Autodidact: self-taught

Apr
29
2015

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

by V. L. Craven

The Well

In February I reviewed an Australian film called The Well and found the ending confusing. In said review I said I’d like to read the screenplay to see if the ending was less ambiguous.

So recently I read the novel the film was based on–The Well by Elizabeth Jolley, which was published in 1986.

It tells the story of Hester Harper, an Australian spinster who has spent the majority of her life on a remote farm with her father.

One day she meets an orphan–a young woman named Katherine–who’s been helping out at a local shop but who is about to be returned to the Home, as the man of the house no longer wants her around. On a whim, Hester takes the girl home with her to help with chores.

She grows possessive of the girl. Protective. And Katherine cares for Miss Harper, as well. She certainly likes her money and helps spend it with an abandon the older woman had never felt the need for before meeting the girl.

The girl has awakened something in the woman. An appreciation for life. Her inner world is more vibrant for Katherine coming into it even if her outer self is as old and broken as it was before her arrival. Most of all, she loves watching the young woman dance.

Hester’s father dies and the decision is made to sell the farm her family has lived on for generations and she and Katherine move to a little cottage even further from civilisation, but who cares, as they have one another.

It’s the first time that Hester Harper has been happy since she was a child so she is willing to go to great lengths to preserve her precious, shared life when a sinister event threatens to disrupt what they’ve built.

The lengths she is willing to go to, though, may do irreparable harm to her beloved Kathy, who may not be as innocent as Hester believes.

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There’s an old-fashioned feel to The Well. Not being familiar with the songs or dances Katherine mentions (and assuming it was because they were Australian) the book ‘felt’ like it took place in the late 60s or 70s. It wasn’t until the end of the novel when one of the characters makes a passing mention of AIDS that I looked at the copyright. This could be because the book takes place from Hester Harper’s p.o.v. and she’s a queer sort of bird but old fashioned in her way.

It’s very … Australian. In a way I don’t have the words to describe. Some books simply feel like the countries they were written in. Some books are American or English or Australian. There’s an Oz sensibility about it. And also a slightly English. Perhaps it’s the ‘single, eccentric woman living in the countryside giving no cares’ that rings the English bell for me.

That’s not a criticism (the Australian thing, I mean); it simply is what it is. If you’ve never read Australian books before this may seem sparse or if you haven’t liked other ones you probably won’t like this one but I enjoyed it. Hester Harper is a fully-formed character and the reader gets to know her, warts and all. She is stubborn. And, ultimately, a very lonely person. Her loneliness makes her blind and blind people do stupid things.

This is a satisfying, but not uplifting read.

I give this 4/5 but if you’re looking for straight-forward answers or a happy ending keep driving.

My next post will be about the similarities and differences between the source material and the film. Needless to say, this didn’t clear up much for me, but as a fan of the film, I’m glad I read it. It also stands on its own as a novel.

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