There aren’t many places you can get shouty about Proust without losing your job. The Lane Bookshop in Perth, Western Australia, is one of them. As an undergraduate, I’d pitch up there for work on Saturday mornings with as much song in the heart as a hangover allowed. Because for me the Lane wasn’t just a shop, it was a salon. The young staff, all writers, were encouraged (and fed, when cash was scarce) by the kind owners. Debates sparked between the shelves. And great Australian novelists came in to buy the books.
The late Elizabeth Jolley was one of these. She must have been 80 when I last saw her, bird-thin with fiery eyes. Whenever she walked down the stairs, an awed hush descended. Elizabeth had written 14 novels, won the Miles Franklin, Australia’s top literary award, and mentored Tim Winton, who won it twice. She was the real deal, the grande dame of Australian letters.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that Elizabeth had fabricated the childhood letters of her English stepdaughter, Susan Swingler, to hide her own relationship with Leonard Jolley, Susan’s father. But, according to Susan’s memoir, The House of Fiction, this is exactly what she did.
When Susan was four, her father left her mother, Joyce, for Elizabeth and Australia. Joyce raised Susan as a single parent, working in schools to support them both. It was an isolated existence — Joyce promised Leonard that she wouldn’t speak to his family and was estranged from her own. Leonard sent occasional parcels from Australia but otherwise had nothing to do with his daughter. Her requests to see him were rebuffed, and ultimately he stopped responding altogether.
Leonard’s new wife, Elizabeth, took over, sending warm letters to Susan from Perth, where they had moved for Leonard to become librarian of the University of Western Australia. (His portrait, slumped and baleful, still glares at students.)
So far, a quiet family tragedy with a literary flavour. But the story gets quirky when Susan meets Leonard’s sister Laura, an aunt she never knew existed.
‘When did you and Joyce come back to England?’
‘What do you mean? Come back from where?’
‘From Australia, of course.’ ...
‘I’ve never been to Australia.’
‘But ... we have pictures of you ...’
Laura presents her neice with photographs supposedly of her, and mentions letters received signed ‘Susan’ and ‘Joyce’ that recount Australian lives they’d never lived. ‘Was there a second Susan Jolley?’ Swingler wonders. ‘Had this girl stolen my identity?’ The meeting leaves her ‘disoriented’, with ‘the horrible feeling that someone had created a life and experiences that didn’t match my own’, and it prompts an investigation into her family history that lasts 40 years.
The result is ‘a story of sex, love, family secrets and deception’. In the course of it, Susan learns that Elizabeth Jolley had been an adoring, younger friend of her parents (and at the time called Monica Knight — her real name). The three were sufficiently close that when Joyce returned from hospital to nurse Susan, Monica/Elizabeth was already installed in the house with her own newborn, Sally, supposedly fathered by a doctor dying of TB.
In fact Leonard had fathered both children, and the trusting Joyce only later learned the truth. But after abandoning his wife and Susan, Leonard kept up an elaborate fiction with his own father and siblings that he remained happily married to Joyce, and was living with her, Susan and two other children in Western Australia— the story sustained by Elizabeth’s forged letters and, it transpires, pictures of Sally marked ‘Susan’.
The House of Fiction is Susan’s account of trying to understand why her stepmother and father lied ‘so consistently for such a long time’. Memoirs of literary children are often little more than howls about parental neglect (Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow is a recent example). The House of Fiction succeeds because it tempers that feeling with a clear-eyed study of Elizabeth and Leonard’s motivations.
Susan Swingler is self-aware, measured and, given her ‘burning fury’ after reading Elizabeth’s invented letters, remarkably forgiving. Her memoir is meticulous, reflecting her professional life as a researcher and curator. At times this can tip into redundant detail (the specifics of childhood dolls and Sydney public transport) which muddies an otherwise tight mystery narrative. But in the main, The House of Fiction is an intriguing story of an Australian literary icon’s bizarre hoax, and her stepdaughter’s attempt to comprehend it.