Thursday, March 15, 2007

Remembering Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley, who died in mid-February after a long illness, corresponded with my Austrian friends the Wimmers, Adi and Irene, from the time she met Adi in Perth in 1989 until she became incapable of writing letters, in 2002. Adi, who has taught Australian literature and film at the University of Klagenfurt in the Austrian province of Carinthia for many years, has kindly provided his own memoir of Elizabeth for me to post here.

I met Elizabeth in March of 1989 in her Claremont home, as part of an “orientation tour” of Australia’s most important universities, funded by the (then) generous Australia Council. Somehow we hit it off straight away, and I was allowed a second audience two days later when she showed me round the campus of Curtin University. I remember her appearance the same way as Helen Garner does: she was dressed in simple, unfashionable clothes, and wore good sensible shoes over sensible stockings. I liked her for that.

We talked about Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke, two of our favourite authors; I told her there was a glorious “Rilke path” running atop the cliff to the east of Duino, overlooking the Adriatic, where Rilke had spent three years at the expense of the castle’s owner, the Count of “Torre e Tasso.” “Ah nice” was her standard reply to me enthusing the beauty of the site. I asked her about Vienna, one of the locations in her hilarious novel Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, and although she knew Vienna slightly she told me she had made up most of the locations as they appear in the novel.

At the end of my visit she asked me where I would travel next. “Ayer’s Rock” I said, not knowing the name Uluru at that time. “You’ll need a bush hat” she proclaimed and disappeared upstairs, returning in a minute with a sand-coloured hat with a floppy brim. Can you imagine my delight? At my request she signed it with a felt pen. I usually wear that hat when I do my gardening, another interest we shared.

From 1989 to 2002 we conducted a correspondence; she also exchanged letters with my wife Irene. Elizabeth was interested in our descriptions of the aftermath of Nazism in Austria, which unlike Germany had got away with sweeping its involvement with Nazism under the carpet, at least until the Waldheim scam.

She also took a keen interest in my research about Jewish exiles, and wrote movingly how her father between 1933 and 1939 had so often put up Jewish refugees fresh off the boat. She had mixed feelings about these visitors; while she understood that they were deserving of support, she also resented that when she came home from school (Sibford, a Quaker boarding school) she had to kip on the living room settee, as her own bedroom was usually occupied. Once such a refugee walked off with her father’s greatcoat, an episode that must have firmly stuck in her mind because she told me that story twice.

Not long after the publication in 2001 of her last novel An Innocent Gentleman, to my growing consternation, her handwriting became unsure, then frail. The lines would begin to dance on the page, and she made spelling errors. Or she added '(spelling?)', like that, in parenthesis. With hindsight, I realize what agonies she must have experienced at the time. Here she was, one of the cultural treasures of her country, a writer with a wheelbarrow full of medals and awards, and she was losing control over her most precious tool, the English language.

There was quite a flurry of letters in that year, as if she had a premonition the time for letters was fast running out, letters in which she would often repeat a narrative of the previous one. But on the other hand, she also told me a very touching and new story, how her mother Grete had quite recklessly ruined the peace of Christmas Eve (it must have been that of 1939 or 1940) with bitter recriminations because upon getting home from her shift at the hospital, she had dared run a bath for herself to get the hospital smells out of her hair. Mother had expected her to join in the singing of Austrian carols under the already candle-lit Christmas tree, and not even Elizabeth’s conciliatory Quaker father was able to calm down his irate wife.

She had an incredibly hard life in the decade 1939-1949, how hard only a few people know, and they are very protective. The full story has never been told.

Elizabeth’s last letter started with the words, “Dear Franz.” I stared at the page and knew we were going to lose her.

Adi Wimmer


  1. Saw your blog listed at blogsearch.sgi read your interesting article on elizabeth jolley

  2. WOW! Thanks for that. (I remember Mr Wimmer being at an ASAL conference.)

  3. Elizabeth Jolley has inspired lots of tributes - here is another, by Erin, a Perth blogger.

  4. That's such an interesting and tantalizing memoir. I wonder if anyone's yet planning a proper biography of Jolley?

  5. Those last two lines still make me feel teary. They say so much about friendship and loss, and ageing, just in two little lines.