The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley

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The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: An intelligent, brave, determined woman struggles to make a life for herself and her young daughter in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and then emigrates to Australia, in this work of autobiographical fiction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 553 Date: August 2010
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0892553525

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The Vera Wright Trilogy contains three novels – My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever and The Georges' Wife - in one beautifully presented edition. First published about 20 years ago, they are apparently partly autobiographical, telling the story of a woman's life from the 1940s onwards – work, children, parents, romantic and sexual relationships and friendships.

This passage from Cabin Fever describes well the appeal of this book:

Fiction places people where they belong in society. There is no such thing he said as a dated novel. The novel set in a particular time gives a picture of that time with all the details of life as it was lived then.

At the start of My Father's Moon, Vera is a single mother, leaving home with her young daughter to go to work at a school. She then tells the story of her life before this, leaving school to train as a nurse at a military hospital (during WWII), forming shifting friendships and alliances with her colleagues, and becoming intimate friends with a doctor and his wife.

There is overlap in the time period covered by the three novels as Vera goes backwards and forwards in her memories. Cabin Fever, significantly longer than the other two novels, also covers her pregnancy, including her last few months at the hospital, as she tries to conceal her interesting condition and eventually leaves before it becomes a subject of gossip, especially as the father of her baby is apparently now dead, but is rumoured to have impregnated many of her colleagues. Although the story is told in the voice of a much older woman, I thought it was worth remembering that Vera is barely out of her teens. It is not surprising that she doesn't want her romantic love affair to be talked about as just another of Dr Metcalf's conquests.

As a single mother, she takes a series of jobs which will provide her with somewhere to live with her daughter. Some of these jobs are ghastly, but Vera rarely descends into self-pity for too long. Jolley's writing is dryly witty, and the miseries and joys of her life are portrayed with vividness and humour.

There is a big cast of other characters, including Vera's parents, friends, colleagues, lovers, employers others. Some have quite a big and/or recurring role in her story, others remain quite shadowy figures in Vera's memory. I was particularly amused and touched by the account of Vera's mother as, despite her embarrassment at her daughter's illegitimate child and other choices, she is a doting and caring grandmother.

Vera is sexually adventurous in a way which may surprise some readers of a novel set in this period. The sex is generally offstage and is not directly described, but some startling revelations come in apparently throwaway lines and comments.

In The Georges' Wife, previously not published outside Australia, Vera finds a happy future in an unconventional set up. Then, like her creator, she emigrates to Australia with her husband, but on the long journey by ship across the world, she makes another new friend, my widow and they confide all kinds of things in each other. This is one of the most directly described friendships in the book and it is a fascinating portrait of how two very different women find something to draw them to each other.

Vera is a brave, determined and intelligent woman who persists through a lot of difficult situations in looking for a living and a home for herself and her daughter, and I found her a really engaging character. Persea is apparently planning further reprints of Elizabeth Jolley's work and I plan to look out for them, as well as reading the other Jolley books I already own Thank you very much to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book interests you, you might also like the insight into 1930s college-educated American women's lives offered by Mary McCarthy's The Group, reprinted by Virago in 2009. Another tough, independent and unconventional woman is Iraqi university teacher May Witwit, and you can read her email correspondence with Bea Rowlatt in Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad. You might also appreciate The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades and Standing Water by Terri Armstrong.

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