Elizabeth Jolley is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers; her strange, gothic fiction has enjoyed both critical and commercial success. This book is a biography examining part of her life; it is written by her step-daughter, Susan Swingler, the only child of Leonard Jolley’s first marriage.
Swingler is a talented author in her own right, and the story that she tells is a disturbing one. When she was four years old, her parents separated – later to divorce – and Leonard Jolley moved from England to Australia, remarried and had other children with his second wife, Elizabeth. This scenario is obviously not an uncommon one; the deception that surrounded it , however, led to a story that is stranger than fiction.
The web of lies that Leonard and Elizabeth Jolley chose to build around their marriage – the House of Fiction in the book’s title – affected the lives of many people. Swingler discovered in her early twenties that her father and step-mother had passed their daughter Sarah off as her, sending letters written in her name back to their English relatives. In a time before Facebook and Skype, such deception was possible: Leonard Jolley’s father and sister believed that he was living in Australia with his first wife and their daughter, Susan.
The motives for this bizarre behavior are never made clear. Swingler struggles to understand her parents’ and step-mother’s choices, and her beautifully-written book is a testimony to her fairness and generosity of spirit. As she questions her relatives and searches through the letters, diaries and photographs that uncover the family’s secrets, she makes other strange discoveries. She and her ‘Australian’ half-sister were born within a few weeks of one another, when Leonard was still married to his first wife, Joyce. An old black-and-white photograph shows her father in an English cottage garden, holding both babies in his arms. The photographer is her parents’ close friend, Monica Knight – the woman who lived and wrote in Australia under the name of Elizabeth Jolley.
Jolley’s gothic Australian fiction is characterized by odd family relationships, curious representations of motherhood and mysterious men and women. Susan Swingler makes it clear that she is not attempting to transpose her own situation as Elizabeth’s step-daughter, or the circumstances of her father’s second marriage, into the fiction – nevertheless, as a reader of both writers’ work, I found myself puzzling over a range of questions. How much does an author’s subconscious influence their writing? What are we to make of the victimized male and female characters in the novels? And what will Elizabeth Jolley’s biographers discover when her papers, now held under embargo in the Mitchell Library, are made available to researchers in a decade’s time?
Above all, where does the true story lie: in the biography, in the unseen archives or in the fiction?