It is not often that I discover a writer who creates a character who I wish could be a real life friend. Elizabeth Jolley's unforgettable character, Vera Wright, moves through the three novels of her life, My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges' Wife as an irritating, intriguing, and finally utterly beguiling woman. She both defines and defies long-held notions of what it means to be female. The three novels have been released as The Vera Wright Trilogy by Persea Books, and the publication is a must read. Jolley, who published her first works in her fifties, and died in 2007 at the age of eighty-four, was a writer as honest and intelligent as Virginia Woolf. She was as witty, sharp, and engaging as Edith Templeton, and as aware of the traps and promise of being female as Kate Chopin.
In telling the story of Vera Wright, an arresting, complex, and perplexing character, Jolley uses a circular rotation of memories, actions, and observations to create a forward-moving narrative that also looks backward. Much as in real life we move forward, forced to go on by the inexorable passing of days, while still engaged in what has gone before; we never move without the constraints of our past actions, and neither does Vera. Vera's life mirrors that of Jolley herself, raised to go far through education, yet leaving school to become a nurse during World War II. She strikes up friendships and lovers in unexpected places and leaves England for a new life in Australia. Vera must also struggle with unwanted pregnancies, miserable jobs, desperate times, and parents that while loved, cannot not be tolerated for long (Jolley's acuity in portraying the cruelty of children and the ineptness of parental love is profound).
Vera both consciously and unconsciously conjures up scenes from her life again and again. To name a few: the flowers collected in the field by her school; her mother's lamentation that a book about Elizabeth Ney led to Vera's out of wedlock child; the vision of her lover's neck, exposed and vulnerable; a field of deepest green sloping up to meet a house; her habit of peering closely into hedges to avoid confrontation or unpleasantness. The repeated memories evoke Vera's past in the moments when she is struggling most hardily with her present, providing balm to her pain at times, and pouring salt on wounds, at times, better left to heal.
Slowly the memories worked their magic on me as well; they become my memories - I recognized the tone, flavor, and mood set by the words - and Vera became part of me. I understood her as a contradictory and very real person. She is a woman unsure of her identity, coursing with ambition and feverish with need, capable of both calculation and complete naivete. She is a woman vulnerable and wounding, pliable and yet selfish, needy and yet trying for independence, strong at her best, but weak when tired, worn out, or just cold and hungry. Vera Wright is a woman caught up in the changes of the twentieth century, held by a past defined by her parents and determined to make her own future.
The writing of Jolley is so beautiful that at times I stopped to just reread a sentence: "The grass has been trodden down heavily...[t]his seems to enhance its fragrance...as if being crushed it is now all the sweeter, as if adversity can bring about something pleasant." Her words ring with truth: "It is only a such small thing I have to tell. Perhaps it is the small things which are the hardest to tell. They are the things that make all the difference."
Jolley can be surreal and disorienting, as in a scene where dolls become prostitutes and flower sellers: "I place Patsy on the street corner....she persuades me to cut the neck of her dress really low. It looks daring and her pink chest shows." Jolley can be very, very funny, but always within shades of darkness: "Lois spreads the buns with her nursing scissors and, when we have finished eating, she remembers she did a taxi driver's feet with them this afternoon."
The brilliance of Jolley rests not only in her characterization and her language, but also in her understanding of how memories both support and haunt us, and in her ability to relate that understanding to her readers: "Whether things are written down or not they dwell somewhere within and surface unbidden at any time"; "remembered people appear and disappear disconcertingly in the tiniest nutshells of memory"; and "[i]t seems strange now to remember small things from years ago. Perhaps remembering them means they are not so small." Tied in with memory there is always loss, moments and people who cannot be replaced: "understanding the loneliness and despair of knowing it is not possible to bring back a wished for person, and knowing that one person can never replace another, is understanding ... what bereavement is." Remembering can also bring comfort: "It is only then, in this point of remembering, that I can disregard the great distance in time and place and event and...take the few steps that are needed...to receive the blessing of the welcome she [a friend from the past] never failed to give."
The capturing of memories - imagining them and committing them to words and making them into a story - is an apt definition for the art of the novel. Elizabeth Jolley's creation of the life and times of Vera Wright is a beautiful, rich, and layered masterpiece.