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.