Monica Elizabeth Jolley AO (4 June 1923 – 13 February 2007) was an English-born writer who settled in Western Australia in the late 1950s. She was 53 when her first book was published, and she went on to publish fifteen novels (including an autobiographical trilogy), four short story collections and three non-fiction books, publishing well into her 70s and achieving significant critical acclaim. Her novels explore “alienated characters and the nature of loneliness and entrapment.”

Jolley was born in Birmingham, England as Monica Elizabeth Knight, to an English father and Austrian-born mother. She grew up in the English industrial Midlands, and was educated privately until age 11, when she was sent to a Qaker boarding school. During the 1930s, as war loomed, her family’s home was full of refugees from Europe, creating, she later said, “a mysterious world for us children”.

At 17 she began training as a nurse in London and was exposed first-hand to the horrors of World War II. She emigrated to Australia in 1959 with her husband Leonard (1914–1994) and their three children.

Writers from all over the world were dinner guests at their home, full of books and surrounded by trees, in the riverside Perth suburb of Claremont. Jolley worked at a variety of jobs including nursing, cleaning, door-to-door sales and running a small poultry farm, but through all this time she wrote fiction; short stories, plays and novels. However, she did not have a book published until 1976, when she was 53.

The characters of Jolley’s stories and novels are in varying degrees society’s misfits; whether they are old, foreign, lonely, eccentric, poor, or simply regarded as deviant; they are outsiders, dispossessed and diminished. The sadness of their lives is frequently moderated by the inventiveness of their strategies for survival – often described with a mix of wry affection, dark humour and satirical realism. The concept of alienation, displacement or exile is common to most of Jolley’s novels. Stories developed by Jolley usually centred on the protagonists’ bizarre methods of coping and gritty convictions of significance.

Jolley commented that she was interested in the individual’s particular form of loneliness or fear, which imposes life on the fringe. “I suppose I’m interested to explore the inside of people’s survival – bitter knowledge, grief and unwanted realization often go side by side with acceptance, love and hope.” Cruelty, emotional manipulation, territorial aggression and financial exploitation are also natural to a great many of her characters, and her underlying view of the human condition – although counterpointed somewhat with empathy and compassion – is necessarily bleak.

While Jolley is often thought of as a primarily urban writer, many of her works – particularly Palomino, The Newspaper of Claremont Street, The Well, and her nonfictional Diary of a Weekend Farmer – are “intensely permeated with the landscape” and include women farmers who choose to farm their land.
Helen Garner comments on the humour in Jolley’s writing: “Elizabeth Jolley is a very funny writer … she is droll, sly, often delicate … she is offhand, with a batty sideways slip that I find hilarious”.

Like other highly original Australian writers such as Patrick White and Les Murray, Elizabeth Jolley brought to her writing a profound love and understanding of the Australian climate, landscape, nature and people.

In 2000, Jolley developed dementia in 2000. She died in a nursing home in Perth in 2007. Her death prompted many tributes in newspapers across Australia, and in The Guardian in the U.K. Her diaries, stored at the Mitchell Library, NSW, will be closed until after the deaths of her children or 25 years after her death.

As Riemer wrote in his obituary, “Everyone who knew her has a favourite Elizabeth Jolley story”. He continues, later in the obituary, to say that “Jolley could assume any one of several personas – the little old lady, the Central European intellectual, the nurse, the orchardist, the humble wife, the university teacher, the door-to-door salesperson – at the drop of a hat, usually choosing one that would disconcert her listeners, but hold them in fascination as well”.