Good Reading : July 2006
both enjoyed writing long, chatty letters. Elizabeth became something like a beloved aunt to me. I’m not sure what I was to her, but we shared a world view and an empathy, each understanding exactly what the other meant, even when the words came out clumsily. Sometimes I would, without thinking, finish Elizabeth’s sentences for her, a habit which she may have found irritating but kindly claimed to like because she said I always got her meaning right. For the next two years I was knocking on publishers’ doors with Elizabeth’s man- uscripts: a new collection of short stories and two novels.There was plenty of polite interest, but it wasn’t until 1982 that the University of Queensland Press finally took on one of the novels and Penguin accepted the other, plus the collection of stories. So in 1983 Elizabeth had three books pub- lished, and one of them, Mr Scobie’s Riddle, won The Age Book of the Year Award. Suddenly Elizabeth became the writer to watch, and the Literature Board awarded her a two-year writer’s fellowship. With great grace, Elizabeth chose to believe that much of her success was due to my efforts on her behalf. While it was obviously beneficial for her to have some- one on the eastern side of the country pushing her work, I was very much aware that in fact her success reflected glory on me and my still-small agency. As the years passed, and Elizabeth became established as one of Australia’s major contemporary writers, we each became entrenched in our view, which made for a most harmo- nious friendship! We would meet at literary festivals around the country and even, on one occasion, flew to England together when Elizabeth was doing a reading with Edna O’Brien at London’s South Bank Centre. She was then at the height of her fame, with publishers all over the world bidding for the rights to her novels. She had won most of Australia’s literary prizes, one of her novels had been adapted for the stage and another, The Well, had been filmed, starring Miranda Otto and Pamela Rabe. Although invitations to speak, write arti- cles and even accept honorary degrees abounded, Elizabeth always maintained an amused detachment from her own fame. She enjoyed it, but never forgot the years of rejection. When I decided to sell the agency in 1993, what I dreaded most was telling Elizabeth. She was indeed very distressed, as I was, that our relationship would now change. Fortunately it survived, however, as our correspondence attests.The next year I went to work in Bangkok, and Elizabeth’s humorous letters were a large part of what kept me going in trying circumstances. Her husband Leonard died after many years of illness, and although Elizabeth was bereft by this loss, her stream of letters continued unabated.We found we could be honestly melancholy together, confessing to deeply negative feelings which we tried to hide from others. In 1992 Penguin published a book of Elizabeth’s non-fiction, which I compiled at her request. By 2003, when Elizabeth turned 80, we felt it was time for a new book of pieces. But with Elizabeth now unwell and in a nursing home, it was not possible to consult her over the selection this time.This made me anxious, as well as sad for the lost friendship. The new book, Learning to Dance, is partly my attempt to hold onto my friend, to bring her back from wherever the infirmities of age have sent her. I have tried to assemble a volume which gives the flavour and range of Elizabeth’s work, using mainly non-fiction, but also including some of her fiction and her very rare poems. She was never keen to have her biog- raphy written, although several people approached her, so I have tried to give the book an autobiographical shape which allows her to tell her own story. In a sense this is a farewell book, from me to Elizabeth, and from her to me. To quote the closing lines of EB White’s Charlotte’s Web: ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte [Elizabeth] was both.’ Learning to Dance: Elizabeth Jolly, Her Life and Work, selected and introduced by Caroline Lurie, is published byViking, rrp $39.95A Elizabeth on the verandah of her country home in Wooroloo, WA. ‘Hats for Caroline for Jennifer’s wedding’: Elizabeth’s suggested millinery. The National Library’s card showing part of Elizabeth’s original manu- script for Palomino, her first novel. Elizabeth and Caroline in 1992. Elizabeth’s sketches when she wrote The Goose Path: A Meditation. Artist Dawn Spiers drew this view of the approach to the Wooroloo property.