Miss Porch, the heroine of Elizabeth Jolley's third novel, is a diffident, unmarried teacher of English who, during her winter holidays, contracts to teach drama to the adult members of Trinity College -- a bizarre type of health club -- somewhere in the more remote reaches of rural Australia. The theory behind the practice at Trinity College is that if you stuff the mind with enough culture, those trying to lose weight will be too preoccupied to notice the rumblings in their stomachs. Food for thought, rather than the large intestine. Miss Porch's role in the curriculum is to concoct an improvised drama -- the eponymous "Foxybaby" -- which the eager dieters will present at the end of their stay.
The school is prototypically eccentric, run by a jolly, corrupt lesbian called Peycroft. The students don't let us down either. There is Mrs. Viggars, large and rich, and for whom, so Miss Peycroft informs Miss Porch, the leading role in "Foxybaby" is reserved; Mrs. Jonquil Castle, a dreary suburban bore; Miss Harrow, a sexually extravagant failed actress; and so on -- not forgetting an uncouth, randy janitor called Miles.
Miss Porch's tenure at Trinity College starts badly. On her way there, she, along with students driving to the school, is involved in a multivehicle pile-up, effectively marooning them for the duration while their cars are repaired. The rest of the novel concentrates on Miss Porch's efforts to get "Foxybaby" halfway adequately performed and avoid the company of her egregious students. The tone is light, the humor mildly racy, the narrative rambling and unstructured. All this in strong contrast, it soon becomes clear, to the play. "Foxybaby," it turns out, is about the attempts of a father to rescue and care for his daughter (nicknamed "foxybaby"), who is a heroin addict, and whose life has been further complicated by the recent arrival of a child. The two narratives -- deliberately, I assume -- sit uneasily side by side. "Foxybaby" is grim and serious, almost ponderously so. Life in the school is conducted in these sorts of tones:
"Mrs. Viggars, wearing white flared slacks and a portly blue blazer, was delighted to be cast as Dr. Steadman . . .
" 'Well Rennett,' she said, rubbing her hands together, 'have you been cast yet? Oh I see you're to be a prison wardress, a screw it's called or rather a screwess I suppose you'd say, eh? What? Ooomph?' "
It would be fair, I think, to describe the character of the novel as whimsy, of the slightly hysterical vein. Whimsy is a difficult comic mood to achieve successfully and even then is a very acquired taste -- one, I must confess, in which I am lacking. "Foxybaby" did not make me smile once.
This failure was exacerbated by a technical decision Jolley has taken. Most of the novel is dialogue. At a rough guess I'd say its proportion to description is four or five to one. Consequently, much of the action of the book is conveyed through the characters telling each other what is going on. One learns to distinguish the individual voices but not until the novel is well under way. Jolley manipulates this with some skill, but it makes her story maddeningly opaque -- one longs for a bit of straightforward exposition and description.
These difficulties undermine the more serious intent of the book -- portrayals of personal loss and loneliness, of fumbling attempts at communication and empathy -- that largely resides in the play-within-the-novel. "Foxybaby" strives to be moving and funny -- an honest ambition -- but its faulty mechanics and misconceived tone let it down.