Book Reviews

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley — an education in letters

Cover of Miss Peabody's Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley, a novel about a lonely woman and her friendship with an author

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is hilarious though when the laughter fades you realise you’re left with a sad tale of a lonely spinster who gets swept along by a fictional world.

Elizabeth Jolley’s artfully constructed tale-within-a tale features Miss Peabody, a middle-aged woman who has few pleasures and no friends. She spends her days in a dreary clerical job where none of her colleagues take any notice of her and never invite her to join them for lunch. Evenings and weekends are consumed by caring for her demanding, bedridden mother.

Her only source of pleasure in life comes through her correspondence with Diana Hopewell, an Australian author of romantic fiction. Hopewell’s letters include extracts from her novel-in-progress about the zany adventures of a trio of lesbian ladies. Miss Arabella Thorne, headmistress of a boarding school and her two friends, Miss Snowdon who is a hospital matron and Miss Edgeley who works at the school, tour Europe with a hapless student in tow.

Miss Dorothy Peabody had written to Hopewell after reading her novel, Angels on Horseback, a tale of “‘beautiful young schoolgirls and their strange and wild riding lessons.” The novel brought “something exciting into my lif”’, she tells Hopewell, while “the loneliness and the harshness of the Australian countryside fitted so exactly with my own feelings …”

The novelist’s unexpected reply, asking about Peabody’s life, and beginning to tell the story of her new novel, excites Miss Peabody, particularly because her own life by comparison is so dull. She starts to create her own fictional world — inventing for example, a young lover killed in the war.  Over time so enraptured is she with the escapades of these characters and with their creator, that they seem real people in her eyes.

Miss Peabody’s evenings had become another world. A world of magic and enchantment. She lived for the evenings and for the time spent with the novelist’s letters and the composing of her own replies. All the different things her mother asked for hardly mattered. The petulant voice calling down the narrow stairs could not remove the anticipation of her happiness.

What is fantasy and what is real become increasingly blurred in her mind. Towards the end of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, Dorothy heads into London to find Miss Thorne and her entourage who are stopping off in the city to see an Oscar Wilde play. Dorothy Peabody doesn’t know the name of their hotel but she’s certain she will recognise the women if she just keeps looking. She ends up tipsily singing “I’m a little prairie flower” before wandering the streets asking complete strangers where she’ll find An Ideal Husband.

Dorothy Peabody and Arabella Thorne are both tremendous characters.

The former is a touchingly inept woman whose limited knowledge of real life is broadened through her correspondence with Diana. She’s puzzled by the sleeping arrangements of the three women in Diana’s novel and strange references to a water fight in the shower but yet finds the information. More titillation follows when she reads that Miss Snowdon had once written a paper called The Forgotten Placenta and Miss Thorne is thinking of organising a lecture for her pupils (her “gels”) entitled Chasing the Orgasm: How When and Where

Miss Thorne is a deliciously over-the top figure reminiscent in many ways of those jolly hockey-sticks women often found in old boarding school stories, enthusiastically throwing herself into every aspect of school and cultural life. She considers herself to be a mentor for her pupils, seeking to initiate them into the finer points of European culture, and especially her beloved Wagner.

All very laudable but there’s an unpleasant streak in her character that gets revealed during the trip to Europe. She leaves the nervy Miss Edgely stranded at a railway platform and then shows a lascivious interest in Gwendoline Manners, one of her pupils. Miss Snowdon it seems has an entirely different kind of education in mind one night in the hotel.

As a comedy of women’s lives and friendships, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is highly entertaining. What makes this novel even more enjoyable is its metafictional element. Diana Hopewell frequently interrupts her narrative about Miss Thorne’s outrageous and ludicrous adventures in Europe to explain the story and the process of writing fiction.

In one of her first letters to Miss Peabody she feels it necessary to clarify her characters’ mode of speech:

‘Oh Super! Prickles!’ Miss Snowdon often adopts schoolgirl language when she is with Miss Thorne. (Normally Snowdon speaks in a kind of medical jargon and you will notice that she and Thorne say ‘gel’ and ‘orf’ instead of ‘girl’ and ‘off’, it’s an affectation but I don’t think they are aware of this themselves, Excuse the brackets.)

Later she shares some insight on how she uses different colour inks and paper to keep track of each of her characters and her concern that she is using too many cliches. She also expounds on the women’s natures and what they are thinking, as if she can’t rely on Dorothy Peabody to understand this for herself.

I think Thorne is selfishly enjoying the prospect of Gwendoline in Europe and Edgely, perceiving this, is madly jealous. For all Edgely being insignificant and small brained she does have her human feelings and needs, and in the novel, these must be respected.

You have to keep your wits about you when reading this novel for it jumps about from Miss Peabody’s story to Miss Thorne’s story and to Hopewell’s commentary rather rapidly. But it makes it all the more fun. I’ve now read it twice and enjoyed it just as much the second time around.

I’m counting this towards two reading events: Novellas in November hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck and Australia Reading Month hosted by Brona of This Reading Life.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

24 thoughts on “Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley — an education in letters

  • I just love this one too. Count me in the rereaders camp for it!

  • I love this review and am going to add it to my Elizabeth Jolley page!

    • You’re so kind Lisa. I have a copy of The Well on order so I can add to my tiny collection. Went into the only second hand bookshop that exists in Cardiff but no sign of anything by Jolley sadly

      • Don’t you love it when you find that somebody who donates/recycles through these second-hand bookshops loves the same authors as you do?

  • Pingback: Novellas in November (#NovNov) Begins! Leave Your Links Here | Bookish Beck

  • Great review. I love Elizabeth Jolley! I did read this one long ago, but that reminds me: I have a book of her short stories in the attic. So thanks for reintroducing me to this brilliant writer.

    • that often happens to me – I forget about a particular author until I see the name mentioned by another blogger

  • Oh, I’m so glad you liked it Karen. This was my first Jolley novel (after doing a short story) back in the late 1980s and it won me over to her. I have often wanted to read it again. I love that you enjoyed her humour. Near all her books – particularly the early ones – are about loneliness or alienation. Actually, the later ones are a bit different … love her.

    • The only other book by her that I read was Sugar Mother – another strange one, not sure if it from her early or late period though

  • Oh this sounds really fun, I’ll definitely look out for it!

    • Fun it absolutely is. I love the way Jolley weaves in some cliches from romantic novels

  • Oh, this sounds fun on many levels. I’ll look out for it – it’s not in our library system though.

    • It isn’t in ours either – I bought my copy second hand on line

  • I’ve read a few Jolleys but not this one. She does lonely love-starved female characters so well. Do hunt out The Well if you can. I think you would like it.

    • Just looked up the synopsis and it does sound good. So have bought myself a copy – a rather good price second hand copy of a Penguin classics reprint

  • I really like Elizabeth Jolley but not read this one. Will keep an eye out for it (so to speak). 😁

    • I hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Jolley until Lisa at ANZLitLovers mentioned her

  • This sounds like so much fun. I’ve tried a couple of Jolley’s novels in my younger years and found her rather irritating, a novella might be a better way to get into her writing?

    • I can understand why she might irritate – it took me a little while to tune in. Maybe Sugar Mother might be more to your taste?

    • Oh I loved her from the start Brona – but I was in my mid 30s. She appeals to my warped sense of humour and humanity – which, I can have because I’m an optimist at heart!

    • Maybe have a look at some of the reviews on my Elizabeth Jolley page: there’s a wide variety of readers there, so you might find something that appeals.


We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: