‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley

the well

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 234 pages; 2007.

I first read The Well, by Elizabeth Jolley, in the late 1980s, when my sister pressed it into my hand and told me I would love it. I have only vague memories of it, so when Lisa at ANZLitLovers announced she was going to host an Elizabeth Jolley week, I knew this was the book I was going to read and review.

First published in 1986, The Well was Jolley’s seventh novel (she came to writing late; her first book was published in her early 50s). It earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s an exquisitely written tale about love, loneliness and growing old, but it’s also about trust — how we earn it and how easy it is to throw away — and of two women struggling to maintain an unconventional relationship in a strict patriarchal society.

Hit and run

Set on a remote sheep and wheat farm in rural Western Australia, the book opens in dramatic fashion. One night, returning from a party in town, Miss Hester Harper and her young companion Katherine are driving home too fast when they accidentally hit a creature on the farm track. They dispose of the body by pushing it down the farm’s unused well, which is covered over with a tin roof.

At this stage in the story the reader does not know whether the body is human or animal. And we do not know why the two women have chosen to keep the incident from the authorities. All we know is that both are frightened, that both are perplexed by what has happened because there’s “never ever anyone along this track”.

Then Jolley does something rather wonderful. Nine pages in, having captured our attention, she shifts the action back to the past and gives us Hester and Katherine’s back story. As an example of how to create suspense in a novel, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that matches this powerful master stroke.

Unconventional relationship

Much of the story focuses on Hester and Katherine’s unconventional, almost symbiotic, relationship. Hester is a wealthy and eccentric middle-aged woman who has inherited the family farm. She’s got a lame leg and uses a walking stick. She’s never married and never had children. She lives very much in the past, recalling travels through Europe with a German nanny, whom she adored, and looks down upon the local townsfolk, thinking their concerns and interests petty and trivial. She’s independent and resents being told what to do.

Shortly before her father’s death, Hester invites 15-year-old Katherine, who grew up in an orphanage, to live at the farm. The decision is an impulsive one, made “partly out of pity and partly from fancy”, but the pair get along well.

She treated Katherine with an affectionate though severe generosity. She did not regard herself as a mother or even as an aunt. She did not attempt to give any name to the relationship. She realised quite quickly that she was possessive.

Later, when Hester goes a bit mad spending money on frivolous things, her financial adviser, Mr Bird, encourages her to rent out the homestead to someone better able to run the farm. Slightly resentful that she’s being told what to do, Hester and Katherine set up home in a little stone cottage on a remote corner of the farm, free from prying eyes and busy bodies.

Living in this rather splendid isolation, the pair become more eccentric and more dependent on one another than ever before. They pass their time playing silly games, listening to music, cooking, gardening, dancing, knitting and doing embroidery. They are happy.

But reality soon intrudes when Hester realises her status in the local community — as a fine, upstanding woman running a successful farm — is on the slide. She continues to cling to money — and to spend it — when her resources can no longer support the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed.

And then, when locals begin commenting on Katherine’s vitality and marriageability, Hester’s possessiveness kicks into overdrive. She does not want to lose “ownership” of the young woman she loves so much. The impending visit of one of Katherine’s friends from her orphanage days also threatens Hester’s sense of proprietary.

Collision course

This all comes to a head, of course, when the pair collide with the mysterious creature on the farm track in the opening pages of this book. Hester’s decision to hide the body in the well represents a major shift in the relationship between her and Katherine, which slowly disintegrates over the days and weeks that follow.

Their individual reactions are telling: Katherine, a hopeless romantic, believes she’s going to marry and live happily ever after with the creature trapped in the well; Hester, who does not want Katherine to get married and leave her, takes to her bed with a crippling migraine, dreaming up ways to save their relationship.

The Well is ultimately a dark book about holding on to love at any cost. I really loved the strange, otherworldly nature of it, and Jolley’s carefully understated commentary on women’s lives, companionship, desire and the disparity between the landed gentry, common townfolk and the impoverished.

This is my first book for #20booksofsummerI bought it several years ago, but I’m not sure where I bought it. I think it was when Blackwell’s on Charing Cross had a closing down sale, but it could have also been on one of my trips back to Australia. I just know I purchased it because I love Penguin Modern Classics and it’s so rare to see an Australian author in this series.

This is my 11th book for #AWW2018

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18 thoughts on “‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley

  1. Like you I read this novel in the 1980s when it came out and loved it. I do remember quite a bit of it, the possessiveness of Hester, and the creepiness of the whole well business, but when I saw your review I was keen to read it to fill in the forgotten gaps. Hmm, does forgotten gaps make logical sense? I’m not sure! Anyhow, I enjoyed your review immensely. You’ve capture it well, at least, as I remember it!

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  2. I can’t remember anything from when I read it first time round. I can’t even remember if I liked it back then! So reading it again was like reading it for the first time and I was amazed at how brilliant it is in terms of pacing and psychological insight, not to mention the wonderfully abrupt dialogue and Hester’s gruffness and rudeness towards everyone (except Katherine), which is captured so authentically by Jolley.

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  3. This sounds so interesting, and Jolley doesn’t seem to be particularly well represented in print in this country at the moment. Luckily, I can order this through my library so I shall do a bit of researching… 😉

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    • I suspect she’s probably not that well represented in print in Australia either. She died in 2007 and I think her last novel was around 2001, so she’s probably not really in the public consciousness. That’s why Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week is so important. Hope you get to read this book… great to hear your library can order it for you, it’s a great read.

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    • I’ve bought very many Penguin Modern Classics in my time and slightly annoyed they’ve changed the livery again to a yukky mint green instead of white. Spoils the whole look of my library 😦 Anyway, hope you get to read a Jolley or two… she’s got a long backlist, but this is arguably her most famous novel.

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  4. I read The Well so long ago that I don’t even have a record of it in my journal, and – like you – I have only vague memories of it but remember its very dark side coming as such a shock. So this review is a real pleasure to read, thank you!
    It’s wonderful to have such good support for EJ Week, I would be truly sad to see her lapse into obscurity so hopefully some of our younger readers will come to love her as we did. I will never forget seeing her doing a talk at the NGV, and she looked like a sweet and demure little old lady in her cardie and sensible shoes, and yet she was the author of these books that really shocked me!

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    • I really want to read more by her… fortunately the internet is awash with cheap second hand copies so it won’t cost much to buy a few. But wouldn’t it be lovely if Penguin Australia (I presume that’s her publisher?) reprinted them all in new livery?

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  5. Great review! I wouldn’t call the wheatbelt remote but Jolley does impart a sense of isolation to a property that is really only a few kms out of town. My impression was that Katherine was always a little bewildered by Hester’s feelings for her but had nowhere else to go. It’s a wonderful study of women acting independently of men. Though maybe a not very optimistic one!

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    • She certainly does evoke a sense of remote isolation… and it does seem to take them forever to drive into town… but take your point the wheatbelt isn’t actually that remote. Agree with you re: Katherine. She’s a dreamy, romantic girl, grateful for a safe home but she’s very immature and even when things turn bad between her and Hester she’s really got nowhere else to go… Would love a sequel to find out what happens to both characters, say, 10 years on…

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  6. Pingback: 20 books of summer — 2018 edition – Reading Matters

  7. Pingback: Wrapping up Elizabeth Jolley Week at ANZ LitLovers | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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