FOXYBABY by Elizabeth Jolley

Book Quote:

“If I hear you say once more that the women’s prison is too small and that more women, especially the middle-aged and the elderly should be locked up—I’ll—never mind what I’ll do.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (DEC 5, 2010)

Nothing prepared me for Elizabeth Jolley’s novel Foxybaby. What was I expecting? Well a gentle novel, a comedy of manners, perhaps? Instead Foxybaby is packed with quirky characters whose attendance at a private summer course unleashes a range of odd behaviours.

The novel begins with an exchange of letters between novelist, Alma Porch and Josephine Peycroft, the principal of Trinity College. Alma, who’s also a teacher at a girls’ school agrees to teach a drama course at Trinity College’s summer programme for overweight adults: “Better Body Through the Arts.” The opening exchange of letters sets the stage for the novel’s tone as Alma and Miss Peycroft attempt to work out their artistic differences.

The increasingly testy tone of the letters should set off alarm bells for Alma (they did for this reader), but perhaps Alma’s enthusiasm blinds her to the knowledge that all is not well at Trinity College. She sails off into the Australian outback in her “battered Volkswagen” with her head packed full of ideas for her drama course:

“Enjoying the delightful feeling of escape she sang tunelessly, something operatic, and nodded her head in time to her own aria. She was on her way to Cheathem East. Occasionally she stopped singing to listen, from habit, with some anxiety to the rattle of her engine. This noise being sustained as usual she let her mind race ahead. She hoped Trinity College would live up to her expectations. She thought about sunflowers. Sunflowers with heads as big as dinner plates, golden sunflowers in the corners of old buildings and by crumbling walls. She hoped they would be growing in Cheatham East.”

Alma’s rosy illusions about Trinity College are about to be shattered. The first warning of what’s in store occurs when she ploughs her Volkswagen into the back of a bus parked in the middle of a curved road. While this at first appears to be an accident, this is just one of many scams perpetrated by the lecherous Miles, whose nebulous position at the school is strangely tolerated by Miss Peycroft. When Miles isn’t ripping off the students and teachers with his various schemes, he hangs out in a room in which “everything [that was] there seemed to be for sale.” In the creation of Miss Peycroft and Miles, there are shades of Miss Fritton and Flash Harry from the marvellous British St Trinian’s films.

Alma’s accident–her strange introduction to the school–is but a hint of what’s in store. Two of the teachers don’t speak English, and Trinity College is a dump. The students are there ostensibly to loose weight, so the food is meager (if it appears at all). Alma’s room is soon invaded by Mrs. Castle, a student who can’t stop hammering on about her grandchildren and Siamese cats. But there are stranger things afoot; orgies and assignations are commonplace, and Miss Peycroft, “reputed to be a one time prioress, till she jumped off a wall,” may be the inamorata of another female teacher. Any normal person would run from Trinity College and its collection of nuts. Alma, however is determined to put on her play, She’s so wrapped up with its creation that she chooses to ignore a great deal, and when her mind does absorb the strangeness surrounding her, she simply becomes sleepy.

Foxybaby is primarily a humorous novel of eccentricity with its characters moving from their own bizarre lives and social relationships into the dreadful play, Foxybaby. The novel is reminiscent of a Shirley Jackson tale in which a normal person strays into some horrific environment and is trapped. Foxybaby isn’t horrific, however, although incidents that in other circumstances would be horrific take place (the staged car accident, for example). There’s no threat of danger–except to one’s sanity–in Jolley’s novel. Here’s Miss Peycroft discussing a course called Basic Self Expression:

“That’s Mrs. Viggars,” Miss Peycroft said, “the one sitting in the cardboard-box, rather a squeeze but she managed it ultimately. Luckily Miles found something big enough, a console television carton or was it a double-door refrigerator…”

“Whatever is that on her head?” Miss Porch in her curiosity, forgot good manners and interrupted Miss Peycroft, who did not seem to mind.

“Oh that. That’s a cushion,” she said. “It was hilarious. They all wore cushions on their heads and rocked across the courtyard in the boxes. Great fun!”

Just think of a scenario in which the patients take over the asylum. Make that asylum Trinity College and you get the picture. What’s so curious here is that Alma doesn’t seem to even notice the nuttiness that surrounds her. She’s dotty and giddy, and when she’s exposed to some really awful behaviour, her reactions to the Trinity College crowd create an even stranger situation. This darkly comic tale will appeal to those who love novels of eccentricity and the many foibles of human nature.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Persea (November 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Elizabeth Jolley
EXTRAS: Elizabeth Jolley Research Collection
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Vera Wright Trilogy

Sugar Mother



December 5, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Australia, Character Driven, Humorous, Literary, Satire

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