An Innocent Gentleman, by Elizabeth Jolley

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball


Elizabeth Jolley’s The Innocent Gentleman is a disturbing novel. On a superficial level, there is no reason why it should be disturbing. The main characters, Henry and Muriel Bell, appear to be fairly normal. They have two daughters, an irritating, critical mother-in-law, and they live in a low rental, but newly built suburban estate in the English Midlands during World War Two, where they manage their privations by teaching, and skimping wherever necessary. Into their lives comes Mr Hawthorne, a wealthy, refined man, whose social graces and privileged life make him attractive to both the Bells. The outcome of Mr Hawthorne’s relationship with the Bells is not surprising, nor is the reaction to the Bells by their somewhat less educated neighbours, the Tonkinsons. Everyone behaves with reasonable discretion, there are few scenes, and life doesn’t dramatically change in any way from the contact. It is possible to feel, after finishing the book, that nothing much has happened, and perhaps this is the reason why the novel is so disturbing, because quite a lot happens; dramatic things. There are love affairs, near deaths, disappearances, a birth, and much suffering, but in the end, it all amounts to nothing. The characters are detached from themselves, watching, analysing, and even deliberately walking towards tragedy, or some form of intensity in a desperate bid to break the sleepy film that seems to cover everything in this mannered life, where even love, birth and death are governed by such strong rules of etiquette that it all seems meaningless. Or perhaps the discomfort is due to the way the narrative voice conveys the characters themselves, offering dual glimpses of a literate, well spoken couple, and their conceits, meannesses, and the smallness of their desires.

Stylistically, the novel is an interesting combination of a traditional tightly mannered, narrative which moves forward in standard timeframe, with an experimental format that mixes a Jane Austin style narrator with a tongue-in-cheek Dramatis Personae, bits of poetry, asides, repeating passages, and cited notebook jottings. From the beginning, the Dramatis Personae sets the tone of a mannered, almost Pinteresque theatre piece, with a detached sarcastic narrator, and this feeling is continued throughout the book. The small comical exchange of voices just after the Dramatis Personae, “I’ll get him! I’ll get that Mr Hilter”, but before the start of the main narrative, provides an introduction to the setting, and also a reminder that whatever realism the novel appears to have, it is not meant to be taken at face value. The “Scottish voice” doesn’t reappear, however the coarse but earnest voice of Mrs Tonkinson does, along with Henry’s muse Wordsworth, Thomas Mann, and Dostoyevski, and hints that the appearances of this book are deceptive. A number of paragraphs repeat themselves, such as “Seating himself at the piano, he rubbed his hands together”, or “he seemed to be always ahead of her, on the pavement, as if by chance”. There is also the narrator, who seems to dislike, or at least to have a condescending attitude to the two main characters, providing ironic asides such as “her own phrase”, or “Henry continued his enlightening remarks from one day to the next”, or in its reference to Mr Hawthorne’s “elevated culture”, and the “little nucleus of culture” which exists at the Bell’s home. At a certain point in the story, Henry and Muriel become the Mother and the Father, and then this changes again to the Husband and the Wife. At one point Henry is referred to as Mr H Bell, Henry (schoolmaster). This shifting of voice and person is unsettling, as it occurs after the reader has become accustomed to Henry and Muriel, and makes it seem as though the reader himself were someone else in the scheme of the story, or listening to it from another narrator. . This clash between the mannered, linear story of the Bells, and the playful, ironic, and varying narrative makes up the tension in this novel, and helps to create a feeling of “something gone wrong” in the reader.

The title of the book indicates the presence of an innocent person, and this is also ironic, since, with the possible exception of Victor, no one in this novel is innocent. Henry talks of Hawthorne’s innocence as throughout the book. The “first sight of innocence”, as he sat “handsome and noble, large in their small sitting room”, and his unblemished innocence as a lover, and then his later innocence at the turn of events, being “too kind and perlite to say no”. Hawthorne is the obvious contender for the innocent gentleman of the title, but his polite love affair with Muriel, in which he continues to play the absent object, the hopelessly “in love” spectator, enjoying Muriel’s body without commitment, even to the son he has supposedly fathered, is hardly innocent. As readers, we know very little of Mr Hawthorne. We hear some of his dialogue, and know that he is well mannered, and well dressed, but aside from his physical encounters with Muriel, Hawthorne is a limited character, existing only as a shadow board for Henry and Muriel’s stilted desires. There are hints of some other life with his assistant Morton, and the nursemaid Sarah, who he onced “loved very much”. However, we never learn more about him, or his supposedly lonely life.

Henry is a much clearer character. The narrator makes some fun of his possessive and ineffectual aspirations towards poetry, even providing the reader with a rather bad poem, contrasting sharply with the Wordsworth which precedes it. The reader is made to dislike him, as he does some decidedly unpleasant things, such as keeping a diary of his wife’s monthly cycles, a “notebook kept for Muriel’s secret inner life”, and thinking that only men could be real poets. There is also the way in which his own desire for admiration from Mr Hawthorne causes him to push his wife into a relationship with him, urging her to go to the opera, and ignoring the early warnings of an affair which later causes him distress. He calls his wife “innocent, naïve, and even a little stupid”, and treats her like a little girl, and she muses on the “generous feeling” he might have had towards small boys. There is also his sympathy with German culture, and language; his imaginings of life in a German country. Henry’s desire for “poetic truth”, along with his desperation for order, and his constant self-analysing, the narrative asides of how he would “tell Muriel later”, and his later descent into his own affairs and alcohol make him seem like an unpleasant self-conscious, and ineffectual overly pompous man. Despite the negative narrative portrait, there is also much to admire in Henry. He feeds and cares for his chlidren in the face of his pretty wife’s whims and absentmindedness, and takes on much of the responsibility for her failings, while generously putting up with her difficult mother. He does also occasionally stumble on a truth, such as his desire for Muriel to “keep the real wishes in the human heart”. There is tension between the negative and positive in Henry, and like Muriel, the reader can’t determine how to view him, as wise, caretaker, poet and father, or as irritating, vain, controlling and useless.

Muriel is also a difficult character, alternating between lovelorn heroine eager for some form of fulfilment in her “gentleman”, and the self-centred, self-indulgent femme fatal, who calls her children “brats: How irritating they were when they hung onto her clothes”, and longs for status, nice clothes, and “a school where the school orchestra played Mozart and Beethoven and Vaughan Williams”. It is difficult to see who is the real protagonist, or the “dark invisible” workman, referred to repeatedly in the Wordsworth quotes. Both Henry and Muriel seem to follow some thread of desire which originates in their minds, and in the images of what love, and art are, rather than on how they really feel.

The novel takes place during WWII, although the war itself remains merely a backdrop, with ration coupons, and German lessons, and the occasional air raid. Neither Muriel nor Henry are directly involved in any fighting, and living removed from London as they do, they are hardly aware of the damage which occurs, except for Muriel’s one episode in an air raid shelter. However the real damage of the war; the real pain, provides a balance to the smaller domestic concerns of Henry and Muriel, as Muriel realises: “She reminded herself that, in the way that she lived, her prayers, if remembered, were trivial in comparison with this prayer.” The post bomb scene of the baby having his nappy changed at the edge of the crater, with the “baby boy’s tiny penis exposed” reminds Muriel how delicate life is. This brief reminder of real life, and its fragility, compared to the desperate musings of Henry and Muriel is mirrored at the end of the novel, when Muriel sees little Leopoldi’s “reliable little penis in the open air and all the responsibility in readiness”, and nearly feels something deep, and enduring, but holds back, heading the advice of Mrs Tonkonson, masseuse, woman of “second sight”, humorous neighbour, quoter of Shakespeare, and bearer of comfort for Henry, who tells Muriel that grief will stop the baby from thriving.

Another interesting character is Victor, the poorly spoken saviour of guinea pigs, and Leopoldi. Victor’s own prayer would also render those muttered by Henry and Muriel, and the Tonkinsons as trivial. His cry of grief, as he imagines having to go back to his foster home, provides a moment of colour in this black and white tale: “His cry was like the cry of a desperate animal caught in a trap”. He is the innocent gentleman, “gentle, quick, Victor”, who, despite Muriel’s bullying, still saves her child. Of course Victor fits nowhere into this English society. He is homeless, parentless, and possessed of a missing mouth roof which renders him difficult to understand. The young Bells tell Muriel that in order to make sense of Victor, “you really have to really listen”, but who has time for listening?

So what is innocence? What is love? In a sense, the label of innocence is also a way of indicating a lack of involvement; a lack of power, and most importantly, a lack of knowledge. By not fully participating in their lives, Henry, Muriel and Hawthorn maintain their innocence, even as they are guilty of hurt, pettiness, and small minded jealousies. As a comedy of manners, An Innocent Gentleman makes for a mildly humorous, and easy to read novel; a brief play which is a kind of light farce. As a commentary on the sterility of English mannered life, and as a serious work exploring issues of innocence and guilt, love and pain, and how we make meaning in our lives, the book is difficult, and disturbing, leaving the reader confused, as humour and the lightness of tone mingle with the emptiness of the characters lives, and the mingling of pettiness, desire and depravity. The characters in this novel are too familiar, their lives too similar to our own. Jolley has created an interesting novel, which explores some difficult issues in an unusual structural form. As Henry describes the salute, that “complete faith in the wholesomeness of the continuing operations”, which he later mirrors in his wrestle with Hawthorne, we begin to see that the operations are merely show, and that under the surface, “decline has already set in”.


Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications.

Rowan and the Keeper of the Crystal, by Emily Rodda

The Crystal dims.
The Chooser is summoned . . .

When a messenger bears this strange message from the far-off land of Maris, Rowan doesn’t realise the impact it will have on him – and on those close to him. His mother, it turns out, is The Chooser and Rowan, as her first-born, is the next in line. Together they must travel all the way to the sea to help the Maris peopl choose their new leader, the Keeper of the Crystal.

Along the way, Rowan learns of his mother’s role as The Chooser, and of the responsibilities he must take on should anything happen to her. Little does he expect this to occur.

In Maris, though, nothing is as Rowan expects, and soon he finds himself faced with challenges and decisions previously unimaginable. Can he find the courage and wisdom to make these decisions, and fulfill all his obligations?

Rowan and the Keeper of the Crystal is the third title in this popular series from author Emily Rodda.

Rowan and the Keeper of the Crystal, by Emily Rodda
Omnibus Books, 1996

Mystery of Devil's Roost, by John Long

Peter thinks staying with his aunt and uncle will be boring. His sister Sarah thinks it will be cool – she’s determined to find a dinosaur bone for herself. Neither can predict the adventure they will have.

As they explore the area around Devil’s Roost, in the hills above their uncle’s farm, the children see a mysterious light in a dark patch of trees. When they explore it they find a hidden cave, with walls lined with Aboriginal paintings. What is interesting about these paintings is that they depict dinosaurs and animals which existed millions of years before humans. How could the artists have known what they looked like?

The mystery is only solved when something incredible happens. There is a solar eclpise and, in the dark of the cave, a crystal glows suddenly bright. When the children leave the cave they find they have been transported back in time. Their amazing adventure has begun.

Mystery of Devil’s Roost is the first fiction title of palaentologist and museum curator, John Long. In many places Long’s writing seems to lapse into his non-fiction style, with characters reciting lengthy explanations of time periods and animals. This can prove distracting for the reader interested in the adventure of the story, but may appeal to the youngster with a scientific bent.

Mystery of Devil’s Roost, by John Long
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997

The Point, by Marion Halligan

On a promontory on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, an equisite glass building houses an equally exquisite resautrant. The city’s elite come to dine there, to eat the culinary marvels created by Flora, the city’s most celebrated chef. Nearby, in a ferry shelter which no ferry has ever visited, an eldery homeless man drinks cask wine and befriends a young drug addict. They are not part of the life inside the restaurant, until the man’s heroic actions draw them in.

As the novel focusses on food, so the story itself is like fine dining – served in differing forms, brought out layer by layer, to be savoured, explored and slowly digested. And like a good meal, the book leaves an aftertaste which lingers long after it is finished.

The art of the point is in its mix of narrative technique. Part diary, part third person recount. First one viewpoint, then another, the novel keeps the reader guessing from chapter to chapter. Flora, the charcater who would seem to be central to the varying plots and subplots is perhaps the one we come to know least. Other characters, chiefly her lover, Jerome, an ex-priest and the homeless Clovis are looked at from differing perspectives and seen to evolve. Flora is an enigma. The other characters all worship her, but few seem to know her very well.

The Point will be a special treat for those who love fine food, with meals playing an important part of the action, and also those who love Canberra – although The Point itself is a fictional place.

Fine reading.

The Point, by Marion Halligan
Allen & Unwin, 2003

Wreck, by Allan Baillie

Reene is glad when the adults go away for the day, leaving her alone at the beach. Well, almost alone. She still has to put up with Ian, who’s a bit of a pain and very wierd. If she can avoid him she’ll be fine.

Busy enjoying her freedom, she doesn’t straight away notice the storm building. By the time she does, she’s back in the house. Ian hasn’t noticed it either, busy watching ants on the move. When the rain starts he runs to join Reene. When the storm hits, they are together. Together they escape the house before it is destroyed by the wind and take shelter in a cave which Ian has found. And when the storm dies, it is together that they embark on a new adventure. A ship has been washed ashore in the bay and Reene wants to expplore. Reluctantly, Ian follows. Both have forgotten that a cyclone has an eye – the calm in the middle of the storm, before it resumes. While they are on board the wreck, the storm renews its attack and they are stuck on the boat, which has come adrift. As wild seas and violent winds try to tear the boat apart, the two become aware of something else – they are not alone on the boat. There is something else there on board with them – stalking them in the dark.

Wreck combines two of Allan Baillie’s favourite elements – the ocean and the finding of personal strength. Both Ian and Reene must tap this strength if they are to survive.

Baillie’s novels are always filled with action and unexpected outcomes. Wreck is no exception.

Wreck, by Allan Baillie
Puffin, 1997

Gracie and the Emperor, by Errol Broome

When Gracie hears that Napoleon is coming to live on the island of St Helena, she is terrified. She has heard tales of this man, painting him as a monster. She wants nothing to do with him, refusing even to make his bed in the boarding house where she works.

Forced to find new employment, circumstances take a strange turn when she ends up working at the house where Napoleon is guest while his own house is prepared. Still scared, she avoids him at all costs as she goes about her work. Gradually, however she becomes aware that he is just a man, with emotions like any other person, and that he has been broken by the events which brought him to the island.

It seems, too, that Napoleon is aware of Gracie. Although they have never met, they cross paths regularly, and Napoleon takes an interest in her circumstances, managing along the way to make her life a little easier.

Gracie and the Emperor makes use of an interesting combination of fact and fiction. Gracie and her story are products of the author’s imagination, but of course Napoleon Bonaparte is not. Author Errol Broome tells a story of what life may have been like for Napoleon after his defeat, entwining it with the imaginary life a young island resident.

Suitable for children aged 10 to 14, this is a special book.

Gracie and the Emperor, by Errol Broome
Allen & Unwin, 2003

Rowan and the Travellers, by Emily Rodda

The secret enemy is here,
It hides in darkness, fools beware!

The people of Rin tolerate Sheba only because they need her potions. They are scared of her and avoid her until they need her skills. So, when she is troubled by dreams, Rowan is frightened by her prophesies. Sheba recites a rhyme to Rowan, a rhyme which troubles him, though he can make no sense of it.

When the Travellers arrive in the village, Rowan and most of the other villagers are excited. But when strange things start to happen, Rowan remembers Sheba’s words and wonders if the Travellers are the enemy mentioned in the verse.

When the other villagers of Rin are mysteriously struck down and the travellers disappear, it is up to Rowan to solve the riddle and save his people. But first he must decide if the Travellers are enemies or allies.

Rowan and the Travellers is a gripping sequel to Rowan of Rin. Emily Rodda tells a tale of fantasy and adventure, entwined with themes of friendship, trust and courage. In choosing Rowan, seen in ordinary times as a weakling, as her hero, she presents young readers with an image of strength beyond the purely physical. Suitable for readers aged 10 and over, the Rowan books make an excellent introduction to the fantasy genre.

Rowan and the Travellers, by Emily Rodda
Omnibus Books, 1994

Spook's Shack, by Wendy Orr

Reviewed by Sally Odgers

Finn is between worlds. His old house has been sold, and his parents have flown to ‘the biggest city in the world’ to choose a flat. Finn is left to spend the hiatus with his mother’s aunt, Agatha Greene. Agatha lives on a bush block between a farm belt and Boris Banks’ mansion. She tells Finn to watch out for snakes, explains the procedures for surviving a bush fire and basically leaves him to himself.

Down in the bush, Finn discovers a fire-singed shack. When he enters, he wakes the inhabitants; an old swagman, Jack Henry, and his collie, Nipper. Jack and Nipper are surprised to find themselves waking as ghosts, but they discover that swallowing green fungus from the inside of the shack renders them easily visible.

Finn makes friends with the odd pair, and together they rescue a joey wallaby, foil the land-grabbing Boris Banks’ plans to foreclose on Aunt Agatha, and preserve her house from a fire.

The plot may sound like a standard bush/fantasy adventure, but the style, the themes and the deft interweaving of worlds and times sets this novel apart as something rather special. The narrative is both elusive and allusive, as Finn moves through Jack Henry’s world experiencing the old ghost’s kinship with the local wildlife and introducing him to the modern joys of radio, computer games and mobile phones. Their shared fascination with one another’s knowledge and skills is touching and very believable. Jack’s life story is one of wandering and betrayal, of a friendship turned to enmity with Boris Banks’ ancestor. The past impinges on the present, and the various elements of the plot move forward in a dream-like way. At times, the reader is enmeshed in Jack Henry’s perception, either directly or while he is recounting an incident to Finn. This led to me needing to reread a few brief passages, just to make sure I really understood what was going on.

There is humour in the story, but Wendy Orr has not taken the easy route of making Jack Henry into a comic figure. As Finn discovers, Jack is not dangerous, but allowing himself to become immersed in Jack’s world is. The thrilling defence of a goat and kid from a pack of dogs is a triumph – but the appearance of the farmer with a gun brings real danger to Finn.

In the end, Jack redeems his long-ago betrayal with a favour for an undeserving enemy, but it is not the redemption that could send Jack into limbo…

Symbolically, Jack casts off his modern delights, but Nipper is able to join him – somewhere. Aunt Agatha has her happy ending, and Finn is able to move on to the next thing; his life in ‘the biggest city in the world’.

Spook’s Shack, by Wendy Orr (illus. by Kerry Millard.)
Allen & Unwin 2003

Sally Odgers is a Tasmanian author of children’s and young adult books. By Sally Odgers By Request – visit her new project at her website and have your say.

Islam in Australia, by Abdullah Saeed

In the wake of September 11 and the ongoing bitter debate over asylum seekers, most Australians have opinions on Muslims and the Islamic faith. But many of these opinions are based on misunderstandings or a partial understading of the faith and of its practioners. Over 300 000 Australians identify themselves as Muslim. Many were born in Australia and some were not born into the faith, instead choosing to convert.

Islam in Australia provides a brief and accessible introduction to the world of Islam and, in particular, its existence and practice in Australia. One of the key understandings imparted by the book is that, like Christians, Muslims are not all alike. There are vast cultural differences within the Muslim community, making many common perceptions of the ‘typical’ Muslim, simply uninformed stereotypes.

Author Abdullah Saeed is Head of the Arabic and Islamic Studies program at the University of Melbourne. His inside look at Australia’s Muslim community is a must read for every Australian.

Islam in Australia, by Abdullah Saeed
Allen & Unwin, 2003