Elizabeth Jolley – all too human

Here’s my Sydney Morning Herald review (5/5/12) of Susan Swingler’s memoire, The House of Fiction – Leonard, Susan and Elizabeth Jolley, Fremantle Press

Elizabeth Jolley was a tricky customer. In our radio interviews she posed as an eccentric, bird-like elderly lady, with singular dress-sense (she was fond of cheesecloth, cardigans and sandals) and she had a tendency to avoid direct questions.

She would feign deafness or confusion and when the opportunity came to race ahead with a thought that was irrelevant to the book, she would take it and run. She was skittish and impossible to corral. And very entertaining.

She wrote about lesbians and surrogate mothers, murder and rape, incest and adultery. Her characters were nurses and loners and cleaning ladies. She was drawn to stories of family misunderstandings.

Her periodical returns to triangulated relationships were thought to be a reflection of her own family in which a neighbour, “Mr Berrington”, not only came on family holidays, but was her Viennese mother’s lover for 20 years from the mid-1930s to his death in 1953, upon which he left her mother a huge inheritance.

But there was a spectacular triangulation in Jolley’s own life between her married lover Leonard (soon to be her husband), his then-wife Joyce ( who was not aware of the triangle) and the two children he fathered, one to each woman and born five weeks apart, first Sally and then the author of this memoir, Susan Swingler.

Those of us who are puzzled about the circumstances of our births pose awkward questions of those who went before us. Swingler’s luck is that she was born into a time and a family that took letter-writing (and letter-keeping) seriously, and that the woman who took her father away was a keeper of journals and diaries and became a famous writer of gothic family tales. Sources that make an enviable bedrock for interpretation, guesswork, frustration and mystery.

Susan’s father wanted her mother to tell her he was dead. It’s a mythic tale of invidious choice – not just which woman to choose, but which child.

Swingler is evocative on post-war Britain, which didn’t offer many possibilities to a woman and child whose husband and father had deserted them and who wished to remain together.

Plucky Joyce took teaching jobs in a variety of schools (as did Elizabeth before Leonard decided to go with her) and Swingler’s memoir reminds us that while adults want to protect us from socially awkward truths, they let us run loose in schoolyards peopled by junior psychopaths and bullies.

Susan wrote letters to her father – the answers came from Elizabeth, sending her father’s love, and always reminding Susan how happy she must be.

Although the letters were often banal (“If I try and write factual things or real things I become very wooden with the writing. I can only write when I’m under the pressure of the imagination,” she once told me) it was as if Jolley was creating a story of a happy girl and her happy life with her doctor husband and two happy children – unwilling to entertain any critique of the choices that she and Leonard had made.

It’s staggering that she also wrote letters to Leonard’s family back in England in the early years purporting to be from Joyce and Susan in Australia, as if Leonard had never left them.

And worst of all, the letter she wrote as “Joyce” was in a whiny voice, most unlike the woman who was loyal to the promises she had foolishly made to protect her husband and secrete from his family what he had done.

What should we expect of our revered writers more than that they tell us stories in which we may lose ourselves? What does it matter what goes on in their cupboards, their bedrooms and their hearts?

That’s true of course, but as Swingler says in reading Jolley’s books, “I would sense that I shared something ghostly with the characters or situations she created. It was as if I was looking into a shattered mirror which reflected fragments of my mother’s life and troubling glimpses of my own past…”

It is moving to follow Swingler’s story, her shifts between puzzlement and anger, hurt and moral outrage, and finally to mature wisdom. She understands that Elizabeth and Leonard were passionately in love, and that Leonard was a very difficult man. She has a right to know why her parents did what they did, and her approach is intelligent and fair.

And what might the ghost of Elizabeth Jolley say? Perhaps she’d (mis)quote the Auden epigraph from her novel, “The Accommodating Spouse”: “Blame no one. Blame, if you must, the human situation.”

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