Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 4, 2018

The Newspaper of Claremont Street, by Elizabeth Jolley #BookReview

To kick off Elizabeth Jolley Week on the anniversary of her death on June 4th, I read a new Fremantle Press ‘Treasures Collection’ edition of Jolley’s second novel, The Newspaper of Claremont Street. 

1981 First edition

First published in 1981 The Newspaper of Claremont Street is classic Jolley: it features a lonely character alienated from and yet trapped in the society around her; a resilient character who transcends the expectations that the reader forms about her fate.

As I said in the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week, it is an elderly cleaner who is the ‘newspaper’ of Claremont Street.  Her real name is Marguerite Morris, but everyone in the street knows her as ‘Weekly’ because she shares the news from up and down the street: everything from the state of Mr Kingston’s health to Leila Chatham’s wedding presents and the fragile bride’s premature return from a honeymoon.

On her way home from work, she went in the shop at the end of Claremont Street and sat there, taking her time, seeing who was there and watching what they bought.  No one needed to read anything, the Newspaper of Claremont told them all stories and kept them up to date with the news.  No one needed to bring a shopping list because Weekly knew what they needed to buy.  (p.12)

Weekly is an uneducated charwoman who has never married and her life is lonely and hard.  She has watched the people of Claremont Street grow old as she has, and she sees the chasm between their lives and hers.

She could remember old Mr Kingston as a much younger man, someone to whom many people had turned for advice.  Now he sat wrapped in red and yellow shawls knitted by his granddaughters. He smelled of a mixture of whisky and tobacco.  Though members of his household passed briefly by his chair or put off going into his room as long as possible, she realised that, unlike herself, he had relatives. His apparently useless life had been, and perhaps even now was useful, even precious to someone.  This striking fact about human life could never be ignored, and without ever mentioning it, Weekly was aware of it and knew its importance. (p.11)

Weekly has been in service since she was a girl: she is an institution in the street in the way that Emerence is in Magda Szabó’s The Door, and to some extent, she works on her own terms too.  But Weekly’s status-conscious employers give her things to outdo each other in generosity, not because they are frightened of her or what she might do.  And whereas Emerence in The Door develops a symbiotic relationship with Magda, Weekly is a private person with her own secrets, and no one knows anything about her.  Isolated from other children by her mother’s pretensions, and shamed by her naïve role in her brother’s fate, she lives alone in a rented room at the end of a street that gives the lie to  Australia’s delusions of egalitarianism.

Claremont Street was a very long street, lined on both sides with long-leaved peppermints, very old trees with gnarled and bulging trunks.  In the very hot weather each tree made a little pool of shade, and people like Weekly, who walked, hurried from one fragrant canopy to the next.  The long leaves trembled and seemed to whisper with a faint rustling, even on days when there was no breeze.  Some of these trees were being removed, one after the other, at the top end, as building alterations were taking place.  Though the street was quite flat it had a top end and a bottom end in the minds of the people who lived there.  The shop was at the bottom end and so were the remaining old houses including the large old house where Weekly lived.  (p.55-6)

Jolley gradually builds a picture of Weekly’s past and present, illuminating her isolation despite the busy street, and creating a vivid picture of her aching bones and her impoverished life.  Pity, however, is not on Jolley’s agenda.  The reader soon discovers a side of this old lady that her employers would never suspect: it is she who takes in a destitute elderly Russian émigré, gradually becoming trapped by Nastasya’s unreasonable demands because she cannot bring herself to hand her over to institutional care.  But Nastasya threatens to derail Weekly’s dreams of retirement on a small acreage outside the city, and the peaceful solitude for which she has saved so long is at risk.  Even when you’ve read this novel before as I have, the unforgettable denouement is breath-taking.

It is hard to convey the sense of excitement that we felt when we discovered Elizabeth Jolley in the 1980s.  Her female characters were like Nina Bawden‘s and Fay Weldon‘s: strong, purposeful, resilient, and occasionally capable of monstrous acts not at all in keeping with prevalent mores about femininity! (Weekly strangles her kittens without a trace of sentimentality when she can’t find homes for them). But Elizabeth Jolley was ‘ours’ even when her novels were set overseas, and when her novels were set in Australia you could almost smell the peppermint gums.  Her unconventional women were true creatures of their era and captive to it in realistic ways but Jolley always managed to surprise us in economical novels that sabotaged conformity every time.

Bill reviewed this novel too, at The Australian Legend.

Author: Elizabeth Jolley  (1923-2007)
Title: The Newspaper of Claremont
Publisher: Fremantle Press Treasures Edition, 2015, first published 1985
ISBN 9781925163629
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from Fishpond The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Fremantle Press Treasures or direct from Fremantle Press.


Responses

  1. This made my best-of-year in 2017. I’m still working on my pick for the week. More to follow…
    Jolley creates peculiar well: from eccentricities to madness

    • She’s so observant, she sees the craziness in all of us:)

  2. I read this a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I like that her central characters are always middle aged or older…

    • Yes, it gives us hope that our own old age won’t be dull…

  3. An excellent review Lisa … you really nailed the book which, as you know, is one of my favourites of all time. I should make time to read it again.

    • Time to re-read is even harder to find that time to read, eh?

  4. Coming from class conscious England, and living in Claremont, one of the old money suburbs around UWA, Jolley was ideally situated to prick Australians’ pretensions to egalitarianism. (And thanks for the link)

    • On reflection, I think she was also perhaps making a point about feminism, which was then and still is now, more middle-class than universal. ‘Weekly’ has money for her rudimentary retirement because she pinches and scrapes all her life, and retirement is still bleak for many women who haven’t had a career path and the sort of income that goes with that.

  5. I recall making a note of this book when Guy reviewed it last year. It sounds superb, right up my street. I couldn’t help but think of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont when I saw the title…another Elizabeth!

    • Yes, I think you’d like it!

  6. She is just so sharp, so terrifically smart. Even though I’d already read Miss Peabody when I got to this one, I wasn’t clever enough to expect to be surprised, or, at least, knocked off-kilter. I should have known! I’ve pulled off the only two Jolley books on my shelf which I have not read and which I have been hoarding, her Stories and Mr. Scobie’s Riddle. I hadn’t planned with your event in mind, but I will try to squeeze some reading into this week. What a pleasure!

    • I’ve never read any of her short stories, but I loved Mr Scobie’s Riddle. I can still see him in my mind’s eye…

      • That’s GTK. :)

  7. […] The Newspaper of Claremont Street, by Elizabeth Jolley – Over at ANZ LitLovers, Lisa Hill, a prominent voice in the Australian and New Zealand book blogging community, posts her first critical piece for Elizabeth Jolley Week, in honour of the author’s birth on 4th June 1923. […]

  8. […] novel is part of Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week and also an entry in the Reading Australian Women Writers […]

  9. […] see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers […]


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