Saturday, February 24, 2007

Legendary WA author Elizabeth Jolley dies at 83

February 21, 2007: One of Australia's most acclaimed authors, Elizabeth Jolley, has died at the age of 83. Professor Jolley died in a nursing home in Perth last week after a long illness. Her remarkable literary range included 14 novels, poetry, short stories and radio plays.

Elizabeth Jolley was born in Birmingham, England, moved to Australia in 1959 and was 53 years old when her novel was first published.

Days after attending the small private funeral with a dozen of Jolley's family and friends, the writer's biographer and friend Brian Dibble said he was sad he had not completed an authorised biography of her life, parts of which she had read and corrected, before she died. But he said the biography, which he hoped to complete this year, would omit sensitive material he was given exclusive permission by Jolley to read in extensive archives of her manuscripts, letters and diaries held at the NSW Mitchell Library.

Dibble, a Curtin University academic who gave Jolley her first teaching job in Perth in the mid-1970s, said the archive contained unpublished manuscripts that Jolley later disassembled and used parts of in her novels.

"And there are certainly unpublished stories," he said. "It's chockablock with material, even shopping lists which she kept assiduously. But she restricted everything beyond the manuscripts themselves."

The sensitivity surrounded diary entries describing aspects of her parents' marriage and her own marriage to librarian Leonard Jolley, who died in 1994. Dibble said Jolley felt strongly that it was not appropriate to make them public while her three children Sarah, Richard and Ruth, who are all in their fifties, were alive, or until about 25 years after her death. Confirming the arrangement, Mitchell Library senior curator Paul Brunton said the library held 67 boxes of Jolley's writings.

"It's a very complete literary collection," he said. "What's not publicly available are her detailed diaries, written before and after she came to Australia." Dibble was sitting by Jolley's bedside with his partner Barbara Millich when she died in a Perth nursing home, aged 83, early last Tuesday morning.

Professor of English at the University of Western Australia, Dennis Haskell says: "She had so many manuscripts in the drawer, Elizabeth seemed to be publishing books faster than anyone could read them," he said. Her novels include Miss Peabody's Inheritance, Palomino and Mr Scobie's Riddle. Professor Haskell says she had an original style of writing.

"She seemed to bring something rather different to our literature, a kind of odd eccentric bunch of characters dealing with often very dark issues, a lot of things about death that were sometimes treated very humorously so she was known for her black humour," he said. He says she was an inspiration to other Australian authors.

"Helen Garner was very close to her and she was very important to Tim Winton, she taught for quite a few years at Curtin University in creative writing and Tim Winton was a student there and they became very good friends," he said.

With her husband Leonard, who was head librarian of the Reid Library at UWA, she raised a family and held down jobs as a librarian, a saleswoman, a cleaner and a nurse. All the while, Elizabeth Jolley would write down her observations on scraps of paper and bury them in drawers, observations which surfaced years later when the publishing world finally recognised her talents. Her first collection of short stories called Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories finally put her on the road to literary success in 1976. A decade later, she won the Miles Franklin Award for her novel The Well.

It's often said Elizabeth Jolley contrived an image of herself to amuse herself and those closest to her. Literary critic Peter Craven said: "She came across like a rather dithery old lady, she was a bit kind of Miss Marple-like and she was extraordinarily talented as a writer, she was a great master of black comedy."

Helen Garner exchanged letters with Jolley for close to 20 years. "I found her completely hilarious and I think, like a lot of writers, she developed a kind of persona to get through the world," Garner told the ABC. "Hers was the batty old grandmother. She was a sort of comforting presence to me, I suppose she was the kind of person who, she would give advice if asked. And I remember writing to her once and saying that I couldn’t sleep after some sad thing had happened to me and she wrote back and said, if you can’t sleep, don’t just like there. She said, get up, make yourself a cup of tea, get a biscuit and do your tax return."

"She certainly broadened our appreciation of what Australian writing might be," said Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press, the publisher who issued Jolley’s first collections of short stories. "She celebrated people in our community who had hitherto been largely neglected. That’s a huge contribution."

"Her other big contribution was as a teacher and mentor to other writers. She also showed it was possible to make a career, to be a writer from this place, to be distinctive and new and original in ways that perhaps hadn’t happened before."

Jolley’s childhood had a profound influence on her thematic concerns as a writer. Both her parents were Quakers — she was educated in a Quaker boarding school — and her mother was the daughter of an Austrian general. During the 1930s the Jolley household was always full of refugees from Europe as the clouds of war gathered.

"My mother and father were both pacifists and they welcomed exiles into our home," Jolley told The Fremantle Arts Review in 1988, the year she was awarded the Order of Australia for services to literature. "It created a mysterious world for us children. My sister and I had to sleep on a slippery horsehair rug. We resented it, partly because we did not know what was happening and also because the needs of the family came second to performing good deeds for these unfortunates. My parents were idealists."

"Looking back at a lifetime’s writing, I have been preoccupied with the territorial needs of people, migration and the refugee experience, the sense of exile."

Elizabeth Jolley was made a Professor of Creative Writing at Curtin University in 1998. She received an Order of Australia and was declared a national treasure.

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