1 objector and his own father’s consequent rejection of him, thus making more of Wilfred than an humiliated cuckold.  Likewise, the portrait of Elizabeth Jolley’s mother Margarete Knight is incisive, and although Dibble seems to do his best to be even-handed about her, the scornful comment he uses later to headline the chapter called Pyrford is consistent with his portrait:

My mother felt that being a nurse was a bit vulgar but father
declared on several occasions that it was God’s work.  My mother said the
material for my uniform, when it arrived, was simply pillow ticking.  She
said she had better things in mind for me, travelling on the continent,
Europe, she said, studying art and ancient buildings and music.
‘But there’s a war on’, I said.
‘Oh well, after the war.’

‘Only Connect, (Part 1)’ (26) (p.63)

However, despite Dibble’s prodigious research and access to papers reserved at the Mitchell Library for some years to come, Mr Berrington, for me, remains an enigma.

The remaining chapters are chronological by chapter, with

a discontinuous narrative technique [… called…] layering, which consists of overlapping, separated or contiguous dramatically developed morceaux choisis or slices of life.

This method works really well, not just as a way of revealing historical discoveries which enable the linking of sources to interpretations of Jolley’s writing, but also as a way of circumventing what can sometimes be a tedious chronological approach to life writing.  For example, the chapter about Jolley’s education at a Quaker boarding school (Sibley, in the Cotswolds) reveals that she felt an outsider even then, because she was not a birthright Quaker (her father was Methodist) and that the bullying scene in My Father’s Moon may have derived from her experience there.  Even if it did not, Sibley taught her about ‘the real hurt… we cannot speak about.’

I knew too, that Jolley had been a nurse during the war, but not that she was caring for the wounded when she was a probationer aged only 16, working horrendous hours and with nurse-patient ratios that expanded wards intended for 25-30 children to about 65.  Her experience with domineering senior nurses informs characterisation in her fiction in a number of ways – and it was at Pyrford in Surrey (25km out of London) that she wrote the first story with ‘discordant elements’: in Lehmann Sieber there is a boy called Max who drives his sister/horse about the house with a whip and there’s a piece of dialogue that reveals Emmi’s ambivalence about her sibling and/or mother.   It was also at Pyford that Jolley began a friendship with former patient Leonard Jolley (1914-1994) and his wife Susan, and moved in with them.  Before long she became pregnant to Leonard and had a daughter by him.

These chronological slices follow Jolley’s progress from nursing at Pyrford and Birmingham, to teaching at Pinewood at Amwellbury – with periods of domestic service in between.  Her relationship with her mother was so toxic that she could not bear to live at home and preferred the humiliations of domestic service to enduring her mother’s scorn.  Although it appears that Leonard Jolley was not wildly enthusiastic about setting up house with Elizabeth, they finally did so when he took up a position in Edinburgh.   Elizabeth took her daughter there too, and took on his name, a ruse to make it appear as if they were married.  He was still married to his wife Joyce, who had his child Susan five weeks after Elizabeth’s daughter Sarah was born.  (And as many will know from subsequent revelations not known to Dibble when he wrote this biography, when Jolley eventually divorced Joyce, he did not tell his extended family about this and he and Elizabeth were complicit in a web of deception about his remarriage.)

Doing Life then traces Jolley’s elevation to literary fame, and how she became a writer…

It’s only since I got old that I can explain that possibly the writing of fiction was the life I really wanted and then I set about working towards that. (p. 157)

She was strategic in developing her career.  She knew early on that ‘publishing is a business’ and that

… there is a difference between writing and being a writer and that being a writer is an activity that usually benefits from knowing at least the basics of the publication business.  (p.157)

Before coming to Australia she had written for two or three decades – believing that with a bit of luck she would succeed through hard work.  But she got nowhere, with virtually no publication success.  In Australia she learned that

… ‘luck’ was a loser’s term for circumstances that often could be understood and sometimes consciously turned to advantage. (p. 158)

I might do a separate post one day about her advice to writers.  Then again, maybe not.  The world of publishing has undergone a seismic shift since her day…

Jolley built a loyal audience with tutoring in WA country towns, and teaching in this way became part of her own education as a writer.  But she also went to conferences and festivals to learn from others.  She worked at being a writer, and she worked at making her writing relevant to the zeitgeist while ensuring that she was writing about important enduring issues.  (As Anne Summers said at the launch of the Stella Prize, if women authors want recognition (prizes, reviews) this is what they need to do: to ‘write about something important‘).  Jolley tapped into themes about the postwar British migration experience, universalising feelings of displacement, and a longing for belonging.  Her characters were migrants, elderly and institutionalised people, and the bereaved, and her fiction focusses on loneliness within families of one sort or another, and the possibility of love within and beyond the usual heterosexual pairings.  Today #hashtags exhort readers towards all kinds of diversities, but Jolley was doing it last century and we, her readers, embraced it…

Dibble’s analysis of Jolley’s themes and characterisations is interesting to anyone familiar with her work, but the detail about some of her less familiar short stories can be a bit eye-glazing. (I have read all of Jolley’s fifteen novels, but not her short stories. If they were collected and published, I never found them in bookshops or libraries).  Dibble is an academic, after all, and this is what it is, a scholarly biography focussed on Jolley’s oeuvre.  He explores the themes and stylistic experiments of her novels within discrete time periods, which as an ordinary reader I found enlightening.  Still, some readers may want to skip some of the analyses because of spoilers?  I don’t think it matters, since one doesn’t really read Jolley for plot…

Leonard Jolley isn’t painted as a very nice person.  Admittedly he had a lifelong battle with rheumatoid arthritis, but he seems to have been self-absorbed and demanding.  Like most men of his generation, he did not expect his wife to have a career, and until his old age when he retired he wasn’t supportive of Elizabeth’s writing.  He expected her to wait on him, and to admire his career achievements.  Yet in retirement he helped with research and took an interest in what she was doing.  And late in the book, we learn that Elizabeth loved him dearly, and missed him when he died.  He died in aged care listening to her reading poetry at his bedside.  Dibble evokes this love in a tender passage worth quoting in full:

They both came to regard the Alfred Carson arrangement as one where they could enjoy being together.  Since the mid-eighties Elizabeth had come to feel there was more tolerance in their marriage, and she did not get so angry with him; age, she realised, distanced her from passions, negative ones included, and besides , she was learning to conserve her energy.  Although she had felt it all along, she could more readily see and say each was to the other someone completely trusted and sustaining. She enjoyed her daily or twice-daily visits, when she would tell him her news and push his chair through their quiet neighbourhood as he rehearsed for her the names of plants and trees.  Fond memories of those walks, and the last stage of their lifelong companionship, are invoked in the opening and closing passages of The Georges’ Wife where Vera pushes Mr George’s chair along green leafy streets.  (p. 224)

But glimpses of Elizabeth like this are rare.  Perhaps because of restrictions on her papers, we learn nothing about her life as a mother.  There’s not much about her friends.  Although the sense of place in strong in all her novels, we don’t get much sense of the physical space where she did her writing.  And although the paragraph above alludes to getting angry with Leonard, this is such a contrast to the placid public persona that she cultivated, it’s easy to miss.

Perhaps it’s to be expected in a biography about one who had good reason to be a very private person, but I never really felt that Doing Life revealed Jolley as a person.  I was fascinated to see how events and people in her life were transformed in her fiction, but as the cover image shows, the woman remains an enigma.  To know who she was, you really need to read her books.

There is an excellent review by Drusilla Modjeska at The Monthly.

Doing Life was shortlisted for the  2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award and the 2010 National Biography Award.

Author: Brian Dibble
Title: Doing Life: a biography of Elizabeth Jolley
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australian Press, 2008
ISBN: 9781921401060
Source: personal library


Direct from UWAP or Fishpond: Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley


  1. Oh dear, like you I have had this on my TBR since it was published. I love Jolley but somehow I’ve been unsure about this book for the reasons you give. I seem to remember hearing similar reservations – not so much because of Dibble’s ability to write but because of the slipperiness of the subject. I think later stories that have come out explain this slipperiness. (I’ve read your review – something I don’t do with fiction I haven’t read, but somehow I don’t have the same concern about having my ideas affected with non-fiction! Hmmm … you’ve intrigued me now though.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It raises a whole lot of issues, doesn’t it? In today’s world authors are expected to create a profile and be online and promote their brand indefatigably – I myself run the Meet an Aussie Author series, and I know how much my readers like it. But Jolley was a private person, and even though she did promotional work (I had the pleasure of hearing her speak once at the NGV in Melbourne) she never really told much about herself.
      Should a writer have to? Do we need to know about an author to enjoy their work? I’m undecided.


      • Yes it does. No, I don’t think we do need to know about an author to enjoy their work. It’s more we want to know, and sometimes it can certainly add something, but I think a work should essentially stand on its own. In other words, I don’t think it’s wrong or it hurts to inquire into an author’s life but I don’t think it should be essential or expected.

        And yes, I went to a literary dinner once with Jolley as the guest speaker. I’ll never forget it.


        • I think back to when I was a beginning reader, working my way through my parents’ library, and I didn’t know anything at all about any of the authors except that most of them were from the 19th century.
          And sometimes we find out things we don’t want to know. As I was saying over at The Australian Legend, it was a mistake to have read Neville Shute’s autobiography – I really didn’t like him at all and I would never have read all his novels if I’d known what I know now!


          • I really don’t think we can go down that path. What about TS Eliot or Wagner? I must say knowing a little about them and their apparent values colours things a little but I can’t not like their work.


            • True. The Rolf Harris case is instructive.


              • Yes, good one Lisa. Mr Gums and I were in fact just talking about him and this issue the other day. But we felt that because we grew up with him, and loved his work before all this happened, the fall is horrible and his work is more tarnished for us than that of creators from the past whose work and lives are more removed and perhaps easier to separate. What fickle people we humans are!


                • What about Rousseau? Prime example of hypocrisy.


  2. Your review has added to my pleasure in Elizabeth Jolly’s writing, thank you. So now do I search out this biography (£22.11 on Amazon UK, 1 copy only left) or just stick with the work? I remember very clearly the living reality of the passage you quote above where Vera walks Mr George along the hot streets seeing and naming the plants, shrubs and trees. But that is the reason I love her writing, the specific and unique way she evokes experiences of all kinds. Who can she be compared to? Not even a poet and she’s definitely not a poet. Maybe there should be an Elizabeth Jolley society? You two (Lisa Hill and ? of Whispering Gums) are the only people I’ve come across who read and enjoy her. Many years ago I overheard an excited and enthusiastic book seller (woman) in Islington telling a customer of a new Elizabeth Jolley available, the first time her name entered my consciousness. But it took a while for me to begin reading her and I’ve a long way to go. She’s not an author to race through but as I’ve implied I think once read never forgotten.


    • £22.11! Ouch!! Maybe you could contact the publisher and ask them about plans for an eBook, which would have to be cheaper than that.

      I think you will be pleased to know that she is remembered in the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize sponsored by the Australian Book Review and that there is a theatre named after her at Curtin University. And I often see her books in bookshops here and they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t selling, I suppose:)


  3. I have read a little Elizabeth Jolley over time, The Well in particular sticks in my mind – yes, because I had to study it, but also because Jolley evokes the countryside so well (the Wheatbelt where it is nearest to Perth, about 100 km east, at York or Brookton) and the isolation of individual farm houses even in relatively closely settled areas.
    As for knowing/judging the Author, I won’t read Jeffrey Archer for instance but other others I find distasteful – say Evelyn Waugh – I read them anyway.
    There is a lot in Jolley’s biography that is salacious, and I speculate about Miles Franklin for instance in ways that I wouldn’t were she still alive, but I think knowing those things helps us better understand their writing.


    • I suppose the more we read of literary biographies or learn about authors by other means the more chance there is, human nature being what it is, that we will find something that we don’t like about an author.
      But I do like LitBios when they trace back incidents in the novels to experiences in life. As Carol says, who can read the last part of The Georges’ Wife now, without thinking of an elderly couple making their way through the quiet streets of Perth, contented in their love for each other and reconciled to past conflicts?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I have read all Elizabeth Jolley’s novels and have many of them. I love her writing style and enjoyed all her novels. She was a quirky writer, and always left something unsaid. I think she had every right to keep her life private, and it does identify with her writing. I have read Dibble’s biography and Susan Swingler’s book, The House of Fiction, and thought both were subjective. I too no longer read Jeffrey Archer even though I liked his books. I stopped after he went to jail for libel.


  5. Hi Meg, I have to confess that I never wanted to read the Swingler book. There was so much publicity about it – salacious, as Bill says – that I felt I knew all it had to say anyway, and (this is peculiar, I know) I felt a strange kind of loyalty to Elizabeth Jolley by not reading it.
    Yes, that is odd, to feel loyal to a long-dead author that I’ve never met, to the extent of not wanting to find out about some disreputable part of her past! Doesn’t that encapsulate how our best-loved authors become part of our lives and our thinking!


  6. This book looks at me from my TBR each day. Thanks for the helpful review – good balance of insight into Jolley’s life and criticism of the biography itself. To quote Rowley is an interesting move; she pays less attention to Stead’s work in her famous biography, and more to the life. So no eye-glazing detail of the less famous work. (A dilemma with Katharine Prichard for me – the early works of the period I’m covering are not her most significant ones; the reader is less likely to have read them – and I wouldn’t recommend they do if they were only to read one or two of her novels.) It’s a difficult thing in Dibble’s case to write of someone so recently alive and who he knew so well. If there is a biography of Jolley in thirty or forty years, it will be so different.


    • Have you read Jill Roe’s bio of Miles Franklin, Nathan? It’s a magisterial book as you probably know, forbiddingly thick for all but the keenest reader, but for me, she was able to discuss all sorts of obscure writings by MF, and keep it interesting.
      The question is – as always – who is the audience for the writing?


      • Yes, I wanted to love it but read it with some ambivalence – like Kerryn Goldsworthy I felt she let the details overwhelm, without enough synthesis and bigger picture. But I’d be interested to revisit how she handled this aspect – I have planned a critical chapter of my PhD on how biographers handle the works of their subject.


        • Ah, I think I’m lucky to have the luxury of not needing to read it critically. I loved it, I thought she brought MF alive, and I was fascinated by the analysis of all the obscure writing that I’d never heard of before.

          Liked by 1 person

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