Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 7, 2018

Adam’s Bride, by Elizabeth Jolley (Penguin Specials) #BookReview

This short story, first published in Elizabeth Jolley’s collection Woman in a Lampshade, is confronting reading.

‘Adam’s Bride’, as can be seen in the Sensational Snippet that I posted yesterday begins with vintage Jolley: a sly description of a town’s schadenfreude as the locals view the proceedings of the courthouse as a form of entertainment.  But while the humour continues in the voice of The Bench complaining with the bitterness of old age to Young Robinson the defence counsel, the tone darkens when a murder comes before the court.

(The story takes places last century, when Australian local courts delivered what was often referred to as ‘jazz justice’ under the reign of magistrates who had no legal training whatsoever, but held ‘standing’ in the local community.)

Jolley sets her scene with an exquisite prelude:

Music out of doors is frail, it hovers uncertainly, joy is more elusive and sadness is deeper. Tremulous notes climb the thick green veins of pale sap and fall softly as the petals fall from blossom. Every note is muted by the foliage and by the earth through which other sounds make their way to mingle with the sound of the morning. Because of the music, everything in the green dilapidated yard had an air of unreality as a stage looks unreal when the curtain is raised on the stillness of some scene before the actors move and speak. (Kindle Locations 94-98).

Inside the court room, the accused is a pitiful woman with dingy hair and shabby clothes, charged with the murder of her own daughter and of the rat-catcher’s wife a.k.a. proprietor of the general store.  In a dramatic moment her husband Adam arrives, having walked through the bush to get there, so that he can explain that it is all his fault.

BEWARE: SPOILERS 

As indeed it is, because Evie May has fled from him in terror.  His confession is a terrible tale of marital woe, far worse than The Bench had thought to characterise it.

He looked at the younger man in a kindly fashion, but said, ‘Did you know, Young Robinson, that if doves are put together in a cage they’ll peck each other to death? It’s the same with men and women. They don’t peck, but they expect from each other. Marriage is like a cage. Sometimes people expect from each other the unexpectable, the ungiveable, and then they are not any better than the doves .. . This enviable harmony of pulling up weeds together changes into a terrible bitterness.  (Kindle Locations 87-90).

The poverty of this couple is extreme.  Nothing grows on their miserable five acres except a vine:

She sat outside the unhappy little house which was so ugly in its poverty. The house rested on the squalid earth so heavily that it was impossible to move the door; it stayed permanently partly open. The windows had no sills, and two of the windows out of the three had boards across them, the glass having been broken. At the back of this ashamed place was a vine. Every place on earth has one thing which saves it: a brightly painted chair, perhaps, or a square of light falling every afternoon on the floorboards from a small window facing the west, a path made by someone’s love or a cushion with an unmistakeable air of elegance in its vanishing lace, the remains of Venetian needlepoint, a single redeeming thing, nothing very great but there all the same in surroundings often too dreary to bear. Evie May’s house had this vine. It was healthy, the roots grown during a great number of years probably touched down to that clear cold water which flows so mysteriously under the earth, a long way down beyond the reach of an ordinary man.  (Kindle Locations 270-277).

The Australian seasons endlessly mock man’s efforts to tame the land:

Wishing away the existing season is more than a symptom, it is the complaint, the illness itself. As in the world of fashion where fur coats have to be tried on in midsummer, the man working his acres has to deal with an existing problem keeping in mind the one which hangs over the months to come. In the middle of the longed-for heat of the summer there is a wish for the rain, and this wish becomes an obsession. A man cares more about the state of his dam than he cares whether his son is in bad company or not. Brackish water oozing up with a mysterious persistence through the rough white clay of a newly excavated dam is more serious than any family calamity a man can bring to his mind during a sleepless night. It is something he dares not speak about. If the dam would only yield fresh water during the early rains then he would have been better pumping water from the stream. As he walks round the glaring white embankment, he looks into the dry creek bed and wonders painfully if the full flood of the creek, when it comes, will take with it this far mound of the dam wall. He does not speak about this either, but takes short moody walks to the particular place and speculates on his shortage of money, his shortage of water and perhaps even his shortage of sense. Perhaps someone will drown in the dam, or alternatively perhaps it will never fill with water, he can only wait now for nature and her ‘holy plan’. And then all at once there is the smell of the rain on the wind and everyone is quite unprepared.  (Kindle Locations 378-388).

And what makes this short story confronting is that we are forced to see the pressures that lead a man to violence.  Unforgiveable, yes.  And he does not forgive himself either.  But I wonder if Jolley would have written this story in quite the same way if she were writing now, when we have less tolerance for family violence.  (I would have liked to write ‘zero tolerance’ but Emily Maguire’s powerful novel An Isolated Incident would give the lie to that).

Adam’s Bride is aptly named, because it shifts the blame for the original sin away from the hapless woman – but it also forces reluctant compassion for the man…

Author: Elizabeth Jolley
Title: Adam’s Bride
Publisher: Penguin Specials, Penguin Random House Australia, first published 1972
ISBN: 9781742536743
Purchased for the Kindle from You-Know-Who $2.99.

 


Responses

  1. I hadn’t realised it was historical fiction. Interesting that she uses her little 5 acre farm “in the shadow of the escarpment” again.

    • I may have misled you, by ‘last century’ in the 3rd paragraph, I meant the C20th. That kind of jazz justice was certainly still the situation in Victoria in 1972 when she wrote this story, I know that for sure. In fact, in Victoria, in the early 70s, even those preparing crown prosecutions for serious cases in the county court didn’t have law degrees. It wasn’t professionalised until the Cain Government (1976-1992) though I don’t remember which of his three terms it was that the reform went through.
      So, no, it’s not historical fiction

      • You’re right, I haven’t internalized that the C20th is ‘last’ and I was unaware of what you write re ‘jazz justice’.

        • LOL I have to keep reminding myself that I was born last century!

  2. […] Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review of the Penguin Special edition of ‘Adam’s Bride’… and a Sensational […]


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