Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Against the Grain: Dream Narrative in Elizabeth Jolley's Foxybaby

Jennifer Livett

To the innocent first-time reader of Foxybaby, nothing seems to be "against the grain" except the setting in the wheat country. [1] Miss Alma Porch, writer, drives on the long straight road through the wheat stubble towards the isolated college at which she is to be a writer in residence for a summer school. At an unexpected curve in the road she has one of the car accidents so ubiquitous in the work of Elizabeth Jolley, and is forced to finish the journey by bus. The comically bizarre events which follow Miss Porch's arrival appear at first to be a complex variation on one of Jolley's recurrent themes, the relations between reality and fiction. However, there are troubling elements in the novel which suggest that this is too simple a critical conclusion. Although there are many echoes in Foxybaby of other fiction by Jolley, this novel stands apart, because here the handling of the dream narrative problematizes the categories of both fiction and "reality."

"Reality," in this case, is the framing story of Miss Porch's own adventures; "fiction" is Miss Porch's novel. The two become increasingly entangled as the students at the summer school act out the daily episodes of Miss Porch's story. The reader is encouraged to make all kinds of connections as Miss Porch's script, or "treatment," as she prefers it to be called, unfolds each day her embedded story of Dr. Steadman, an academic, and his drug addicted daughter, the Foxybaby.

The two fictional versions of reality here are in ironic contrast: Jolley's version of Miss Porch's experience is eccentric, playful, grotesque, and highly comic; Miss Porch's version of Steadman's reality, conversely, emphasizes the grim drama of incest and drug addiction. The penultimate "ending" of Foxybaby appears to want to bring together these two realities when Miss Porch, walking along a beach, sees her fictional characters walking towards her. Fiction and reality, it seems at this ambiguous moment, might either meet or collide. But this provisional solution, and both these versions of reality, are called in question when immediately following this, only a page from the end of the novel, the reader learns with a shock that all Miss Porch's time at the College is a dream. Miss Porch wakes up on a bus, and the novel returns to a point when the bus is delivering her to begin her stint at the College.

This unexpected blow from writer to reader is not uncommon, of course, in postmodernist fiction, in which playing games with the illusion of reality is a central concern. It's the kind of metafictional structure that Linda Hutcheon calls a "relativity paradox" and Helen Daniel, a "Strange Loop."2 But even by these standards the surprise in Foxybaby seems a little underhand because of its position so close to the end of the novel. So late a revelation seems like an abuse of the reader's trust in the conventions by which we read fiction. And further, how can we read the novel as an exploration of the relations between fiction and reality, if most of the action that we have accepted as reality is now explained as a dream?

Critical reactions to this have been various. Some critics are uncertain as to whether it is intended to be a dream or not, and Helen Daniels seems to articulate the general unease when she disapproves of the ending, calling it "a disappointing cliché."3 The reader's shock is certainly one of those surprises which, as Martin Gray has argued, are organizing principles of Jolley's work.4 In this case, however, the surprise has important consequences; the reader's immediate reaction is to turn back to the beginning of the novel to find out the point at which the dream began, and how we missed it.5

Back at the beginning, Jolley's epigraphs confront us with the fact that it was indeed a dream, and further, we were warned of this possibility. The first epigraph is from Thomas Hardy:

. . . To be conscious that the end of the dream is approaching, and yet has not absolutely come, is one of the most wearisome as well as the most curious stages along the course between the beginning of a passion and its end.

This reference to a state of conscious dreaming is a reminder that love, and in some degree life as a whole, consist in the imagining of various stories for the self, waking dreams. Miss Porch's creative imagination is quickly triggered throughout the novel, and she continually daydreams lives, and often hilarious alternative stories, for the people she meets. The second epigraph points in a different, but even more suggestive direction, towards the technique of Foxybaby itself. The quotation itself comes from John Bunyan's dream narrative, The Pilgrim's Progress:

. . . Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.

A few pages later finds Miss Porch quoting yet another famous spiritual narrative in dream form, Dante's The Divine Comedy. Miss Alma Porch finds herself in the middle of "a veritable forest" of television aerials at Cheathem West, and begins to quote the opening of the Inferno:

"In the middle of the journey I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost . . . I cannot rightly tell how I entered it. So full of sleep was I about the moment that I left the true way . . ."6

Elizabeth Jolley, invoking Bunyan and Dante, forces the reader into a second and quite different reading of the novel. This is not a rereading so much as a revised reading in which Jolley's metafictional interests begin to seem less important than her use of intertextuality as a means of exploring women writers' relation to the patriarchal tradition.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar posit that the woman writer's reaction to her literary predecessors is not, like the male's, a struggle against the models of the genre, but often, instead, an act of revision.7 Gilbert and Gubar quote Adrienne Rich who says that revision is "the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction." Jolley forces the reader to make this revision of the "old text" which was our first reading of Foxybaby, through the even older texts of patriarchal dream narratives.

Reading with Dante and Bunyan in mind reveals that the bus on which Miss Porch is travelling during her dream is a version of E. M. Forster's celestial omnibus. She is on the metaphysical journey which her name also suggests: Alma (soul), Porch (doorway or entrance).8 Immediately the emphasis is changed; Miss Porch's time at the College becomes explainable as the exploration of a female hell-in-the-world, during which she confronts, through other women, a series of the lives that have been possible for women. Miss Paisley, Miss Peycroft, Miss Harrow, Miss Crisp and Mrs Crisp, Miss Rennett, Mrs Castle, Mrs Viggars all represent unsatisfactory versions of female social, sexual, and literary experience. The hell references are subtle and satirical. This place of learning is called Trinity College and is really run by a trio of sinister servants Miles, Mrs. Miles, and Mrs Finch. There are hints that Mrs. Miles, the cook, who never seems to leave the subterranean hell-kitchen, might become owner of Trinity College (there are Biblical ambiguities in Miles's song, "Mrs. Miles she did not buy a vineyard") as though the hellish are taking over Trinity College. The Principal, Miss Peycroft, was a one-time Prioress, " 'till she jumped off a wall.' . . . 'Jumped over the wall you mean,' Miss Porch corrected."9 This is a reference to Monica Baldwin's autobiography, I Leap over the Wall, the story of her re-emergence into the world after 30 years in a convent, but Miss Peycroft apparently did not succeed in her escape. In a typically Jolleyan grotesquerie, Miss Peycroft did jump off the wall rather than over, broke both her ankles, and had to be carried back by Miles. Miss Porch "lost her faith early" and "hates Christmas," but still sees the writer's aim in semi-religious terms as "the search into the unknown to reach some kind of blessing."10 Her room at the College is referred to a number of times as a "sanctuary," but is often invaded.

The College is the only surviving building in the signficantly named Cheathem East. Of the other ruined ones, one was a hotel called "The Good Shepherd." Miss Peycroft remarks that "though the building has gone and the people have forgotten Him - there is His name still creaking to and fro in the wind."11 The action takes place when only the wheat stubble is left, "after the harvest," a phrase which carries suggestions of both death and judgement.

This pseudo-hell is an examination of women's social and literary condition which is expressed throughout the novel in terms of women's embarrassment at their inability to make use of patriarchal models, both social and literary. All the women have written poems or autobiographies about which they are defensive. (Miss Paisley's is seventy thousand words and she is only up to the age of twelve.) Miss Porch feels it necessary to quote Dr. Johnson, Goethe, and Matthew Arnold in support of her project, but gets her quotations wrong. She listens with admiration and mild envy to the aesthetic theories of the farcical Vladimir Lefttov, but seems to dwell on the death of male writers. She carries with her in her bag some notes about the death of Chekhov which she fears will be of no use, and is embarrassed when she remembers that during one of her last classes at the school where she teaches, she got the death of Rilke mixed up with the death of von Heist. Miss Porch has a story-telling inheritance from both parents, mother and father, but she can't remember whether the memories she has of her very early childhood are really her own experiences, or simply her mother's stories which she has taken over as memories. She remember's other gifts from parents of both genders: the father's gifts were beautiful but useless, the mother's gifts were practical, but are now "all used up." Ironically, Miss Porch's struggles with the patriarchal literary tradition are embedded in Elizabeth Jolley's novel which shows no such embarrassment, but uses that tradition as a means to new directions.

The internal Foxybaby narrative is also essentially a story of patriarchal control and the struggles of a daughter to have both freedom and parental love which seem mutually exclusive. Dr. Steadman, grieving about his damaged daughter (but also about his loss of control over her) thinks of the books he gave her as gifts, hoping that she would keep them forever. She has, with potent symbolism, abandoned them, and the domination they represent.

The major male characters in the two narratives all represent masculine control over the women. Miles is sexually and financially rapacious; Dr Steadman (as both a father and an eminent academic) has paternal and cultural authority which he apparently misuses, however inadvertantly; Miss Castle's son-in-law is an itinerant magistrate who exercises subtle controls on her life. Anders and Xerxes are artists, but they use art, particularly the pornographic paintings which they try to force Miss Harrow and Miss Porch to buy, to humiliate and cheat the women. Male artists are not well favoured. Vladimir Lefftov is a sculptor, but he gives up and deserts the school. (He "lefftov," as Jolley's execrable jokes explain.) Xerxes Kolynosodes is ostensibly a Greek poet, but as Miss Harrow points out, his Persian first name, Xerxes, indicates that he is probably not Greek. What she doesn't say is that his other name contains Jolley's hint that he is probably not much of a poet, either, since it may also be pronounced Kolynos Odes, a suggestion perhaps, of toothpaste advertising jingles?

All these males exert their power over the female body. Not by coincidence, this hellish summer school is intended to combine weight loss with cultural gain. The students are to be starved because they have "overindulged" in other (unspecified) areas. All these women are hungry, for sexual and emotional satisfaction, for identity and a place for themselves and their talents, but in this world, their hunger is interpreted as greed, and they are complicit in allowing themselves to be imprisoned and starved. Prisons are significant in both inner and outer stories. It is emphasised that there is no physical way of escape from the College; Miles's Sunday sermon is on Women's Prisons; he says that they should be made bigger so that more elderly women can be put in prison. Miss Porch comes from teaching at a girls' school, called The Towers, a name with more suggestions of female imprisonment.12 Gilbert and Gubar have made it clear in The Madwoman in the Attic that tropes of hunger and imprisonment are a major way in which women writers respond to their sense of being confined and denied by patriarchal models of social and literary femaleness. It becomes difficult not to believe that the erudite Elizabeth Jolley has read The Madwoman and is referring obliquely to its findings. Another male dream narrative here lies close to Foxybaby and The Madwoman. Even though Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass were written by a male, their fantasy has been recognized as writing out in comic grotesque the experience of the pre-adolescent female trying to find a place in a patriarchal culture.13 Gilbert and Gubar are among those who have discussed the looking-glass as an image of reflected identity for women (Miles in Foxybaby steals all the mirrors from the rooms at the College), but the Alice stories are also about eating, and disturbances of the female body image. Alice tries to eat but fails to do so. The only mouthfuls that she does succeed in taking make her body either tremendously large or tremendously small and her body size prevents her from using the phallic key to let herself out of her imprisonment through the door to freedom. Most of the women in Jolley's novel are very large, but the Foxybaby is anorexically thin. There are no direct references to Alice in Foxybaby, but intertextuality is far more subtle than just the mention of one text in another. According to Barthes, " [a] text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture," and these quotations can be sited in imitation and tone, as they are here.14 Foxybaby invokes Alice in the manic logic of its incidents, and in the comic positioning of an apparently quiet, sane female as both observer and object of increasingly improbable events and interrogations.

One of the climaxes in Alice is the banquet at the end of Alice Through the Looking-Glass, in which Alice defeats her opponents. The bizarre midnight feasts arranged by Mrs Viggars in Foxybaby are not only wonderfully comic scenes, but, like the dream narrative itself, subversions of authority. The hopeful metaphors of the generous provision of food and drink also imply that the half self-inflicted starvation of women's social and literary lives may be challenged and defeated. The role of Mrs Viggars is vital in this. Like Elizabeth Jolley, Mrs Viggars does not reject the inheritance of the male, but uses the wealth left to her by her husband to empower women (Miss Porch, Miss Rennett and Sandy/Foxybaby). Mrs Viggars has been playing the part of Steadman in the Foxybaby enactment, and now Steadman, the "Steady man"(?) of the fiction, is replaced by the Viggars (vigorous) woman in "reality." Viggars will take care of Anna and the new baby. The end of the novel does not have the pessimism that some critics claim for most of Jolley's work; we have come through the distorted looking-glass of culture to what might be possible on the other side. Mrs. Viggars points to a gleam of light on the horizon and tells Miss Porch, "I think I can change the future." Whereas the baby in Miss Porch's Foxybaby fiction is male and already infected by his mother's (patriarchally caused?) drug addiction, at the end of the dream the baby born to Anna, who has been playing the part of Foxybaby, is a girl, and perfectly healthy.

It is Elizabeth Jolley the writer who exercises her creative right to replace the overcontrolling, suspect Dr. Steadman with the generous, easy-spirited Mrs. Viggars, emphasizing that the artist is the one who can dream the changes which are necessary. This view is confirmed in the ending when Miss Porch awakes and finds that this was only one version. As a writer she has the possibility of changing the whole story, the authority to dream not only this reality, but alternative possible realities.

When the story begins again, (or for the first time) on the last page of the novel, there are signs that the "real" story, the untold one yet to come, will be quite different and more satisfactory. Miles and Mrs. Miles are no longer, in this version, lecherous husband and wife, and part of the depraved trinity, but are mother and son, now pleasant and accommodating. More evidence for this positive reading of the novel comes from Jolley's reference, through Miss Porch, to yet another patriarchal literary authority, William Blake, whose own dream narrative, The Four Zoas, is the song of the eternal mother. In the first pages of the novel, on her way to the College, Miss Porch hopes that there will be sunflowers when she gets there: "Sunflowers with heads as big as dinner-plates." (My italics.) In her dream experience of the College, no such sunflowers exist, but in the new beginning which starts on the last page of the novel, the sunflowers are there, and they cause Miss Porch to quote from Blake:

Ah, Sunflower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime,
Where the traveller's journey is done.15

This comes from the Blake lyric, "Ah Sunflower," a poem which, in the context of both Blake's and Jolley's work, associates women with the sun and hope and new directions.

"I dreamed I was in Hell," says Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea, lost in the confusions of a male European reality which has no meaning for her female West Indian identity.16 She is soon to become a madwoman in the attic. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, writes "Women still dream through the dreams of men."17 Kate Chopin's novel of a woman trying to find an identity in a culture which seems alien to her needs, is called The Awakening.18 It seems that the patriarchal reality has often been represented by women in fiction as a dream world in which the dreamer has no control, in which events happen with a logic determined by some other power. Unhappily, awakening from it results in madness for Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea and death for the "s-hero" of The Awakening. Even in Alice Through the Looking Glass, the question which haunts Alice throughout is whether she is the dreamer, or only a character in the Red King's dream.

Elizabeth Jolley uses the dream to suggest something more positive. The dream may be the very way in which the writing woman can image forth her intuitions about what it might be to be female in ways not already decided by the culture. Miss Porch's dream is part of Elizabeth Jolley's creative dream, and Jolley gives to Miss Porch the authority to begin the story all over again, to write a more satisfactory version. Rachel Blau du Plessis calls her critical study of the strategies of twentieth century female writers Writing Beyond the Ending, and although the methods she explores are not those of Jolley, the phrase is an apt one for what Jolley achieves in Foxybaby.19 She uses the dream narrative to "write beyond the ending," avoiding conventional closures and asserting the power of women to reinvent their places in literature and culture.

University of Tasmania


1 Elizabeth Jolley, Foxybaby (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1985).

2 Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative: the metafictional paradox (London: Routledge, [1980] 1984) 89.

3 Helen Daniels, "Elizabeth Jolley: Variations on A Theme," in Westerly 2 (June 1986): 50 - 63.

Norman Cary, "From Irony to Affirmation: Religious Language in the Fiction of Elizabeth Jolley" in Elizabeth Jolley: New Critical Essays, eds. Delys Bird and Brenda Walker (Sydney: Angus and Robertson (Imprint), 1991) 37-48.

4 Martin Gray, "Surprise in the novels of Elizabeth Jolley," in Elizabeth Jolley, eds. Bird and Walker, 24-36.

5 Having had exactly this reaction myself, I was interested to come across the same response recorded, but not examined, in a review by Barbara Jefferis entitled "Three Novels," in Overland, 103, July 1986, 65-66.

6 Foxybaby, 12.

7 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,1979;1984) Part I, Ch. 2, 45ff.

8 There are other interesting Forster references in Jolley's work which I hope to write further about.

9 Foxybaby, 37.

10 Foxybaby, 8.

11 Foxybaby, 28.

12 Cf. "The Fortress", the name of the insurance company in Miss Peabody's Inheritance, one of the indications of many links between the two novels.

13 Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass in The Annotated Alice, ed. Martin Gardiner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).

14 Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977) 146.

15 Foxybaby, 261.

16 Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 51

17 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1953) 132, quoted in The Madwoman in the Attic, 76.

18 Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).

19 Rachel Blau du Plessis, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

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