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The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

The Well (1986)

by Elizabeth Jolley

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I picked up this paperback of The Well, solely because Jolley is my better half’s maiden name. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice. Elizabeth Jolley is an interesting person. She was born in England in 1923 into a strict German-speaking family and attended a Quaker boarding school. She became a nurse, married, and after having three children, they moved to Australia when she was 36. She wrote all her life, but it was not until she was in her 50s, did she gain widespread recognition. She wrote 15 novels, along with six plays, and several works of non-fiction. Elizabeth died in Australia in 2007.

A copy of one of her collections of short stories is in my library, but I read it so many years ago, I can barely remember any of them. Her novel, The Well, won her the prestigious Miles Franklin award. The novel is a humorous look at “memory, desire and loneliness,” according to the publisher’s note on the back cover.

Miss Hester Harper is a wealthy, lonely woman, who, on a shopping trip to town, brings home an orphan, Katherine, and the two become close friends. The tone of the novel is interesting from the first paragraph. Jolley writes, “One night Miss Hester Harper and Katherine are driving home from a celebration, a party at the hotel in town, to which Miss Harper has been an unwilling guest. Katherine had wanted very much to go to the party. She is under the spell of a succession of film stars, the present one being John Travolta. She tries to walk exactly as he walks. Having seen every one of his films several times she is able to imagine herself, when dancing, as his chosen perpetual partner. Miss Harper, unable to refuse Katherine Anything, has endured a long evening bearing at least two insults, one of these, because of the Peter Pan collar, laden with disturbing implication” (1). When they leave the party, Katherine, a week before her driving test, insists on driving. Hester is nervous, but she allows her to drive. While careening down a narrow, winding road, Hester begs her to slow down, and then she hits something in the road. The pair manages to drag the body to their isolated cottage, and dump it into an abandoned well.

Mr. Bird manages the farm for Hester, and he urges her to be more careful with her inheritance, but Katherine convinces her to go on one shopping spree after another. Hester keeps a huge portion of her money hidden in a sock drawer, much to Mr. Bird’s dismay. When they return from the well, she finds her house ransacked and the money gone.

The story takes a suspenseful and morbid turn as Katherine believes she is talking to the man at the bottom of the well. Hester never hears the man’s voice. Katherine is convinced he is her prince charming, come to take her away to a castle where she will live happily ever after. A reader can see many possible outcomes of this tale which bounces from suspense to humor, to the edge of pathos. Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, The Well, reminds me of Poe’s story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” with a generous scoop of humor. I do not know anything about any of her other novels, but I am going to delve into some soon. 5 stars.

--Jim, 5/28/16 ( )
1 vote rmckeown | May 30, 2016 |
Elizabeth Jolley (1923 - 2007) was an Australian writer. Born in Birmingham, she settled in Australia in the late 1950s. What Jolley has in common with Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 – 2000), is that both female authors started publishing at a relatively high age, in their early 50s. Although Elizabeth Jolley had written short stories in her twenties, her first book was published in 1976, when she was 53 years old. Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel in 1977, at the age of 60.

The well, published in 1986, is a spooky novel. In atmosphere, it bears some resemblance to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), who was born in the same year as Fitzgerald, their age difference being only nine years.

The plot of The well is fairly easy to summarize, and it is no spoiler to describe the car accident that forms the basis for the story. In fact, the narrative structure of the novel almost foregrounds this event in a cinematographic way, i.e. just like a "spoiler". The novel opens with a description of the accident, and this fragment is later repeated. After the opening, the novel tracks back to the days before the accident.

Although the novel was written in the 1980s, and the presence of various clues also suggest that the story is set at that time, nonetheless, the story has a somewhat antiquated feel to it, possibly as a result of the rural setting in Australia. Hester is a middle-aged woman, who takes care of Katherine, who is a teenager. Hester has adopted Katherine, who is an orphan. Katherine has asked Hester to teach her how to drive, so that she can take the car and attend parties in the nearby town by herself. At the moment of the accident, the inexperienced Katherine was driving.

Hester's farm is located somewhat remotely, and can only be reached by taking a turn from the road, over a dirt road. On this dark road, the car hits something heavy, caught up on the roo bar. Only Hester gets out of the car, telling Katherine to drive slowly to the well. There, they drop the thing into the well.

It is never revealed what the car hit, but the strong suggestion is that they hit and killed a man. this suggestion is strengthened as they discover that money is missing, and a burglar, who has mysteriously disappeared is reported in the area. There are various complications, as Hester considers descending into the well, to retrieve the money, and possible gain of wealth in finding other spoils. (Literally) covering up the affair is not much of an option, because Hester has just sold the farm off.

Whatever happened is only known to Hester, but not made explicit. The event and the well subsequently drive Katherine mad with terror, a horror which seems beyond what could reasonably expected, perhaps because Hester has threatened her.

The novel develops various interesting psychological aspects. Clearly, part of the terror arises from the fear of what could have happened if the two women had been confronted by the male "intruder", a threat which is still perceived as they doubt whether or not the man died, or his ghost terrorizes them from the well. (Financial) dependence is an important motive in the novel, where the intruder alternatively stands for ruin and for profitable gain. There is an odd incongruency between the relation between the two women, both in age and gender roles, as they try to cope with the situation as it arises, and subsequently morphs. The horror of the novel goes far beyond the suggestion that the well acts as their subconscious.

Excellent reading. ( )
2 vote edwinbcn | Feb 20, 2016 |
I read this over twenty years ago but it still stays with me ( )
  KateRigby | Jul 28, 2013 |
Listening to 'Late Night Live' this week with Elizabeth Jolley's husband's daughter from his first marriage talking about her reminded me of when I read quite a few of Jolley's books about fifteen years ago and of a review i made of two of them, including 'The Well' so I've added it below:


A parable it says in the blurb on the front cover, and this is what I searched for throughout the book, but while it has those simple elements of a parable in the way the beginning and ending are in the present tense and a lot of the descriptions are simple, I don t think it is so much a parable as a serious piece of fiction which of course carries themes for us to relate to.

How, though, are we meant to relate to the characters? Although told in the third person, it all comes very much from Miss Hester Harper’s point of view. Why, then did Jolley not tell it in the first person? The reason, I think, is to distance the reader from Hester, to allow him to stand back and look critically at her - which we do - from the start. Even the inscription at the front where Hester says she hasn’t brought anything from the shop for her father, but that she brought Katherine for herself, makes her sound possessive and rather inhuman as if Katherine is just a commodity. This impression of her inhumanity is maintained when the way Hester gives to charities is described, her “charity” coming up three times in order to consolidate the impression of it being just a matter of going through the motions:
“She was sympathetic to misfortune and helped a great many people but itinerant workers bowed down with personal tragedy she refused to have on her property, saying quite bluntly that she had to prosper and would only be held back by the down and out and the feckless.” This selfish, not really caring approach is reinforced when it says a few pages later that Hester sent cheques to the family of a needy child “rescuing it from starvation and, apparently, her cheques were educating it. Sometimes she tried to remember how long this had been going on. The child, she thought it was a boy, in some far-away country, sent little letters . . ” all indicating her lack of real interest, and the way she gives only to feel good herself is further emphasised when she just decides to give up her support and then reconsiders and sends it off with Katherine supplying the expected “the mostest generous person” expected of her, while Hester puts herself another step down by saying that all deprived people look alike. This all comes after descriptions of her own self-indulgence - expensive dishes carefully repaired with silver are thrown down the well because they can’t be bothered washing them and Hester indulges in her favourite wine regularly as they take picnics on their way to town to make more purchases.

The physical description of Hester puts us off her too. It’s not so much her lame leg (though this makes her unattractive rather than vulnerable for the most part), it’s more the way Jolley almost always describes her laugh as a “braying” one, the sort that makes her sound rather loud and over-assured.

Why, then, does Jol1ey want us to feel critical of Hester? It must be in order to condemn her way of life - i.e. the self-indulgence, the materialism and perhaps most importantly the way she tries always to escape from reality - perhaps this is the parable bit.

Just as Hester wouldn’t go to her father when Hilde, her governess was having a miscarriage, so that she would not have to acknowledge the implications, so later she blinded herself to what Katherine was really like. From the start the reader is suspicious of this girl whose thoughts we never know but have to guess at. Her penchant for movies, pop music and her affectation of an American accent and Johnnie Travolta make us wonder where her real self lies. The way she always addresses Hester as “Oh Miss Harper, dear” makes us feel that she is not being sincere. We then discover some of her exaggerated stories of life in the Home (e.g. the man who cut off his girlfriend’s arm) and see the way she manipulates Hester so that she can learn to drive the Toyota and later, too, discover something we suspect is closer to what Katherine really is when she swears on the way home from the dance and finally see something closer still when she tells Hester that she hates her and to “rack off . . . piss off” . Hester, though, has deluded herself all along that Kathy loved her just as she loved Kathy. It is this self-deluding quality that we criticise Hester for. I don’t think we feel critical of her wanting Kathy (though again it is a sign of nonacceptance of reality to think or hope that she can keep her for ever) even when her love for Katherine seems to involve the physical too. Hester is not ashamed of this as she keeps it secret and I think we accept too that there is nothing to feel guilty about in her enjoying the young girl's company. (“The dance was for her the only physical manifestation of physical love. Hester did not feel guilty about the feeling. It was private.”) It’s what Mrs Borden accuses Hester of that indicates the nature of the problem. She insinuates that she is keeping Katherine in clothes that are too young for her and this is another indication of the way she refuses to accept the reality of the situation. “She loved her and wanted her near always as she was now.” Similarly Katherine tries to avoid coming to terms with having killed a man and so resurrects him down the well. Jolley seems to be telling us that we we shape reality until it is comfortable enough.

Of course, Hester does come to some realisation about Katherine. Hester “wondered how Kathy could suddenly look dishonest. She had to realise that it was not sudden, that she had always dreaded a revelation of something not quite truthful.” The fact that she remembers her father saying that what people judged in others was what they feared in themselves indicates Hester’s own lack of honesty with herself perhaps. Mr Bird had warned Hester about Katherine very early on but she had chosen to ignore him - “I might advise you to hold your tongue about it before everyone, including little Miss Whatsaname in there” and “There’s people . . as sometimes forget who their benefactors are”. He also reminds her to lock up so that it’s not a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, but then he adds “Only in the circumstances I m referring to the thing, and it’s not a horse, the thing you might be needing to watch is already in the . . ” But she turns her back on him. Even when Katherine produces the hundred dollar note, Hester makes little attempt to pursue her realisation that she must have stolen it. Katherine’s dishonesty and the way that she could have taken all the money is never really fully pursued. We too are left wondering what did exactly happen. Even Katherine’s delusion (for she too lives in a world lacking reality and so lacking comfort) is not challenged by Hester. She could have thrown the rope down the well and shown Katherine that the man was dead but she was not prepared to do this until the water was rising in the well and then she changed her mind and tried to poke what might be the floating corpse back down.

So, what about the well itself? Lending its name to the title of the book, it obviously has deep symbolic significance! The way the body floats to the surface, forced up by the (welcomed) rains, suggests to me the way the past is inescapable and will keep reasserting itself just as Hester can’t shut off fully the painful side of her Hilde memories and knows that she won’t be able to stop the pangs about the dead man even if Kathy doesn’t let the truth out.

The well is made to seem sinister from the start, that is from when we come to the chronological start of the story after the introduction which cumulates with the body about to be cast down the well (with great difficulty). On page 28 we are given the full introduction to it. It is made to sound quite attractive, Hester liking to think that the rooster would “flap his wings on the highest point of the well cover and herald the bright mornings with his crowing.” The fact is that Hester, almost unthinkingly, breaks the neck of this rooster a little later, indicating the way she herself makes this brighter future impossible. There’s added irony with the way she thinks about hauling up the imagined troll living at the bottom of the well to carry firewood for them. The troll will be secured there. The flapping of the loose cover is also seen as something comforting to them at the start (“soothing”) but that is seen at the time as a grim reminder of what the well will come to mean for them - a place to try to bury reality, a reality brought necessarily back to the surface.What brings the body up? It’s the “good water” which is frequently mentioned. Later the well comes to incorporate the idea of their wastefulness and laziness and decadence, throwing anything down it that was too much work to keep clean. The well begins to take on a life of its own as the body is brought to it:
“The well, about to receive the unexpected gift, was strangely silent. Cold air came steadily from black depths.” It is becoming more sinister. The well also regurgitates the body. And we also learn of the wastage of precious things thrown down the well. So just what is the well symbolic of? I think it’s the way they try to bury reality and the way reality asserts itself willy-nilly.

What about the background? That’s about as dreary or depressing. From the appropriately named Mrs Borden and Mrs Grossman to the reverend doctor studying packets of biscuits and detergents and the woman who’s after a square plastic bowl for her bank manager husband’s feet, we are made to feel the superficiality and mudanity of most people’s lives, slavishly following the trends like buying farmlets. Only Mr Bird and Hilde are bright lights, but both die, one before the book has started and in sad circumstances (though I guess she may be alive) and Mr Bird who has really cared for Hester but hasn’t been appreciated - she never thanked him as she intended to.

Jolley’s books go against the latest trend of celebration. They celebrate nothing. Life is never readily faced by any of the characters. The two main characters, Hester and Katherine, avoid reality while the others skirt around it by following trends. Those who are good and kind are not appreciated, Hilde sent away by the grandmother, denying her son a healthy heir, and Mr Bird pushed out by Hester. ( )
2 vote evening | May 10, 2012 |
This is one of the most compelling must-read-on-and-find-out-what-happens-next type of novels I have read in a long time. Couldn't leave it alone! A psychological 'did they do it?' - a deceptively simple story, about infinitely deep and complex people and situations - less was definitely more, in this case! ( )
1 vote murunbuchstansangur | Jul 10, 2009 |
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'What have you brought me Hester? What have you brought me from the shop?'

'I've brought Katherine, Father,' Miss Harper said. 'I've brought Katherine, but she's for me.'
For Leonard Jolley
First words
One night Miss Hester Harper and Katherine are driving home from a celebration, a party at the hotel in town, to which Miss Harper has been an unwilling guest.
Looking across at him Hester could not help thinking of the fleshy shoulders of the mating bulls. Mr Borden gave the impression of setting about the male task of servicing frequently and thoroughly with a view to enriching his property with a number of sons.
It had always been her way to be aloof and withdrawn so that she, in a position of authority with a good head for crops and wool, was beyond gossip and criticism. She had with two words, she knew, made herself available for unlimited speculation.
People, Hester thought, who go to Church always want other people to go too. Vegetarians often tried to convert meat eaters. She supposed it was the same with marriage and childbirth. Women caught tried to ensure that others were similarly trapped.
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(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:08 -0400)

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Miss Hester Harper brings Katherine into her life. One night, driving along the track that leads to the farm, they run into a mysterious creature. They dump it into the farm's deep well, but the voice of the injured intruder will not be stilled and the closer Katherine is drawn to the well, the farther away she gets from Hester. Originally publishe.… (more)

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