Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2018

Cabin Fever (1990), by Elizabeth Jolley, guest review by Margaret (Meg) Broughton


First edition 1990 (Viking

Even a good republican like me enjoys the Queen’s Birthday Long Weekend, not least because it means our annual jaunt to the Woodend Winter Arts Festival.  We enjoyed a feast of beautiful Baroque music, (including this very famous one played at the right tempo); a rare but magnificent performance of La Pellegrina, which was an extravaganza performed for a wedding of the Medicis (hear a sample); some droll satire from Max Gillies; Brazilian Guitar from Christian Dozza; Joseph Tawadros on the oud; and finally a session about the state of the nation with Sally Warhaft in conversation with Don Watson and Craig Emerson (whose book I finished on Friday and will review ASAP).


I thought we would have internet access in our accommodation – and we didn’t.  So I’m late in responding to all those wonderful people who’ve contributed to #ElizabethJolleyWeek, for which I apologise, and I’m also late in bringing you another terrific review from Meg who this time has read Cabin Fever, which is the second book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy.


Vera Wright, the central character from My Fathers Moon (see Meg’s review) is now on the 24th floor of a New York Hotel.  She is suffering from Cabin Fever (which is a genuine claustrophobic reaction to being stuck in a confined situation and causes a person to lose all inclination to go out).  Ironically, Vera is in New York for a medical conference and to deliver a paper on several issues, one being ‘Symptoms of Panic  Disorder’.

In flashbacks Vera recounts the events that have shaped her life. She is haunted by her mother’s disappointment in her.  Recalling events from My Father’s Moon, Doctor Metcalf and Magda are prominent in the first half of the book, but throughout the story, Vera’s main focus is on Ramsden, who she is longing to see again. 

With a baby on the way, she has had to sneakily leave St Cuthberts and then reside with the Wellingtons: Doctor Daddy and Doctor Mummy, and their two girls.  She is there as a ‘mother’s help’ until her baby arrives.  Her loneliness and sadness deepen as she recognizes she is on the edge looking in at a family.  Vera craves for the same, love and a home.  Eventually she goes to St Hilda’s to have her baby daughter Helena, and there the owners, Mr and Mrs Peters, take her under their wing. They are kind and caring, but her search for a home is not met because…

‘..where she feels at home contains books, music and a friend with whom she can share insights about them’.  (See ‘Voyaging in Out and Down Under: a discussion of Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘Vera Wright Trilogy’ ‘ – Research online uow –  

 A visit from Trent, (a former nurse from St Cuthberts), and urging from the Peters are catalysts for Vera to take some steps to improve her life and Helena’s.  Vera cuts her long hair and takes up the position as a matron at a progressive  boarding school but Fairfields turns out to be far from progressive.  The headmistress and so called teachers are misfits.  There are some funny episodes of sex discussion at Fairfield.

It’s her father’s visit that makes Vera understand that Fairfields is unbearable. She misses her good friend Gertrude and her letters. She realizes she was not a good friend to Gertrude who only wanted to help her. She writes again to Ramsden asking for help.  It was Ramsden who explained love to her. Ramsden said:

“that the person you loved was not an end in itself, was not something you come to an end of but what was the beginning of discoveries which could be made because of loving someone”.

Vera and Helena escape to London and stay overnight at a women’s night shelter.  Here in an old magazine she finds a ‘positions vacant’ advertisement requesting a housekeeper for a brother and sister. She arrives late at night and wet, only to find the position has been filled, but the Georges offer her a bed for the night.  Conveniently, Vera replaces the sick maid, and is soon sleeping in Oliver George’s bed while his sister teaches Helena.  They are a refined couple. There are books and music in the house.

Mr George is a professor. He is older than her father.  Vera relates her imagined conversations with her mother.

‘How can you say that…you can’t call her Rachel, Rachel was the queen of the prostitutes…

How could you, with your education and your background breed like a rabbit – You’re always saying that  for years you’ve said it.  I’ve told you, rabbits have six, I only have one.

When Mr George asks what she wants she replies ‘a gas boiler and I’d like to be a doctor’.   The story ends with Vera seeming to receive both – and a bonus, another child.  I will have to read The George’s Wife, to find out.

Many thanks for sharing this review, Meg!  Those imagined conversations made me get out my own copy of Cabin Fever, because they are so potent.  In fact, the novel begins with such a conversation in what is a second prologue, after the first one which locates the narrator at the top of the hotel:

‘I should never have given you the book about Elizabeth Ney.’

‘Whyever… She was a sculptor and an artist … She…’

‘She had a baby in that book without being married.’

‘Oh!  Really!’

‘It must have given you ideas…’

‘Don’t, do not be so utterly stupid.  How can you be so stupid!’

‘Keep your voice down.  You don’t want the others to hear you speaking to your mother like that.’

It’s all I can do not to drop everything else and continue reading the novel!

Author: Elizabeth Jolley
Title: Cabin Fever
Publisher: Viking (Melbourne) 1990 (I think that Viking was by then the literary fiction imprint of Penguin Books)
ISBN: 0670831557 / 9780670831555 (First edition hardback)


  1. Quite magnificent, thank you. Renaissance music is top of the pops for me. I love to sing anything from de La Rue through to Purcell. The most wonderful piece I have sung in over the past decade has been Vittoria’s requiem of 1605.


    • You’re welcome! I love that whole period, I love the purity of the instruments, and I love hearing them in a venue that approximates the intimacy of the original places where this music was played. The WWAF is a unique feature of our cultural landscape and we are so lucky to have it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m yet to make it to Woodend for the festival (terrible really, given that my brother lives in Kyneton!).


    • Oh gosh, so you don’t even have to pay for a bed for the night AND you can have dinner at Cafe Colenso which has (sadly) moved from Woodend to Kyneton. I *loved* their style of cooking…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember Max Gillies, back in the day when I was a Melbournian and could go in to Fitzroy for comedy (I glimpsed Paul from DAAS on a quiz show last night, what a comedown!). But to the subject at hand, loving Meg’s analyses of EJ’s fictionalized life.


    • Oh yes, Paul, how sad is that…
      But local comedy is not what it was. Nobody seems to be able to do satire any more…


  4. […] See Meg’s guest review at ANZ LitLovers […]


  5. […] reviews of the first two in the trilogy by clicking these links: My Father’s Moon and Cabin Fever. These reviews of Jolley’s semi-autobiographical novels prompt me to make time to […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: