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The Centenary of Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007): Legacy of a Curtin Literary Great

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Elizabeth Jolley portrait photo

Image: Elizabeth Jolley, date unknown. Courtesy of Fremantle Press.

Curtin University lecturer Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007) was a critically acclaimed, bestselling author in the 1980s and 1990s. She wrote quirky, dream-like novels and short stories. One of her best-known novels, The Well, won the Miles Franklin Award in 1986. Her friend and colleague at Curtin, writer Philip Salom, describes her work as ‘mirth and malice’. In 2005, The Age newspaper wrote ‘Elizabeth Jolley has been a gentle giant of the Australian literary world’; Susan Sheridan called her ‘one of the great originals of Australian literature’.

To honour the centenary of her birth on 4 June 2023, Curtin University Library has curated an exhibition about her life, work, and connection to Curtin, on level 3 of the Robertson Library. Curtin academics Brian Dibble and Barbara Milech donated their Elizabeth Jolley Research Collection to the Library in 2008, the year Dibble’s authoritative biography on Jolley was published. University Archives has kindly lent us items from their collection to complement the material we hold in the Library. Items on display include rare publications by Jolley with her annotations, handwritten letters from Jolley to her typist of thirty years, a bowl painted by Jolley, posters and tickets for adaptations of her works, and translations of her books. You can also read an article on the centenary of Elizabeth Jolley written by one of our librarians, Nathan Hobby, for the State Library of New South Wales Open Book magazine here.

Elizabeth Jolley was born Monica Elizabeth Knight in England on 4 June 1923. She trained as a nurse during the Second World War, meeting a patient named Leonard Jolley. Both Elizabeth and the wife of Leonard Jolley fell pregnant to him in the same year, and Leonard eventually left his wife Joyce and that daughter, to live with Elizabeth and their daughter. The complicated family drama is explored in House of Fiction (2012) by Leonard’s daughter, Susan Swingler. Elizabeth and Leonard eventually married and moved to Perth in 1959 when Leonard was appointed University Librarian at the University of Western Australia. While raising three children and working odd jobs to pay her typing bill, Jolley kept writing through many rejections until finally achieving publication in her fifties and fame in her sixties.

Next week’s blog post explores Jolley’s late literary success and the reasons to read her work today. 

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