I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
There are way too many Australian authors I haven’t read. People told me I’d click with Elizabeth Jolley.
When was it published?
It was first published in 1986, which makes it a very young ‘classic’ (a little younger than me, even), but it is already spoken of as being one. My edition is a lovely orange Popular Penguin.
What’s it about?
Miss Hester Harper adopted Katherine some years ago and now Katherine is growing into a young woman. Hester increasingly fears that Katherine will leave her. They live a cloistered life, indulging in both memory and fantasy, and the money dwindles. One night on the road, they hit something large with the Toyota. In a panic, they drive it to the edge of the well.
Tell us more about the author.
Elizabeth Jolley was born in England in 1923 but we claim her as ‘one of ours’, since her literary career blossomed down under. She grew up in a German-speaking household (and she gives Hester a German-speaking childhood friend/governess in The Well). Jolley did not start to receive literary recognition until she was in her 50s (though she had been writing since her 20s). She won the Age Book of the Year Award three times, for Mr Scobie’s Riddle, My Father’s Moon and The Georges’ Wife) and the Miles Franklin Award for The Well. She was awarded with an AO for services to literature and received no fewer than four honorary doctorates. She was also a pioneer of creative writing teaching in Australia. She died in 2007. Jason Steger said of her, in the Age: ‘As a writer, there was no one like her. She had a distinctive style, idiosyncratic subjects and an original voice. Her work was peopled by eccentric characters and imbued with a deep sense of compassion.’
Elizabeth Jolley memories are welcome in the comments. (I received a few lovely ones via Twitter when I mentioned I was reading this.)
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
There’s such a dark cosiness about this story. There’s the dark well with its unknowable depths, and there’s the small, obsessively protected world of Hester and Katherine. Miss Hester Harper is possessive of Katherine. There are hints of repression, loneliness, the still-grieved loss of her childhood governess, the slow realisation of what really happened and why. In some ways Hester does not want to grow up. And the money allows that.
But then the money is ‘misplaced’. (I won’t give it away.)
Katherine is obsessed with movies and magazines. She loves John Travolta. She’ll adopt different accents and play dress ups. Hester is often annoyed by her. But she is more fascinated by her. Katherine will dress Hester up, too; cook for her, brush her hair. They exist together in a vortex of memory, illusions and fantasies; champagne, cornflakes and poultry.
The neighbours and the townsfolk talk to Hester, hint that it isn’t quite right to keep a young, healthy girl cooped up. They make offers for Katherine to babysit and suggest that she go to more dances. Hester won’t have it. She is also worried about Katherine’s friend from the orphanage who is coming to visit. The novel does something clever with that, too. As you’re reading, you keep thinking that the visit is going to be the big event that comes between them. Hester chats to a local writer at the shop who is writing a novella and must ‘keep to certain rules which have been accepted in literary circles’. She needs an intruder, in her story. There has been an intruder in Hester and Katherine’s story, but the reader is still thinking of the other, potential one (the friend). Both Hester, and the reader, ignore the local writer, in a way, just as Hester ignores everything that may have some impact on the little world she has built with Katherine. She ignores it or tries to make it go away. Through this, Jolley is also playing with the reader’s expectations about what will unfold and when.
Hester has succeeded, by the end, in making their world yet smaller. But it is also beginning to be less cosy, and more shadowy, like the inside of that well.
I need to finish writing up Beckett’s Malone Dies and I’m currently, slowly reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I think I need to exit the 20th Century after that.
I’m counting this post toward my review tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.