Outline of key elements of the text


‘The nights [truly] belonged to the novelist,’ in Miss Peabody’s restricted, isolated world. This sixtyish ‘spinster’ has spent her adult life caring for her demanding, bedridden mother, working for 35 years as a largely unnoticed, typist in a large London firm, living out her days in a relentless, monotonous routine. However, once the correspondence between Dorothy and Australian writer Diana Hopewell begins, Dorothy’s life begins to change. In part, the letters contain Diana’s developing ‘next novel’. This manuscript relates the exploits of three middle-aged single women, including a holiday in Europe with a sixteen-year-old who is a student at the school where Miss Thorne is headmistress. Miss Peabody is so entranced by the stories, that she has difficulty remembering that what Diana Hopewell is writing is fiction, and the recklessness of the characters starts to influence how she chooses to behave in her life. The sudden death of Miss Peabody’s mother seems to free her, both in terms of her erratic behaviour with co-workers, and in terms of what she allows herself to think. After being arrested for drunkenness, an action which is attributed to her grief after her mother’s death, her employers suggest Miss Peabody should take extended leave. Dorothy, who has barely left London before, decides to take a trip to Australia to visit Diana Hopewell. It is once she arrives that Miss Peabody is able to ‘enter into her inheritance’.


Introductory activities

Narrative style

Jolley’s novel employs a complex narrative style. She has constructed a work with unreliable, multiple first-person narrators, using a novel-within-a-novel structure to present us with four separate fictions: what Diana Hopewell presents as her life; Diana Hopewell’s explicit fictional construction; the life created by Miss Peabody’s replies to the author’s correspondence; and, Miss Peabody’s actual life. The immediacy of all the stories presented by Jolley, including that explicitly created as a manuscript for an emerging novel by Diana Hopewell, is supported by the use of present tense.

This style of narration can be very powerful and have a strong effect on the reader as it gives readers direct insight into a character’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. A vital aspect of first-person narration is that the narrator is somehow involved in the story, is usually a part of the action and may have something at stake. This does mean that we have to be wary of what we are being told. As the narrator has something at stake the narration may not contain full disclosure. It is clear by the conclusion of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance that, in all cases, we are dealing here with ‘unreliable narrators’.

Step 1:

Move the students into groups of four.

Ask the students to read the first six pages of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (to the break in the narrative after Miss Peabody changes her text to ‘for ever such a long time’).

Have each student choose one section: Diana Hopewell’s narrative; Diana Hopewell’s fictional narrative; Miss Peabody’s narrative as she writes it to the novelist; Miss Peabody’s narrative of the life she is living.

In the section they are focused on, ask students to highlight, in different colours, the use of:

Step 2: 

Ask students to undertake a Placemat Activity.

  • Provide each group with an A4 paper which has been ‘marked up’ as shown.
  • Each student in the group has one ‘outside’ area in which to record their own responses and ideas regarding how they think Jolley’s use of personal pronouns, punctuation, and sentence structures affect them as readers.
  • Once they have done this, they are to consider each other’s ideas and arguments and come up with a summative statement which is written in the centre of the placemat.
  • This summative statement is then read (and justified, if necessary) to the class.
    (ACELR029)   (ACELR031)   (ACELR027)

Personal response on reading the text

Set the students up into reading groups as they create preliminary notes about the novel. They are to use four aspects of characterisation: appearance, speech, action and what others say about the character, to develop a detailed reading of the characters in the novel. Making sure they are referring to a number of different points in the narrative means that their reading is not narrow and demonstrates an understanding of how characters change over the course of a novel.


  1. Choose one character. Each person in the group is to choose a different character.
  2. Choose at least five points in the plot to analyse.
  3. Describe the character’s appearance, noting whether it changes over the course of the novel.
  4. Describe the character’s speech. Include quotes here.
  5. Describe the character’s actions.
  6. Quote what other characters have said about your character, and/or note how other characters react to your character.


Once these notes have been compiled, students are to write a short empathetic analysis of their chosen character. This means that they are taking the point of view of the character they are writing about; he or she is to be seen in the best light possible given the evidence they have before them.


Synthesising task/activity

Characters as stereotypes

Stereotypical characters are presented as containing characteristics which are easily recognisable as representative of, for example, a particular gender, class, race, occupation or other group. These representations are quite simplified, with little recognition of subtleties or nuances. Stock characters are a form of stereotyping, and this is the more usual label for such grouping in traditional literary analysis.

This is one way of authors ‘universalising’ their stories. If we are talking of a recognisable (albeit simplified version of) ‘type’ of person, then we can learn about real people and the real world, seeing beyond the page of the novel in our analysis of such characters. Further, in every text, characters operate to play on the emotions of the reader. We can react positively or negatively, we can ‘like’ the characters or ‘hate’ them, we can be ‘passionate’ about or ‘indifferent’ to their plight or what they are fighting for or against.

Jolley makes much use of stereotypes in this novel. It can be argued, however, that she is using them to subvert usual expectations.

Step 1:
Assign pairs of students a character from the novel.
Have them find or create a visual representation of that character.

Make a list of the features of the stereotype and ‘match’ these to the character.

Step 2:
As a class, discuss the assumptions, connections and understandings made about the characters. Is there general agreement about the stereotyping used here?

Step 3:
Have students write an individual response to analyse:

  • Do these characters behave as we expect them to? Why/why not?
  • Given these can be seen as reinforcing negative ideas about particular ‘types’ of people, what purpose might Jolley have for using these stereotypes?
    (ACELR020)   (ACELR022)

Character study: characters as symbols

In the most straightforward sense, a symbol is anything that stands for or represents something else beyond it – usually an idea conventionally associated with it. A symbol is generally an object, person or action representing another idea to give it a more significant meaning. For example, a ‘smile’ symbolises friendship.

When we talk of characters as symbols, we are looking at how that character can be ‘read’ to have broader meaning than who or what the character literally ‘is’ in the text. It is important to remind students that the meaning of a symbol will be different depending on the context in which they are used. That there is no simple, direct, unchanging relationship between a symbol and its meaning is what some people find difficult when they are trying to analyse and respond to literature. However, close reading of the text usually allows a reader to determine a reasoned and reasonable interpretation of the symbols being used. For example, ‘sunburnt, open country’ may be used to stand for ‘isolation and desolation’ or ‘freedom and possibility’. Which interpretation is imposed on the symbol will depend on both the context in the text and how you are reading the way the character is responding to the events in the text.

Students need to see that using characters as symbols gives a writer the freedom to add multiple levels of meaning to the work. It also allows us to see a character as ‘universal’; that is, they are not just characters in a novel, and they can tell us something about real people in the real world beyond the literature we are reading.

The use of these techniques is evident in Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. The names of Jolley’s characters are meant to give the reader a strong sense of what the character looks like and how they respond to the world. However, remember that Jolley is keen to subvert reader expectation, providing small shocks when the reader realises that the usually comfortable experience with character ‘x’ does not actually fit with what is happening in the novel. This is clear in Jolley’s construction of the character of Dorothy Peabody in this highly self-aware novel; for example, when Miss Peabody had to have a nip of her mother’s medicinal brandy to soothe her as the ‘water fight had disturbed her rather’ (p. 11).


Productive assessment task


To develop understanding of how Jolley uses symbolism and stereotypes, have students consider how the primary characters are symbols and/or stereotypes, supplying detailed information in the columns of the chart below.

Character  Symbolism of the name  Stereotype fulfilled by this character  Stereotype subverted by this character  Specific examples from the text 
Miss Peabody
Diana Hopewell
Miss Thorne
Miss Edgely
Miss Snowdon
Gwendaline Manners

This chart can be filled in and discussed in small groups.

Individual work:

  1. Choose one scene from the novel which a chosen character speaks or narrates part of the story.
  2. Create a short speech for that character. Try to stay true to the ‘voice’ of the character in terms of vocabulary choices.
  3. Create a still picture, which can be presented in digital form, to represent the character and the scene.
  4. Create a voice recording of the scene from that character’s point of view.

To help you and your students create this piece of work, follow this link to see how to create a podcast and vodcast.
(ACELR026)   (ACELR032)   (ACELR033)   (ACELR034)   (ACELR035)


These pieces could be presented to the class and then lead into a discussion and/or written analysis of how various aspects of the language and behaviour of characters provide a framework for reader expectations.
(ACELR023)   (ACELR036)   (ACELR019)

Theoretical perspectives

There are many perspectives from which to read Jolley’s novel. To develop their own reading of this complex narrative, students can create, and share, resources which take them to a reading they are interested in exploring.

Activity 1: Create a Flipboard  

A flipboard is flexible and creative, with the advantage that it can be added to as the students’ knowledge and understanding develops. See ‘How to Create a Magazine on Flipboard‘ for further information.

Suggested sections:
A character page for each character: quotes, moods, changes in the perspective of the character, changes in the reader’s perspective of the character.
A section bringing Diana Hopewell’s ‘novel’ together.
Theoretical perspectives of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance:

  • Modernism
  • Feminism
  • Place
  • Marginalisation, isolation and otherness
  • Different genres used by Jolley (for example, black comedy)

Modernism and reader expectations

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is often described as fitting clearly in the modernist tradition. We are presented with both shifting and multiple points of view; the narrative is formally complex and contains a meta-narrative, and characters’ thoughts are sometimes represented in a stream-of-consciousness. Despite these shifts and movements, it is not a confusing narrative once the reader is aware of the way Jolley is using multiple points of view.

Students would then add examples from the novel to support an interpretation of the novel as fitting within the modernist tradition.

Activity 2: Create an analysis

For each theoretical section of the flipboard, have the students write a short analysis of the novel to show how Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is ‘feminist’, or is exploring ‘otherness’.

The analysis needs to include:

  • a definition of the theory being explored;
  • direct examples from the text;
  • statements showing how these two above elements intersect to create a reading.

This analysis should be no more than 500 words.

These should be shared with the class in the form of a blog. (WordPress allows you to create a blog/website for free.)

  • This heightens the imperative for students to create quality pieces of work as they are going to be shared and published.
  • This enables effective sharing of ideas and resources between members of the class.
    (ACELR022)   (ACELR027)   (ACELR029)   (ACELR032)

Synthesising core ideas

Receptive Assessment Task

For this written piece, students are to make use of the analysis of their productive assessment task from the ‘Close study’ section of this unit, along with the analysis material produced for their blog/s, and the analysis they developed in the preliminary reading activities to do with narrative style and stereotypes.

Students will produce two pieces of writing for this task:

  1. Each student is to write a clearly inflammatory and provocative analysis of Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. They are to take on the voice of an imaginary critic who takes a position which they vehemently disagree with. For example, if the student does not see Jolley’s novel as subverting gender stereotypes, the student should write an oppositional piece which supports an extreme feminist reading.
  2. Then each student is to write a detailed analytical piece which will both demonstrate their own justified reading of the novel as well as showing how the ‘inflammatory critical analysis’ is ill-founded.

You can select a handful of really interestingly written ‘inflammatory analyses’ for this second task, or write one yourself.

Each piece should be between 700 and 800 words. Students need to use close textual reference to support their ideas. Conventions of formal vocabulary, grammar and expression are to be met, even if they choose to write in a highly emotive style for the first piece.
(ACELR029)   (ACELR030)   (ACELR031)