Thursday 22 January 2015

J is for Elizabeth Jolley

Monica Elizabeth Knight was born in Birmingham, England on the 4th June 1923.
She was privately tutored at home until age 11, before being sent to a Quaker school in Banbury for her highschool years. By all accounts, her childhood was not a particularly happy one.

She then trained as an orthopaedic nurse in London. It was here that she met and fell in love with one of her patients - Leonard Jolley (1914 -1994) who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. When Leonard was transferred to Birmingham as a librarian, Monica followed. Unfortunately he was already married to Joyce.

In a bizarre romantic triangle, both women fell pregnant to Leonard at the same time. Elizabeth even moved in with Leonard & Joyce for a while. 
Her daughter, Sarah was born in 1946, 5 weeks before Joyce's daughter, Susan. 
Joyce was told that Elizabeth's daughter was fathered by a doctor dying of TB.

In 1950 Leonard left Joyce & secretly married Elizabeth. They had another two children, Richard and Ruth.

In 1959 they emigrated to Australia with their three children. They settled in Claremont, Perth where Leonard was appointed chief librarian at the University of Western Australia.

Curiously Leonard told his English family that he had emigrated with Joyce & Susan. Elizabeth helped maintain the ruse by writing to the family as Joyce!

Elizabeth began writing in early twenties, but had nothing published until 1976.

In the late 70's she began teaching at Curtin University (or WA Institute of Technology as it was called then). Her most well-known student was Tim Winton.
Elizabeth Jolley (courtesy SMH)

Elizabeth developed dementia in 2000 & died in 2007.

Andrew Reimer"Jolley could assume any one of several personas – the little old lady, the Central European intellectual, the nurse, the orchardist, the humble wife, the university teacher, the door-to-door salesperson – at the drop of a hat, usually choosing one that would disconcert her listeners, but hold them in fascination as well."

Susan Swingler:  "It was one lie leading to another, you do one thing to deceive and then how do you undo it. It snowballs and accumulates until it gets so big that you can't stop it."

Drusilla Modjeska:  "Her novels are so deftly entangled with the material of her life that she has both laid out the terrain and erected a very effective shield."

Romona Koval:  "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."


  • Palomino (1980)
  • The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981)
  • Miss Peabody's Inheritance (1983)
  • Mr Scobie's Riddle (1983)                     Winner Age Book of the Year
  • Milk and Honey (1984)                Winner NSW Premier’s Literary Award (Christina Stead Prize for Fiction)
  • Foxybaby (1985)
  • The Well (1986)                      Winner of the Miles Franklin Award
  • The Sugar Mother (1988)
  • My Father's Moon (1989)                   Winner Age Book of the Year
  • Cabin Fever (1990)
  • The Georges' Wife (1993)                    Winner Age Book of the Year
  • The Orchard Thieves (1995)
  • Lovesong (1997)
  • An Accommodating Spouse (1999)
  • Portrait of Elizabeth Jolley by Peter Kendall 1986
  • An Innocent Gentleman (2001)

Short stories and plays

  • Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories (1976)
  • The Well-Bred Thief (1977)
  • The Travelling Entertainer and Other Stories (1979)
  • Woman in a Lampshade (1983)
  • Off the Air: Nine Plays for Radio (1995)
  • Fellow Passengers: Collected Stories of Elizabeth Jolley (1997)


  • Central Mischief: Elizabeth Jolley on Writing, Her Past and Herself (1992)
  • Diary of a Weekend Farmer (1993)
  • Learning to Dance: Elizabeth Jolley: Her Life and Work (2006)


Doing LIfe by Brian Dibble (2008) 
The House of Fiction by Susan Swingler (2012)

Order of Australia for Services to the Arts (1988)
Elizabeth was made a Professor of Creative Writing at Curtin University in 1998.

My one and only Jolley novel is The Orchard Thieves.

I fell in love with the cover and impulse bought it based on the promise of a story about a family of sisters (I'm one of four sisters).

But I struggled to get into it. I struggled to connect to any of the characters & I failed to fall into Jolley's writing style.

But I was only in my twenties.

A few years ago I decided to reread a few of those pivotal, amazing, life changing books from my 20's. They all fell flat. They no longer said anything to my 30-something self.

And that's okay. Some books are meant to be read and loved by 20-something's only.

I also believe that there are some books and some authors that need to be read when you are older and more experienced (in a literary sense as well as a life sense).
When I read The Orchard Thieves I knew it was being wasted on my 20-something self.

Writing this post has made me very curious about Jolley's very secretive life. I suspect a Jolley bio is on my 40-something horizon!

This post is part of Alphabe-Thursday.


  1. What a life story ! Sad childhood and then sharing her man with another woman ! Maybe that inspired her to write ! Unfortunately I don't know her at all !

  2. As we see over again; life is more thrilling the fiction! What a life.

  3. What an intriguing story. How sad that she never could be her "authentic self".

  4. What a bizarre story, such deception throughout their whole relationship.


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.