Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 15, 2022

Jack and Jill, by Helen Hodgman

1978

Novellas in November is a good time to tackle some of the backlog of Aussie titles from the 20th century.

The late Helen Hodgman (1945-2022) was a Tasmanian author of six highly regarded novels. Jack and Jill (1978) was her second novel (after Blue Skies, 1976, see my review) and it won the Somerset Maugham Award.

Although Jack and Jill is set in outback NSW, this macabre novella has the ambience of Tasmanian Gothic.  This is the blurb:

Undeterred by the dust and flies of outback New South Wales, Jill and her dad were happy; theirs was a simple, uncluttered life after Jill’s mother died.

Until Jack came, presenting himself at their door one dinner-time when the homely stench of singed mutton chop hung on the air.  Like the nursery rhyme, it was the start of no ordinary romance.

From the first page, Hodgman demolishes any ideas of a bucolic lifestyle.

Wilma Limb lay beneath greying bedclothes, so thin she barely raised a bump.  Her daughter Jill, that impatient baby, pounded her tight-shut lids with blunt fingers.  The bruised flesh slit open far enough to release a flicker of jaundiced spite and then closed again.  Eager for more attention, Jill gathered a fold of flaky skin from her mother’s cheek and pinched.  Wilma groaned and clawed at her, parting her lips in a rigid grin, a slight scum gathering at the corners of her mouth.  Crowing happily, Jill fled to the kitchen.  The black wiry hair that framed her round face in a halo of crinkly strands shone in the morning sun.  ‘Little Bottle Brush’, her father called her.  Today there was no Daddy to tickle and tease her.  He was off mending fences. (p.7)

By the time he comes back, Jill has been alone in the house with her mother’s corpse for four days.

Spurning curiosity and probable judgements about his wife’s ghastly end, Douggie sets off for elsewhere with Jill, abandoning her occasionally for overnight trysts with the policeman’s wife.  He locks Jill inside with the Correspondence School wireless set so that she can’t skive off.  He doesn’t want any stickybeaking stranger accusing him of not doing his best.  

And he does do his best, running his farm single-handed, buying books for her from Sydney  and even learning to knit.  They’re better off than most…

Douggie heard over the wireless set how things were bad.  The jolly swagmen increased.  Each carried his woeful tale of no jobs, dole queues, steakless days and hard times.  As they told of wives and kiddies left behind in squalor, Jill grinned at her father, poked fun at them behind their unmanly backs.  She didn’t trust these no-hopers and kept an eye on them from the tops of trees, lying in wait to drop dead leaves down the backs of their necks.  (p.13)

By now, Jill is five.

Jack turns up, from Melbourne, and Douggie takes him on as a farmhand.  Jack builds himself a shack across the yard from the house and lugged an armchair over for him to sit in after his evening meal. In faraway Sydney, the harbour bridge is built in 1923, but this symbol of progress and vision of a splendid future has no impact on the grudging lives they lead.

And disaster strikes again when Douggie is badly injured and becomes reliant on Jack.

When Jill is 13, a teacher called Miss Thomas arrives, along with the district school, and a belated introduction to convention (including the taking of baths.) It is Miss Thomas who sets Jill’s career as a writer of children’s books in train. The books feature a wombat called Barnaby, meaning “son of consolation”.

But it is Jack who takes advantage of her wild nature and innocence.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Jack and Jill is a dark tale, very dark indeed.  As in the rhyme, Jack falls, not ‘breaking his crown’ but losing the use of his legs in WW2.  And Jill ‘tumbles after’, but not falling into injury.  Rather, she is pursuing him with sadistic revenge.

The final pages form a macabre nativity scene.  Mirroring Jack’s arrival and role in the novel, Raelene turns up as a stray and stays to become housekeeper and secretary to Jill.  She also becomes Jack’s lover, and when the inevitable happens, she gives birth in a barn with two sheep and a goat, with Jill armed with the midwives textbook and a jar of laughing gas.

The title alludes not just to a nursery rhyme. Jack and Jill (and a magical potion) also feature in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jill quotes the lines on the last page:

Barnaby, the little beauty, dribbled peacefully into his blue bunny rug.  It was an extraordinarily happy ending.  Jill had noted the fact, searching her memory for some suitable quote.

Jack shall have Jill,
Nought shall go ill  W.S.

It was simple, she thought, but classical.  And then, since it was to be the last entry, she initialled and dated it. (p.111)

What she doesn’t quote is Shakespeare’s next line:

The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.
(Puck, Act 3 Scene 2)

Which mare?  Where is Raelene?


I read this book for Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at Bookish Beck, and for AusReading Month hosted by Brona at This Reading Life.

 

Jack and Jill is available as a Text Classic, see here. Virago also published it along with Blue Skies, (1990, ISBN: 9780140162103) if you can find a copy.

Author: Helen Hodgman
Title: Jack and Jill
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1980, first published by Duckworth in 1978
Coer illustration by James Marsh
ISBN: 0140055541, pbk., 111 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShopfind.


Responses

  1. Wow, that does sound quite a dark and troubling narrative. That description of Jack wafting the stench of singed mutton chop is very evocative isn’t it?

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    • Yes, from what I’ve read of her work, her themes were dark. I have more on the TBR…

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  2. I’ve only read one of hers, with my reading group in our first years. I always intended to read more but so far haven’t managed too. Good on you for working through your TBR!

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  3. I skipped the end of your review Lisa because this sounds really interesting and I want to add it to my potential pile for next year! Sounds like the setting is very atmospheric.

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  4. […] Jack and Jill by Helen Hodgman – Lisa at ANZ LitLovers […]

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  5. Wow, that *does* sound dark, Lisa. I have owned at least on of her titles in Virago, but I’m not sure if I have it any more. Hoping I have – will have to have a dig…

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    • Virago, Goodreads tells me, published Jack and Jill along with Blue Skies in the same edition. If you’ve got that one, you’ve got two for the price of one.
      One of the interesting things about Virago is that they published a number of *Australian* women authors, bringing them to attention around the world.

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  6. Very dark, indeed. I’ll see if I can get it for my kindle.
    I searched for some more info on the author (Hodgman being a well-known name on Tasmania’s political landscape) and discovered Helen Hodgman was born in Scotland so probably no connection there. Sad that Parkinsons took her away from us even before her death.

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    • Hi Karenlee, you are right, HH was born in Scotland, but we claim her as Australian!
      That is such a cruel disease…

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  7. A very dark one indeed, I am panicking slightly about getting the rest of my AusReading Month books in so this has spurred me on to pick up one. Which one, though?!

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    • Yes, the month is rushing by…

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  8. […] Jack and Jill | Helen Hodgman (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LItLovers) […]

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  9. […] Jack and Jill | Helen Hodgman (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LItLovers) […]

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