Miss Peabody's Inheritance

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Penguin Books, 1985 - Fiction - 157 pages
Miss Peabody, a lonely spinster in London, writes a fan letter to Diana Hopewell, an Australian novelist. In reply, Hopewell sends installments of her novel-in-progress, the zany adventures of a trio of gently lesbian ladies, a headmistress and two companions, touring Europe with a hapless student. With each mail delivery, Miss Peabody's involvement with the novelist and her characters intensifies until fantasy and reality poignantly merge.

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About the author (1985)

Elizabeth Jolley was born in Birmingham, England as Monica Elizabeth Knight in 1923. She was educated privately until age 11, when she was sent to Sibford School, a Quaker boarding school. At 17 she began training as nurse in London and was exposed firsthand to the horrors of World War II. She emigrated to Australia in 1959 with her husband Leonard and three children. Something of a literary phenomenon in Australia, Elizabeth Jolley published her first book of short stories, Five Acre Virgin and Other Stories, in 1976, and her first novel, Palomino, in 1980. By the end of the 1980s she had produced an amazing amount of work, which rapidly gained her fame and admiration in Australia and abroad. That she is celebrated as a brilliant new Australian novelist seems a bit ironic. After all, she is English by birth, coming in 1959 at the age of 36 to the isolated western Australian city of Perth. Still, she sets most of her work in and around Perth, and her Australian characters ring true, even if some Australian critics have perhaps correctly noted that Jolley's view of Australia and its people is that of an outside observer. During Jolley's first 15 or so years in Perth, she began writing but remained unpublished, and worked at odd jobs such as nursing, housecleaning, and farming. These experiences she put to good use, for many of her characters engage in similar occupations. For instance, one of her delightful early novels, The Newspaper of Claremont Street (1981), follows a cleaning lady on her daily rounds. Jolley's nursing experience shows up in Mr. Scobie's Riddle (1982), which takes place in a nursing home and displays an admirable understanding of both patients and staff. Two of her novels, The Well (1986) and Palomino (1980), are set on isolated farms, both depicting relationships between two women caught in a state of isolation. Jolley also relies on her English background, especially her work as a nurse during World War II, the subject of My Father's Moon (1989). Miss Peabody's Inheritance (1983), one of Jolley's most interesting novels, combines the Australian and British experiences as it reveals the ironic relationship between a lonely, pathetic Englishwoman and an Australian woman she thinks lives a life of adventure and glamour. The writer also figures in Jolley's work, as in the novel Foxybaby (1985), whose peculiar events unfold---or are imagined or dreamed---in a remote summer institute for writers at which the central character is a featured guest. However well the plot of a Jolley novel may be summarized, the retelling hardly does it justice, for Jolley is not so much a storyteller as a fabulist. A nurse is not just a nurse, a housekeeper not just a housekeeper, two women on a farm not just two women: always there intrudes the Gothic element, the bizarre, the strange twists, the quirky narrative structure, elements of the macabre, the irony. The theme of personal isolation and dislocation dominates Jolley's fiction---that theme so central to many postcolonial writers. Possibly one of the fascinations Jolley's work holds for the reader lies in its ambiguity. Elizabeth Jolley passed away in July 2007 of dementia.

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