20 Classics #10: The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

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.

What’s next?

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.

25 thoughts on “20 Classics #10: The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

  1. I picked up a cheap Penguin copy of The Well at a secondhand shop a few years ago. I didn’t expect much from it, but loved it! Jolley excellently captured life in an Australian country town in that time period, and the story rolled along well. In fact, I liked it so much I bought it a new copy for my reading group’s Christmas lucky dip last year. Definitely worth reading!  

  2. Wow, I didn’t realise it was only written in the 80s! Have been meaning to read this for a while; your post might just spur me on to actually do it 😉

  3. Another to add to my list – I haven’t read a lot by Elizabeth Jolley despite her impressive reputation
    Thanks for sharing your review

    Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out

  4. I love Jolley … she’s pretty dark. I like to call her my antipodean Jane Austen. I know that sounds weird because she’s very different – she’s late 20th century for a start … but she’s wicked and so was Jane Austen for her time I think in her observations about people. Jolley though is more about the interior, whereas Austen is more about exterior pressures. Hmmm … perhaps Olga Masters was our antipodean Austen! Anyhow, great review Angela.

      • Oh good, I’m glad you do. My Jane Austen group once discussed who we thought were Austen’s literary descendants and our responses depended on what aspect of Austen we focused on – her focus on women’s experience, her focus on small communities (and women), her wit/irony/wickedness (or, what I sometimes call her clear-eyed if not acerbic view of humanity). It was a fascinating discussion.

  5. I love this book! It’s one I like to return to every now and then. That creepy relationship between Hester and Katherine is delicious. Jolley is the queen of mood and it’s a classic for me.

  6. I got myself a secondhand copy of this book when you let slip last year that you were doing it for your “20 Classics.” I’ve read a fair few of Jolley’s short stories, but none of her novels, and this seems a little remiss of me. So, for the meantime, I have whizzed my way down here through the blog and the other comments (because I’m allergic to plot spoilers; I won’t even read back-cover blurbs) to say that I will check back here again once I’ve read it!

    • Hi Glen (when you come back!), happy to hear your thoughts. And I try not to give any spoilers in my blog posts, just so you know for future reference. If I do I give a *spoiler warning*. But I know what you mean. Sometimes I skim reviews as I’m afraid to learn too much!

  7. She was gracious – Elizabeth was. I feel I can call her by her first name as I once spilled a drink over her on a flight east from Perth. I was wordless, no apology would come out. She smiled and showed good humour and warm concern for me and my panic rather than the stain on her outfit. Read her.

  8. This sounds good 🙂 I have a library copy of ‘Mr. Scobie’s Riddle’ that I need to get to soon… but I have so many other good books to read 😦

  9. Elizabeth Jolley visited Uni Tas when I was an undergrad there, might’ve even been an English lit class. I remember her saying that she was told to stop capitalising her nouns (the German thing, I guess), when she first started sending out her work. I haven’t read enough of her — just her short stories.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ivy. You should definitely add The Well to your pile. I have some of the short stories here that I plan to get to.

  10. Hi Angela
    Thanks for waving the AWW flag among the classics.

    It’s years since I read The Well, but you’ve brought it all back to me. A “dark cosiness” indeed! And I agree with Sue (Whispering Gums) about the wickedness – although it’s always mixed with humour: you’re laughing, but disturbed, too.

    Thanks again for your contribution to #aww2012.

  11. I was really interested to read your thoughts on this one because I’ve read two of her novels so far as my AWW challenge reading, just enough to know that I definitely want to read more of her work, and what you’ve had to say about that here underscores my intentions of doing so!

    • Ooh, excellent. I’ll have to go and have a look at your reviews! I have a few more of her books sitting here.

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