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Australian Book Review

Francesca Rendle-Short

When it was first published in Australia in 2012 “The House of Fiction” attracted many reviews and a host of radio interviews – it was the shock of the revelations about an Australian literary icon that provided the hook. This review by academic and author, Francesca Rendle-Short in a literary magazine was one of the first published.

‘Everything should not be told, it is better to keep some things to yourself.’ So begins Susan Swingler’s The House of Fiction with this quote from much-loved Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley as an epigraph. And what a loaded beginning it is, too, given the subject matter of this memoir: the discovery by Swingler of the fraudulent and secret double life her father Leonard Jolley led with Elizabeth (or Monica Knight, as she was called), his second wife.

In this family drama, which began in England,there are two women who were once friends and who look uncannily alike, two daughters whose names begin with S who were born to these women at almost exactly the same time, and, centre-stage, one taciturn father, Leonard Jolley. Swingler’s version of her family’s story can now be published: all the main characters are dead: The three East End kids – Harry, Laura and Leonard – who’d all done so well academically and professionally; Joyce, the wayward daughter of Exclusive Brethren parents who had brought me up on her own, and Elizabeth, a daughter of an unusual family who became one of Australia’s most acclaimed authors. Also, it could be said, it seems the time is right for Swingler to put her own house in order, to speak up, to right a wrong: the ‘theft’ of her identity. As Andrew Riemer asserts in the Afterword: ‘To argue that Swingler’s book might be hurtful to others, both living and dead, is to ignore how unjust it would be to force silence on her.’ The back cover blurb steers us first towards Leonard and suggests that this memoir is about ‘a daughter’s quest for her absent father’. Growing up, Swingler had absolute confidence that her father would return; that it would be only a matter of time. He never did. After disappearing when she was four years old, and after making Swingler’s mother, Joyce, promise to keep quiet about his leaving (which she did), Leonard wrote to Joyce and said, ‘I think it would be best if you told Susan I was dead.’ When Swingler found this letter as a teenager, he had already migrated from England and was settled with his new family in Perth, where he became the University Librarian at the University of Western Australia. ‘The truth,’ writes Swingler, ‘was that he had never any intention of seeing or speaking to me ever again.’ This memoir – about the father and his absence – is also about Elizabeth Jolley, the woman for whom Swingler’s father had a ‘grand passion’. She and Leonard orchestrated ‘a complicated web of lies’, and it was Elizabeth, Swingler discovers, who fabricated letters to Leonard’s family, and sent gift parcels from Australia to hide the truth. Laura, Leonard’s sister, composes a helpful ‘timetable of events’ for Swingler, and comments: ‘Elizabeth was probably living a novel rather than writing one!!!’ This extraordinary story was destined to be told. Swingler is an archivist, a researcher, a photographer. She is a natural thinker and writer. It is her professionalism as a curator that shines through here, her meticulous research, her desire for facts, her respect for the archive, her carefulness when documenting findings. We feel we are in safe hands as far as the historical record goes. Swingler is also adept at ‘creating memory’ with story. Her powerful recall and reconstruction of memories have been lifelines, ways of planting herself back into the picture in positive ways. Her writing, adroit and fluid, is full of empathy. Over the span of the story, letters and correspondence, of all kinds, play a crucial role: It felt strange and uncomfortably voyeuristic to read a letter between two people I knew so well […] Mentally I put on the researcher’s hat. Usually I wore white cotton gloves for such work, and even as I put the plastic folder to one side and smoothed down the folds of my mother’s letters, I thought, I should put these in acid-free envelopes. I might have had the researcher’s instincts, but it was the daughter who took over as I read. Found photographs also play their part. Swingler has a darkroom at home and is practised at developing old film: ‘I was impatient to see the pictures but knew that given their frail condition, I had to go carefully and slowly.’ She makes discovery upon discovery that unnerve her, such as the similarity between Joyce and Elizabeth as young women – ‘was one copying the style of the other?’ – and a photograph of Leonard with two babies in his arms – ‘what the hell was going through his head?’ Bit by bit she ‘exposes test strips’ to piece together the delicacies of this family puzzle. She tries to line up her knowledge and experience of the person she knows as ‘my Elizabeth Jolley’ with what she thinks and believes a writer of fiction should and should not do. Swingler is honest and cool-headed in her reflection on this matter, but not dismissive, an attitude that is to be admired: ‘Whatever my personal take on fact and fiction, this doesn’t stop me maintaining, somewhat hypocritically, I admit, that a novel should stand on its own and be judged by what happens between the covers of the book rather than relating it back to the author’s life.’ For Elizabeth Jolley fans, this memoir will be obligatory reading. Inevitably, readers will reconfigure her fiction, especially the Vera Wright Trilogy: My Father’s Moon (1989), Cabin Fever (1990), and The Georges’ Wife (1993).Some readers may resent Swingler’s candour and take exception to the revelations in this book. But Swingler lays no blame. ‘My quest,’ she writes, ‘was to understand, not to accuse.’ The author is more interested in trying to discover and comprehend motivation. She wants to know why people in her family behaved as they did, and she includes herself here as much as anyone. This book throws up all sorts of questions about the relationship of a writer to her fiction, a memoirist to her facts, and about the impulse to write. It sheds light on ‘the writing life’ and on the character and complexion of fiction. It poses questions that are deeply moral at heart by allowing us to ponder the nature of lies and ‘untruths’ and cover-ups, and what responsibilities a writer has to archival material that remains embargoed. It is a disturbing read, but it is this very quality that is its greatest strength. The House of Fiction: Leonard, Susan and Elizabeth Jolley challenges notions of propriety and survival, and asks what are the costs. After one has read the book, the photograph of the two babies on the back cover, cradled in the arms of their father, takes on new meaning. The bodies of these half-sisters and the way he holds them seem to make a shape like a heart, reflected and doubled as if by a mirror. This book is riveting, explosive even, and also deeply moving. The House of Fiction gives expression to the messy experience of being human and to the necessary pleasure of reading, and writing really good stories, fiction or not.