by JOHN BARNES
One of the most unsettling experiences in old age is the discovery, after the death of friends whom you thought that you knew well, that you had been unaware of what had been most central to their lives. We live in an age of revelation, when it is easier than it has ever been before to dig up the past; and the public’s ‘right to know’ is freely invoked to justify intrusions into the private lives of the living. The dead, especially celebrities, have always been fair game: ‘uncovering the past’, ‘telling the true story’, and ‘exposing the lies and deception’ are fairly common claims made by biographers. Less common, perhaps, is the claim to have seen someone’s life in its true proportions and to have seen it whole, though that is probably the claim that most justifies the work of a biographer.
We are now at the beginning of what looks like being an Elizabeth Jolley industry, which will come into full production when her papers in the Mitchell Library eventually become available to the public. In 2008 readers might have thought that in Brian Dibble’s biography of Elizabeth they had the full story of her partnership with Leonard; but in 2012 a memoir, The House of Fiction, written by Leonard’s daughter of his first marriage, Susan Swingler (who, ironically, is likely to be remembered as ‘Elizabeth Jolley’s step-daughter’), has revealed for the first time what the publishers call ‘an ethically complex story’ involving not only Leonard’s tangled sexual relationships but his deliberate deception of his family, with the aid of Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth is a writer, and the relationship between biography and art is a real and legitimate area of discussion, in the media coverage of this book more attention has focused on her than on Leonard. The sentimental image of Elizabeth as (in Andrew Riemer’s phrase) the ‘Grandma Moses of Australian letters’ — a guileless and seemingly unsophisticated housewife who surprisingly discovered an ability to write fiction late in life — is now being undermined by an antithetical image of a calculating and heartless writer, whose life was one long deception. One reviewer of the book even goes so far as to call her ‘ruthless’. Neither of these interpretations comes near the Elizabeth that I knew: a sensitive and caring woman, for whom it was easy to feel affection. Nor do I feel comfortable with the summing-up by Brian Dibble that Leonard was ‘egocentric and arrogant’. I can claim no particular insight into their lives and the motives that determined their actions, but because they were two people who mattered so much in my life and have remained so vividly present in my memory, I want to put on record my version of them. It may be that my impressions of Elizabeth and Leonard as I knew them in Perth in the 1960s have been corrupted, in some measure, by my awareness of her later career as a writer and by the recent revelations; but nothing has weakened the feeling for them formed during those years, when my wife and I came to think of them as ‘family’.
The Jolleys arrived in Perth in November 1959, shortly before I returned to Melbourne, having been a temporary Lecturer in English at the University of Western Australia for two years. I did not meet Leonard, who had been appointed University Librarian, until I went back to Perth in 1963, by which time the fruits of his work were already becoming apparent. His deservedly high standing in his profession had been enhanced at UWA where he had successfully fought the battle to get greater library resources. Among the significant events in what was the University’s jubilee year was the opening of the library building — the first time that the library had its own building.
On campus Leonard was an easily recognizable figure, and in memory he was always hurrying along, with the aid of a walking stick. Despite the rheumatoid arthritis that had afflicted him early in adult life, causing swollen joints that must often have been very painful, I never heard him complain. On one occasion when he needed physiotherapy for his hand, he entertained us with accounts of the pretty young female physiotherapist who gave him her hand and exhorted: ‘Squeeze it harder, Mr Jolley, squeeze it harder’. I was fascinated at the first graduation ceremony that I attended to see him clambering on to the Winthrop Hall stage in full academic dress and sandals, the sandals which he always wore presumably being easier than shoes on his feet, deformed by arthritis.
By the time that I came to know him, Leonard had become an influential participant in university affairs. He did not hold back in debate, his opinion carried weight, and his capacity for ridicule made some administrators and academics reluctant to tangle with him. I soon heard stories of his scathing criticism of Academic Board proposals that he did not like. As University Librarian Leonard was entitled to attend meetings of the various faculties. He was probably most at home in the Arts Faculty, where his erudite and ironic contributions to discussion were generally received sympathetically; and some time in the sixties there was a move to put him up for the deanship, a move that was thwarted when someone in administration read the university statute carefully, and pointed out that the dean had to be an academic. He was in the tradition of the scholar librarian, and it often seemed to us in the English Department that, for all intents and purposes, he was an academic colleague. He had a scholarly interest in literature, had always read the latest Times Literary Supplement before we had, was always ready with a literary allusion and would slyly test our knowledge of works that he was most familiar with. So close did he become to the English Department that he did some tutoring (without payment) in an English course that included eighteenth-century authors, in whom he had a special interest. Late in the 1960s, when we invited him to join the small committee that edited Westerly, I don’t think that we knew that he had founded a journal, The Bibliotheck, when he was a librarian at the University of Glasgow.
For someone with his disabilities, Leonard was surprisingly gregarious, and had a wide acquaintance across the university. A criticism that has often been voiced about him is that he ‘did not suffer fools gladly’. Should that be a criticism? Should one suffer fools gladly? I have often wondered how those who so freely make that criticism see themselves. Leonard could produce withering phrases when he felt strongly, and in arguments about university administration he may have ‘tossed and gored several persons’ (as Boswell once told Johnson that he had done). For my part, I always enjoyed talking with him and never felt that he was out to wound, though he was frequently acerbic in his judgments. A Time journalist once wrote of student life at Oxford as ‘jousting with England’s finest minds’; and the word ‘jousting’ seems to me to be exactly right to describe Leonard’s way of conducting a conversation. His face lighted up as he greeted you and produced one of his elegantly turned observations and waited for your reply. He gave the impression of being stimulated by contact with other minds, and he was undoubtedly pleased to display his learning. I had taken it for granted that — unlike myself — Leonard was from a well-educated family; but Susan Swingler reports being told by his sister ‘how ill-educated his family had been and how driven he was’ [p.132]. Knowing now that his grandfather had been illiterate, and his father an autodidact determined that his children should have the best education, I find myself thinking that what some have may have regarded as Leonard’s pedantry or showing-off was a form of self-affirmation.
I quickly got to know Leonard at the university but it was a couple of years before I could say that I knew Elizabeth. The first occasion on which I went to their home was memorable for personal reasons. A few days beforehand, I met Leonard on the campus and told him that I would withdraw from the dinner party to which I had previously accepted an invitation, as Josephine and I had decided to announce our engagement that day. He urged that I should bring Josephine, whom he had never met, and so our first outing as an engaged couple was at the Jolley house in Claremont. It was a very happy occasion, with Leonard toasting us with a shy smile and Elizabeth making us feel that we were old friends of hers. After our marriage at the end of 1965 we lived only a few streets away and saw them often. There was a generational difference, but when we moved to Melbourne in 1970 they were among the Perth friends whom we knew we would miss most.
‘My mother is a very strange person’, remarked Sarah, Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, one day while standing in our garden at Warrandyte….
John Barnes is Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University. This excerpt has been taken from an edited version of an essay to appear in Partial Portraits: Essays in Remembering, a work in progress.
You can read the full version in Westerly 58:2.