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On the basis of her first two novels to be published here (see also Mister Scobie's Riddle, below), Australian writer Jolley registers as a faintly nasty, slightly smug Barbara Pym--viewing the lonely lives and skewed passions of aging spinsters with cutting irony, condescending pity, but little of Pym's empathy or dignity. Miss Peabody is a London clerk, living in a drab suburb under the thumb of her ancient invalid mother; her life, ""not from her own fault at all, has become a series of clichÉs and platitudes."" But she has recently found sustenance in long letters from an Australian novelist named Diana Hopewell, author of Miss P.'s beloved Angels on Horseback. Diana--whom Miss Peabody envisions as the horsy, glowing embodiment of that name--answers questions, offers advice. Mostly, however, she sends excerpts from her new novel-in-progress: the story of 60-ouch Australian headmistress Arabella Thorne, who travels to Europe with no less than three adoring, jealous female friends--her lover Miss Snowdon (""You exquisite naughty""), her slavish companion Miss Edgely, and bovine, smitten schoolgirl Gwenda. Miss Pea. body is titillated by the genteel eroticism of this somewhat campy lesbian soap-opera--though Diana notes that ""I shall probably not manage this time to hit the peak in pornography as in the love in the saddle scenes in Angels etc."" Miss P. becomes completely absorbed in the Diana/novel connection, while her everyday life deteriorates into overt signs of mental instability. When the novel's fictional characters reach London (where Gwenda will be nabbed into marriage by the father of a sexy classmate), she goes looking for them in real-life locations. And, after her mother's death, Miss Peabody goes to Australia to meet Diana in person, resulting in a traumatic (predictable) revelation. . . but one that won't stop Miss P. from continuing her obsession with the make-believe lives of Diana's ladies. Jolley handles the story-within-a-story shifts here with relaxed assurance; Diana's authorial asides provide fair amusement. But Miss Peabody's sad situation is never given the depth or texture needed to lift it beyond the merely piteous or clinical. And, while admirers of cold, stylish British fiction (cf. A. N. Wilson) will find this a diverting mix of satire and pathos, it will strike others as a short-story subject playfully--but not convincingly--twirled out to novel length.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0892553707
Publisher: Viking