Patrick White: An Essay

When I was seventeen, one of my father’s friends, an artist and teacher, lent me copy of The Vivisector by Patrick White. I’d never heard of White, but a few years later at the age of twenty-one, I wrote my dissertation for my English Literature half of my combined English Lit and History degree at Leeds University on him. Somehow those old typewritten pages from 1982 are still with me, a different country and countless house moves later. Here they are.


Early on in his autobiography, Patrick White writes: “I chose fiction, or more likely it was chosen for me, as the means of introducing to a disbelieving audience the cast of contradictory characters of which I am composed.” Despite this assertion, many of the relatives and acquaintances portrayed in Flaws in the Glass are recognizable as the sources of inspiration for the characters that occur and recur in his novels. On occasion he makes explicit reference to this. For example, he says: “My godmother was the starting point for The Aunt’s Story.”

No doubt it is this ability to create, or perhaps recreate, fictional characters from actual ones which is partly responsible for even his deliberate stereotypes possessing a believable individuality. Patrick White is a master at creating and sustaining character. In none of his novels is this gift more evident than in The Vivisector. From childhood to “stroked” old age, Hurtle Duffield is portrayed with astonishing continuity; and the same is true of his adoptive sister Rhoda, whom we meet only as a child and as an old woman.

It is foolish, however, to talk of a particular character as acting “in character” or to try to decide how they might behave in any given situation external to the novel. The fictional character is a figment of the author’s imagination and however successfully he or she is implanted in the mind of the reader, that character exists only on the printed page. It is therefore logical to assume that each character has been created for a purpose; it may be for superficial comic effect or it may be to convey some message central to the theme of the novel. Some of White’s characters may be seen to be too “literary”. Certainly in the earlier novels they are more obviously manipulated for the sake of theme, conceived as they are to toe the line in accordance with a carefully constructed plot. Nevertheless, White possesses a quality of subtlety that enables him to position his characters and events in such a way that those coincidences or stylizations that do occur scarcely seem to be the result of conscious creation. Some of his characters possess habits which render them quite repulsive to the reader, and some, taken at face value, are quite simply classed as boring. Who, one might ask, wants to read about ordinary people doing ordinary things?

The answer is, or course, that while White’s characters may be doing ordinary things, or living ordinary lives, or behaving in an eccentric or revolting manner, it is not the surface that matters. White’s characters can be roughly divided into three groups.

There are those that make up “ordinary” society. They have no concept of higher spiritual ideals and no wish for it. They are content merely to exist, and fight shy of problems and suffering. Then there are those few who consider themselves to be a spiritual elite, superior to those around them, because they believe in some essential core of life and aspire to attain it. They are intelligent, strong-willed, misunderstood; sometimes rejected by society but more often, withholding themselves. The third group is that small section of simple-minded or eccentric people—and it seems that these, often ostracized by society for different reasons, are the ones who unconsciously have managed to grasp the core of life. But it must be stressed that these groups are all fuzzy-edged; White is nothing if not ambiguous.

Generally, the people who make up “normal” society are satirically or comically represented. White is rarely savage or vindictive; he seems to adopt an attitude of sometimes amused, at times even affectionate, tolerance for the shortcomings of the human raise. Nevertheless, these shortcomings are not lightly treated. This passage from The Aunt’s Story is a good example:

Theodora sat on the quilt in her big straw hat, and her face was half a brown shadow, where the brim cut across. The impression was rather strange.

“You haven’t even taken off your hat,’ said Una.

She looked at Theodora sensing something that she would not understand, and possibly something from which she must defend herself, or even hate.

The last sentence is a clearly condemnatory comment on the preference of society for fending off anything which might not conform to the accepted rules.

In Voss, the central characters, Laura Trevelyan and Voss himself, are set apart from the colonial society. Both experience a sense of superiority, a pride that manifests itself in Laura as coldness or reservation, and in Voss as a belief in his own divinity. Laura feels she is different from those around her because of an awareness of a need to understand or come to terms with deeper, essential currents of life. She is disliked by many who think her odd, or are offended by her aloofness, but there are others who are ready to try to reach her. Mrs. Bonner, Laura’s aunt, expresses this most openly when she says:

            “We only wish to help you, Laura. We love you.”

A character such as Arthur Brown in A Solid Mandala may find himself fended off by others in society because he appears to them eccentric, or half-witted. Paradoxically, they are accepted by some people precisely because of these traits. Set against Arthur is his brother Waldo, convinced, almost like Voss, of his own genius, but clearly so obsessed with the theory that in practice he is quite hollow.

The ambiguity present in the relationship of a particular character to the rest of society is easily seen in A Fringe of Leaves. Ellen Roxburgh is of common origin, having married into the upper classes. She is made to feel inferior by some members of her adoptive class, while subconsciously being aware that she is not. She is rejected because she is strange, and perhaps not quite a lady; yet she makes favorable impressions for this reason too.

These isolated characters, consciously or unconsciously, are searching for a core in their lives: a reason for, and understanding of, their existence. They must grapple with the thorns, strip themselves or be stripped of every superficiality, if they are to gain even momentary access to this intangible, inexpressible essence. Elizabeth Hunter in The Eye of the Storm feeds off the moment of revelation for the rest of her life.  Those that are aware of this search have also, although they do not realize it, to break down the barriers of pride before they can attain what is now generally termed the state of “pure being”. In a sense they have been beaten to their goal by those who are genuinely humble—humility being the trait that Voss most despises in man.

For people like Laura Trevelyan and Ellen Roxburgh, the passions within them have no apparent outlet, both because of the time in which they live, and because they have no real means of expressing themselves. Not so the artist Hurtle Duffield. The words of Miss Spofforth, which she never outwardly applied to Theodora, can be lifted out of context and applied to Duffield. He does indeed possess “the artist’s vanity, which is moved to express itself in objects.” The great recluse, Hurtle is obsessed only with his painting, the extension of himself.

That this quotation spans the twenty-year gap between The Aunt’s Story and The Vivisector so easily is an illustration of the persistence of White’s central themes. I intend to look at White’s use of character with particular reference to two novels: Voss (1957) and A Fringe of Leaves (1976), and to examine his treatment of religion and of society in the light of what they reveal. White’s themes, in the words of Patrick Morley, are “universal and timeless”  and are thus not confined by the pages and events of the novel. The time lapse between the writing of these two is therefore not a problem; and they bear a superficial resemblance in story line. In fact, although similarities can be wrested from the texts, which link them conveniently for discussion, it is the differences which emerge very strongly and which are more important. It is something to be said for Patrick White that he is able to express in entirely different ways, time after time, the same basic philosophy.

Voss and A Fringe of Leaves are set within a decade of one another—the 1840s and the 1830s respectively—although the last section of Voss takes place twenty years after the expedition. Both contain episodes of aboriginal life, savage deaths, escaped or emancipated convicts and desert conditions. Both contain comical, satirical, and in some cases compassionate, portraits of colonial society, at its most amiable and at its most intolerant. Both contain mentally deranged survivors. Complexities, ambiguities, and paradoxes abound both within each individual novel and if the two are set against one another. It seems that nothing is stated without it being turned upside down; sometimes in the next sentence, sometimes in the next book. Through aspects of the characters he portrays I hope to arrive at some unequivocal conclusions regarding White’s themes.


 Voss and A Fringe of Leaves, the two novels which most critics, with their liking for labels, call “the historical novels” do form a satisfying pair for discussion: White’s novels are so different that it is almost a relief to find two that might possibly be bracketed together. Although Voss was already forming in White’s mind, the plot began to take shape when he read about the explorer Leichhardt’s failed attempt to cross the Australian desert. A Fringe of Leaves also takes its basic plot from a true story.

I have always felt that the historical nature of these novels is very much a secondary feature. Were it not for the conveyed rustling of dresses, or creaking of carriages, the events might be taking place at any time in the past, present, or future. The fact that they take place in the second quarter of the nineteenth century is incidental to the themes; an addition of atmosphere.

White, in Flaws in the Glass, bears this out. Giving vent to apparent irritation, he writes:

Voss’s controversial origins led to strife with Leichhardt’s academic guardians and confusion amongst thesis writers … In time I was forgiven, Voss canonized, and it became my turn to resent the misappropriation of a vision of flesh, blood, and spirit, for translation according to taste, into a mummy for the museum, or the terms of sentimental costume romance. Half those professing to admire Voss did so because they saw no connection between themselves and the Nineteenth Century society portrayed in the novel. As child-adults many Australians grow resentful on being forced to recognize themselves divorced from their dubious antiques, surrounded by the plastic garbage littering their back yards; they shy away from the deep end of the unconscious so they cannot accept much of what I have written about the century in which we are living, as I turn my back on their gush about Voss. (If there is less gush about that other so-called ‘historical’ novel A Fringe of Leaves it is perhaps because they sense in its images and narrative the reasons why we have become what we are today.)

Johann Ulrich Voss, German explorer, finds a sponsor in Mr. Bonner, a successful merchant firmly rooted in colonial society. In Bonner’s niece, Laura Trevelyan, Voss finds more than a sponsor; he finds a friend, even a kindred spirit.

We first meet Voss in the world of social graces, the importance of which he has clearly failed to grasp. On a Sunday morning, Laura, who has not gone to church with the Bonner family because she has recently decided she no longer believes in God, is forced to receive Voss, who has walked from Sydney to see Mr. Bonner. Voss, never at ease with people, is “distressed by the furniture.” He mumbles; his dress is noticeably shabby. He ignores conventions such as laughing in the right place, or giving compliments, or passing the time of day. He does, however, notice Laura’s unconventional beauty; but imposes his belief of what he is onto the natural impulses he feels:

Such beautiful women were in no way necessary to him, he considered, watching her neck. He saw his own room, himself lying on the iron bed. Sometimes he would be visited by a sense of almost intolerable beauty, but never did such experience crystallize in objective visions. Nor did he regret it, as he lay beneath his pale eyelids, reserved for a peculiar destiny. He was sufficient in himself.

Voss is flustered by large numbers of the superficial people who crowd around him; disliking him because of his eccentricity, but able to see him as a foil for their own glorification. But he hides his discomfort successfully behind his arrogance. After all, he recognizes their superficialities, their hypocritical, if jolly, fawning. Nonetheless, despite the fact that he tells himself he does not need these people, he is affected by what they think:

Some pitied him. Some despised him for his funny appearance of a foreigner. None, he realized with a tremor of anger, was conscious of his strength. Mediocre, animal men never do guess at the power of rock or fire, until the last moment before those elements reduce them to—nothing.

In this, of course, we see his megalomania; his demand that his power should be recognized by the inferior beings whose opinions he attempts to disdain. And in this passage there is a second statement; in one light both ironic and prophetic—for Voss, ordinary man after all, is destroyed by the elements of rock and fire, embodied in the desert he seeks to conquer.

Voss does know how to pick his men. The three that he himself asks to accompany him on his expedition – Palfreyman, Harry Robarts, and Le Mesurier – are the three that remain faithful to him. Turner and the aristocrat Ralph Angus he could do without, but hardly considers them worth the effort of ignoring – whereas Judd is a rival. Judd, like that other, later, convict, Jack Chance, is the one who survives the desert, emerging twenty years later, a mental wreck.

Judd’s strength, though Voss will not recognize or admit this, lies in his natural humility. It is a paradox that the conscious attempt to be humble renders it pointless – but in any case, Voss has no intention of humbling himself. The following passage comes from the account of the first meeting between the two men, at Rhine Towers:

‘I shall take pleasure in knowing you better in the course of time,’ the German said. The emancipist made a wry mouth, and sound of regret or doubt, of which Voss, preoccupied with his own deficiencies, remained unaware. Indeed, the pleasure he promised himself in learning to understand Judd did seem illusory, for rock cannot know rock, stone cannot come together with stone, except in conflict. And Voss, it would appear, was in the nature of a second monolith, of more friable stone, of nervous splinters, and dark mineral deposits, the purpose of which was not easily assessed.

Judd excused himself, saying:

‘I am a simple man.’

Which can read: most complex, Voss suspected.

Voss’s fear of Judd as a rival leader is crystallized by the comments of his wife, whom Voss meets when he goes to visit Judd on his property. Not knowing who Voss is, she tells him:

‘Sir, there would be no man more suitable than him to lead this great expedition, not if they had thought a hundred years.’

And Judd it is to whom Turner and Angus look as alternative leader.

Voss, in his attempt to convince those around him of his divinity, is somewhat less than successful. “God is Love” announces the simple message in the temple Pilcher builds at the end of A Fringe of Leaves. But to Voss, love is not a strength, it is a weakness; strength is independence. In rejecting those characteristics of human nature – the need to give or receive affection – he feels safe. What he does not realize is that the ability to give and receive love without partiality is the greatest strength. Fearing that he is too fond of his dog, he shoots it. Despite this, he admits his love for Laura.

Voss does succumb to human weakness without apparently realizing that these are the ones he should be avoiding; anger and jealousy. Those whom he sees making mistakes he accepts with equanimity, for they are merely reinforcing his infallibility.

But Judd, who is humble, who is thoughtful, and possesses a strength which Voss finds impenetrable, becomes the butt of his ill-humour and spitefulness. There is the case of the mishap with the raft – where Judd disobeys an order given by Voss, and divides the flour between the mules and the raft, thus saving some when the latter capsizes. Voss does not vent his anger until later, when he informs Judd that it is a pity he did not think to do the same with the instruments:

‘Ah, that flour!’ cried Judd, suffering, as indeed, was intended.

‘Can you not leave it alone?’

This massive man was trembling.

‘You are very touchy, I fear,’ sighed Voss.

It was not know for certain whether he had achieved his whole purpose.

‘It is a sore point with me, sir,’ said Judd, ‘the instruments.’

But Voss appears at his worst, and again as his most human (as opposed to humane) when tending to the needs of the sick Le Mesurier. Once more the situation is paradoxical; Voss does not allow himself to feel compassion for the sick man; but to tend him is an unfortunate part of his self-created role. It takes on a martyrish aspect. In order to make clear the lengths he is going to, he calls Jackie, the Aboriginal boy, to help him milk the goats, for Le Mesurier. Later Judd appears with a bowl of milk for the patient, which he has without fuss collected by himself. In fury, Voss is scathing, telling Judd that it will probably worsen Le Mesurier’s diarrhoea:

Judd did not answer at once. When he did, he said:

‘At all events, there is the milk.’

And he set the pot on the floor of the cave.

During the morning, Voss administered another dose from the much reduced supply of laudanum and rhubarb. Then, after debating whether to throw out the contents of Judd’s quart, he decided on the opposite course. Seeing the convict seat himself in the vicinity … the German persuaded the unwilling Le Mesurier to sip at the controversial milk, and was rewarded later by the patient’s suffering an excess of diarrhoea.

‘Only as reason led me to expect,’ commented the physician, in pouring the milk away, again under the convict’s nose.

Judd, who had in his life experienced the cat, did not open his mouth.

‘Or else,’ said Voss, who could not let the matter drop, ‘one of the goats is sick.’

Then he began to clean up the victim’s mess with equanimity, even love. Noble gestures of doubtful origin did stimulate him most of all. If they left him haggard, as from suffering – for he was aware of his human nature also – it was good that he should suffer, along with men.

In order to salvage his pride, Voss is prepared to cause another human being unnecessary suffering, to prove a point. Another telling comment on his opinion of himself is the phrase “along with men”. He may be aware of his human nature, but he seems to treat it as something that only exists within himself because he tolerates it. He is only a man in form. And in Judd he subconsciously recognizes the strength that he himself aspires to, which Judd is not aware exists to be coveted; hence his failed attempts to break Judd. It is somewhat ironic that, in the final pages of the book, it is Judd who, in his confusion, invests Voss with some of the noble and heroic qualities which the latter seeks, but which apply to Judd himself, or to Palfreyman (with whom the convict has confused him). Nevertheless, it is important to remember that Judd does make mistakes, does lose his temper: and when Angus and Turner finally trust him with their lives he fails to lead them from the desert.

Just as Voss is seen differently by different people – as a scraggy foreigner, as a great leader and hero, or simply as a man – Laura, despite herself, notices his “strong back” on their first meeting, and Topp’s housekeeper thinks him “handsome-looking”. Laura is seen to be judged differently by the people around her; and like Voss, she believes that none really understands her. Certainly they find her odd, some even frightening. Voss loves her because he sees in her the pride which he misinterprets as strength:

Laura Trevelyan was sitting her horse with a hard pride, it seemed, rather than with that humility which she had desired to achieve. She is a cold, hard girl, he decided, and I could almost love her.

The strange relationship which ensues between them, part communication by letter and part telepathy, is dramatically interwoven into the narrative and, as Brian Kierman points out, is presented in an ambiguous and ironic light. He notes that:

…and in terms of the period in which Voss is set, there is nothing extraordinary or in any way reprehensible about such allegory if we remember Hawthorne … In the communication between Voss and Laura details are often at variance with what the reader knows, or are ambiguous.

The equivocal nature with which their communications are thus endowed is typical of White. It adds a more enigmatic flavour to the relationship, thus strengthening rather than weakening the reader’s interest in and acceptance of its representation.

There is also a very physical element to this “spiritual” relationship. In one of her fevers Laura is described as “moving her head against the pillow in grateful ecstasy”. More explicit is Voss’s vision when he is dying amongst the Aborigines:

While the woman sat looking down at her knees, the greyish skin was slowly revived, until her full, white immaculate body became the shining source of all light.

By its radiance, he did fully recognize her face and would have gone out to her, if it had been possible, but it was not; his body was worn out.

Instead, she came to him, and at once he was flooded with light and memory. As she lay beside him, his boyhood slipped form him in a rustling of water and a rough towel…so they were growing together, and loving.

Clearly Voss, for all his belief that he can put aside his bodily needs, which he despises – (“At … times her was the victim of his body to which other people had returned him”15) – is particularly human in his desires.

It is also paradoxical that Laura, who believes she does not believe in God, feels most strongly and is most insistent that she must pray for Voss. Frequently it is suggested in the book that fate already has the future mapped out, with the routes that the people are to follow; that they themselves, whatever they might aspire to, cannot control. We are gently reminded of this when Mrs. Bonner arranges or Mercy’s prospective foster-parents to visit:

The Aunt remembered a play she had once seen in which all the actors were arranged in a semi-circle, in anticipation of a scene the dramatist had most cunningly prepared, and just as he had controlled his situation, Mrs. Bonner now hoped to manage hers, forgetting that she was not a dramatist but herself an actor in the great play.

Voss believes in destiny because of his conviction that he will be proved divine. He sees himself in the great role; he is exultant in this belief:

It had become quite clear from the man’s face that he had accepted his own divinity. If it was less clear, he was equally convinced that all others must accept. After he had submitted himself to further trial, and, if necessary, immolation.

Patricia Morley makes the extraordinary unequivocal statement that “Voss is a comedy”. She seems to base this in part on an earlier statement, that:

His quest, despite the fact that it ends in his death, is successful. As in Dante’s great epic, Voss’s literal journey is both an allegory of the progress of the individual soul towards God, and a vision of the absolute truth towards which it strives.

In the same vein she comments that:

Laura’s reference at the novel’s end to Voss’s failure in his struggle against evil is one of the most ironic examples in this pattern of paradox and inversion.

I cannot see Voss as a comedy. He has failed in his attempt to cross the desert; and if, by Patricia Morley’s own insistence that is to be seen as a parallel to his spiritual quest, then he has failed in the latter as well; which was, after all, to prove to others his divinity. In his megalomania he certainly misunderstood the concept of Godliness; he spurns love and cultivates pride and separation. To the end he remains ironic; finally, ironic about his failure. Judd, who as a convict has passed through a hell of sorts, saw Voss as the devil. Voss himself rejected God as weak:

Jesus’, murmured the man, making it sweet, soft, pitiful.

Because ineffectual.

Then he laughed, and spat it out.21

Later after the others have left, and Voss, Le Mesurier, and Robarts have been taken by the Aborigines, Voss says in answer to the astounded Le Mesurier:

‘I have no plan … but will trust to God.’ He spoke wryly for the words had been put in his mouth.

Certainly Voss has come to accept, painfully, the possibility of the existence of a will greater than his own. But White’s presentation of this possible God is somewhat ambiguous; Voss has not after all, been won over by a realization of God’s love; he has simply been beaten into submission. In this we can see the beginnings of the dilemma with which Hurtle Duffield grapples in The Vivisector – whether he can believe in a “good” God as well as God the Destroyer.

Laura is the one who has travelled the desert and emerged the stronger for it. Voss wanted to “immolate’ himself; when his death comes, it is after everyone else’s (save Judd, who is destroyed in a different way) – he has sacrificed them to his own pride. In any case, Voss’s willingness to offer himself was not in the true spirit of sacrifice – he saw it as a means of self-glorification. Further irony comes in White’s portrayal of society that does, in the end, glorify and immortalize this man in bronze.

It is Laura who understands the meaning of sacrifice, and in her fever believes that by giving up Mercy, the illegitimate child she adopted after the death of its servant mother, she can save Voss’s soul. The sacrifice is not made, due to Mrs. Bonner’s intervention, but in the end it does not matter. Laura, in her mental tracking of Voss, has gone through the worst, and survived. Her comment, in the last pages of the book, which tends to be applied to Voss, makes considerably greater sense and embodies far more of White’s theme if applied to herself:

Knowledge is never a matter of geography. Quite the reverse, it overflows all maps that exist. Perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind.


A Fringe of Leaves, that other so-called historical novel, was published almost twenty years after Voss. The bare bones of the plot come from the story of Mrs. Fraser, shipwrecked off the Australian coast in 1836.

Ellen Gluyas, the simple Cornish girl, marries Austin Roxburgh, a hypochondriac or invalid, reserved in the extreme. He is fond of Ellen – she looks after him well – but sees her as his work of art; raw material which he will shape into a person considered admirable in the upper circles of Cheltenham. This “training” is something of a trial to Ellen. It is apparently necessary for her to embroider, a chore she detests. More galling is the attempt to teach her to write in a hand considered acceptable. Nevertheless, she feels extremely grateful for the chance she has been given, while at the same time noting in her journal:

Unlike many others, Mr. Roxburgh does not bore me I think. I am sure I do not write this out of gratitude. A husband can become one of his wife’s most pleasing habits.

Despite the apparent ease and relaxation in their relationship, Ellen does feel trapped to some extent. This is not something she objects to; it does provide her with security and what is known as a “better” life. But underneath the placid exterior she is a passionate being. She records:

Went on deck and was intocksicated by a sense of freedom, of pure joy. Gulls approaching, then swooning off. At moments I was dizzy with the air I swallowed …

Mr. Roxburgh too writes guiltily in his journal that he feels he dos not really know his wife; perhaps has nothing in common with her.

As a girl she secretly immersed herself in the pool of St. Hya’s Well, an incident she only remembers while battling against what amounts to her lust for Garnet Roxburgh. The passionate side of her nature is a feeling so alien to Austin, her husband, that:

… she found that his approach to passion had its formal limits. For her part she longed to, but had never dared, storm those limits and carry him off instead of submitting to his hesitant though loving rectitude…she herself had only once responded with a natural ardour, but discovered on her husband’s face an expression of having tasted something bitter, or of looking too deep. So she replaced the mask which evidently she was expected to wear, and because he was an honourable as well as a pitiable man, she would refrain in future from tearing it off.

The actual experience she undergoes of living, or barely surviving, in desert conditions, first with an Aboriginal tribe and then with the convict, takes up a relatively small part of the book (only eighty-five out of three hundred and sixty-five pages). This comes as something of a surprise, for it carries far more impact than the lengthy and carefully constructed build-up.

We quickly come to associate the names “Gluyas” and “Roxburgh” with the different sections of Ellen’s life which they represent. By the time Ellen is on the beach with her speared husband, the reader has been given a fairly full picture of the complex character that lies beneath a simple exterior. She is physically strong and healthy, and naturally exults in the forces of nature, drawing strength from the storm. Like Voss, she grips “the reeling earth”, enjoying a sense of unity with and drawing strength from that element, and despite her admiration for her husband she is, subconsciously or otherwise, well aware of the impracticalities. She visualizes the effect of the storm on him:

… he, poor man, would most probably break, scattering a dust of dictionary words and useless knowledge

She is half-aware that her unmentionable passions might be considered immoral; and prays, not particularly resolutely or hopefully, for moral strength. Her adultery with Garnet Roxburgh confuses her most of all. She convinces herself she detests him; indeed she dislikes his character, but nevertheless finds him overwhelmingly desirable physically. The dream which she cannot recall, but which was about him, she describes as “tantalizing”. After they have made love, she is not so much disturbed by the moral implications as appalled she could succumb to her lust for him. She does not, after all, come from what Mr. Spurgeon refers to as “the moral classes”. (The irony is of course that, while the “moral classes” may condemn the loose behaviour of the lower orders, they are probably as corrupt, if not more so, but have the money to cover it up. This too cannot be ignored as an aspect of White’s criticism of the narrow-minded hypocrisy of society.)

The woman created by Patrick White to undergo deprivation, humiliation, and starvation – in other words, torture of a degrading and dehumanizing nature – is therefore one who might easily be conceived to adapt to the trials she is forced to confront. Had she been born and bred a Roxburgh, she probably would have made the necessary transitions, but perhaps too slowly to save her life.

It is clear that Ellen is a very different character from Voss. I propose to compare and contrast these two, as well as other characters in the novels. In this way I hope to show that Voss’s death and Ellen’s survival fit into what might be termed White’s scheme. Although no such deliberate link may exist between the novels, I have already noted that the consistency of White’s themes allows them to be traced throughout his work. It is too easy to say that White chose to decapitate Voss and recue Ellen simply because he was sticking to the facts.

Ellen’s practicality has another facet – she has no real faith in, or belief in the existence of God:

If she had ever worshipped a supreme being, it was by rote, and the Roxburghs’ Lord God of Hosts, to whom her mother also has paid no more than lip service.

Unlike Voss, she is not obsessed with this disbelief. It is merely that God had no place in her upbringing, which, being a farming one, left no time for things spiritual.

Frequent reference too is made to Ellen’s passivity, her acceptance of having her life manipulated by others. In the first instance, she survives simply by virtue of being a woman, all the men who landed with her being killed by the “blacks”. From being Austin Roxburgh’s work of art, she becomes the same thing to her female captors. Rather than have to make decisions, she is content to accept the roles allotted to her by those around her – even to the extent where she does not wish to find herself in a position where she might have to choose to try and escape:

She was immured, not only in the blacks’ island stronghold, but in that female passivity wished upon her at birth and reinforced by marriage with her poor dear Mr. Roxburgh.

This acceptance of her fate is undoubtedly a key to her survival, as is her equanimity in accepting the role of slave-nurse imposed on her by her captors. This equanimity is again in keeping with her “Gluyas” background; a “lady” from the Cheltenham circle of the Roxburghs might well have been too revolted by the suppurating sores of the child, or by the nature of the food. It was, after all, the practical Ellen who first thought of attempting to cook the half-rotten kangaroo carcass while the ship’s company was still together.

So, more forcefully than in Voss, White is here holding up the formalities of upper-class society for inspection. Whereas Voss eschewed such social frills as unnecessary, Ellen adopts them, while remaining aware of their pretentious nature. Voss and Ellen, despised for their lack of class, both face far greater challenges than any of their social superiors could even imagine. Ellen, at least, survives, where another, conditioned from birth by a climate of porcelain teacups and embroidery, might have foundered.

Unlike Judd, the convict Jack Chance does prove to be a saviour. On numerous occasions he is referred to as such, and it is perhaps not an entirely accidental coincidence that he bears the same initials as Christ. In Voss, Mr. Sanderson gives something of Judd’s background:

He had attempted once to escape, but had been dragged back while still upon the lower slopes of the mountains, through the intervention of God, it would seem, considering the fate of those who remain at large.

As it happened, Judd was not destined to escape the fate. In A Fringe of Leaves, we see a more explicit depiction of the type of life, or existence, which Judd must have had, and which Jack, who has successfully escaped, must also endure. Ellen thinks of the land as “the country to which she and the convict were condemned”. Jack Chance has clearly been on the run for some time; his way of life is habitual, and he has been accepted by the Aboriginal tribes. Already he has become disorientated as far as “civilisation” is concerned; when he first confronts Ellen he can scarcely recall English words. So, although he shows every indication of holding on to the necessary mental faculties for some time to come, he is like Judd in that respect. And Ellen too, on her return to white society, goes immediately into mental collapse from which she takes a long time to recover.

The relationship which develops between Jack Chance and Ellen is nothing if not physical. One suspects that our hypothetical lady, assuming she had survived her ordeal amongst the Aboriginals, would have seen the convict first and foremost as a lower-class individual who was her means of returning to civilisation, and the faster the better. Something of this does emerge in Ellen, if briefly, when the convict first mingles with the tribe – her superimposed Roxburgh traits asserting themselves:

To help him out of his difficulty, she said to him in her native tongue, ‘Where’s tha from, eh?’ then, on remembering who she was supposed to be, she sternly asked, ‘Are you a Christian?’

The latter question is more obviously Roxburgh, and therefore less to do with Ellen’s genuine nature, because of its strangeness – Ellen not being a great thinker about God.

Ellen enters easily into a sexual relationship with the convict. Already we have seen that she has no real qualms about immoral behaviour in itself. It is perhaps too easy to draw parallels between the relationship which evolves between these two and the relationship between Voss and Laura. To describe the similarities as “parallels” is to suggest that they are consciously linked by the author; but in any case, similarities do exist.

While discussing Voss, I commented on the physical nature of the visions of the two chief characters. One vision in particular is brought to mind by a passage in A Fringe of Leaves which may be said to correspond. From Voss:

Once, upon the banks of a transparent river … they dismounted to pick the lilies that were growing there … she advised him to sample these nourishing blooms. So they stood there munching awhile. The lilies tasted floury, but wholesome, moreover he suspected that the juices present in the stalks would enable them to be rendered down into a gelatinous, sustaining soup. But of greater importance were his words of love that he was at last able to put in her mouth.”

A similar episode takes place in A Fringe of Leaves, the less formal narrative and more overt sexuality highlighting that suggested in the passage from Voss, which it recalls.

Growing restless in the later afternoon, she got up and wandered off on her own, without any explicit aim, and burst through the thicket on a sheet of water strewn with lilies. In this instance the beauty of the flowers conflicted with her knowledge acquired during her enslavement by the blacks, but without giving further thought to it, she plunged in, and began diving, groping for the roots as she had seen the native women. However clumsy and inexpert, she was determined to make a contribution by bringing him a meal of lily-roots. This was how he found her…he slipped in, and was wading towards her as she retreated. It was sad they should destroy such a sheet of lilies, but so it must be if they were to become re-united, and this after all was the purpose of the lake…

In other smaller ways, Voss and Laura are brought to mind in the section concerning Jack and Ellen. Laura, as already stated, sees a need to “rescue” Voss, to pray for him; and Ellen, in her first meeting with Jack, is suddenly struck by doubts about this whom she seized upon firstly as her saviour:

Where she had glimpsed for an instant the possibility of rescue, it now seemed as though it was she who must become the saviour, not of a rational being, but a lost soul.

Their relationships bear further resemblances in that no one else knows they have taken place. Laura never tells of Voss’s proposal of marriage to her, always disclaiming real knowledge of him; referring to him only in her fever. Ellen behaves in much the same way; the true references to Jack only come out when she is delirious. Otherwise she mentions only in the barest terms the convict who saved her, although she insists that he must be pardoned. Finally, the relationships bear a resemblance in the way they are out of context with reality. Laura’s with Voss is more surrealistic in this sense being of a visionary nature, but Ellen’s too is hardly “normal”; taking place entirely in the bush with neither of them possessing a stitch of clothing. In neither case can the pairs be said to “know” each other. Yet paradoxically they achieve a far greater knowledge, both of themselves and one another, simply because the situations are so extraordinary.

However it is all very well to look at the similarities between Voss and A Fringe of Leaves and at their individual themes, but the question still remains of how they demonstrate Patrick White’s beliefs. In the final section, I propose to tie up the loose ends thrown up by looking at these novels, and by examining more closely the recurring ideas in them, arrive at an answer.


The range of characters in White’s novels is enormous – from lonely aunt to German explorer to senile woman to eccentric artist – one thing they do all have in common is isolation. It is as though White’s themes form a central force, a hub to which numerous ropes lead. The ropes remain separate, though perhaps twisting round each other, having the same inevitable destination despite coming from any direction.

Despite the similarities between the central relationships of A Fringe of Leaves and Voss, it is important to remember no absolute parallels can or should be drawn between the characters themselves. For example, although Ellen can be looked at in context with Laura, or on her own, or in yet another light with Voss, the same conclusions can be drawn.

One strong argument against Patricia Morley’s assertion that Voss is a comedy is found in the passages leading up to his death, his final visionary experience, and in the manner of his death itself. In Flaws in the Glass, White says of this event:

Bronchitis, Menuhin playing Bartok’s Violin Concerto, and a virulent review of The Tree of Man, helped me resolve the death of Voss. Suddenly I was injected with adrenalin enough to hack off the head.

I have already suggested that Voss failed in his spiritual as well as his physical quest; that even at the end, after he had perhaps begun to accept the presence of a greater will than his own, he could still only view God in an ironic light. I now intend to take this a little further, to set it in more detail and weigh it up against the experience of Ellen. Shortly before Voss is killed, the Aboriginals massacre the remaining horses and mules:

None of this as seen by Voss, but at one stage the spear seemed to enter his own hide, and he screamed through his thin throat with his little, leathery strip of remaining tongue. For all suffering he screamed. Ah, Lord, let him bear it.

These few sentences are the most horrific in the book, conjuring up as they do the final, terrifying image of this very human man, absolute in his isolation, suffering beyond endurance. Furthermore, the phrase “for all suffering” and the following sentence suggest that he is, after all, making the ultimate sacrifice. But it is not a suggestion that he is giving himself up to God; it also suggests that he still sees himself as divine; that this is perhaps the “immolation” for which he had prepared himself.

This is underlined a few paragraphs later; Voss slips into the final vision before his death, the one in which he eats the lilies with Laura. He feeds her with his “words of love” – “so great was her faith, she received these white wafers without surprise”.

Clearly his “divinity” does still exist for himself; and if it has taken on a different hue – that is, he is giving rather than withholding love – that is only what he has always done with Laura. She does bring out the best in him.

In a sense Laura has been saved by Voss. Though the time she actually spent with him could be totted up in hours, their spiritual travels have led her through the hell of the desert and through a kind of death. She passes through phases of madness, as does Ellen. Through Voss, Laura does reach God, and this is a God of Love. Although Laura acted with the best intentions when she asked for the child Mercy to be taken from her, in the belief that this would save Voss, this could not be allowed as it would not have resolved anything. The child is blatantly symbolic; if Laura had cast her out, she would also have been casting out mercy; which, with love, is a vital feature of God. The God she comes to recognise and accept is far removed from the Sunday-morning, insipid figurehead worshipped by the rest of society, which she has rejected when we first meet her. It is an all-pervasive power stemming from within her, as in everyone. White’s concept of God is best put in his own words:

What do I believe? I am accused of not making it explicit. How to be explicit about a grandeur too overwhelming to express…? A belief contained less in what is said than in the silences. In patterns on water. A gust of wind. A flower opening.

Ellen’s belief in God, for a large part of the book, has a fairly neutral flavour to it. She assumes she believes because everyone else assumes she believes, and she does not seek to question it, any more than she consciously questions the narrow role to which she has been allotted. Nevertheless, there are anomalies. An example of this is her confusion when she gnaws at the human bone. Somehow she cannot see it as a wrong; perhaps because of the ritualistic nature of the feast she even finds herself thinking of it as a “sacrament”. Then come the physical reactions:

…there remained what amounted to an abomination of human behaviour, a headache, and the first signs of indigestion. In the light of Christian morality she must never think of the incident again.

Essentially, Ellen does not feel she has committed a crime. Like her adultery with Garnet, she knows this act is against all Christian ethics. Her reaction to her cannibalism is much the same as to her adultery:

She was less disgusted in retrospect by what she had done, than awed by the fact that she had been moved to do it.

In both instances she would have been racked by guilt had her belief in God been absolute. But at the same time, she is haunted by the deeds largely because they born of those facets of her character which she had hoped to wash away in St. Hya’s Well. Because of the train of events and the situation in which she finds herself, she is forced to confront and accept these traits, abominable though they appear to her.

This process of being forced to accept her real self, the existence of which she always suspected, but escaped from by conforming to the manipulation of others, is completed in her relationship with Jack:

She lay stropping a cheek against an arm, hoping to arrive at layers of experience deeper still, which he alone knew how to induce.

Because they are two people reduced literally to the bare essentials because of the nature of their existence, they do not think of hiding anything. Ellen is under no constraint to conceal her passions, and here also, because she is so far removed from social conventions, feels no guilt at giving in to them. With Jack she is conscious of discovering all the repressed sensations, both emotional and physical. She is reaching beneath the crust of convention, to that evasive core, or meaning of life.

She also makes another discovery:

…she had never fully realized how much she had desired to love without reserve and for her love to be unconditionally accepted.

This, a central tenet of Christianity, the “love thy neighbour” feature, is something Voss never comes to realise. In an earlier section, I referred to Pilcher’s chapel, which he has built to try and exorcise his “ghosts”, having consumed his shipmates. Ellen stumbles across this by accident, having been reluctant to visit it:

Above the altar a sky-blue riband painted on the wall provided a background to the legend GOD IS LOVE, in the wretchedest lettering, in dribbled ochre. Nothing more but the doorless doorway through which she had entered, and two narrow, unglazed windows piercing the side walls of the chapel.

Mrs. Roxburgh felt so weak at the knees she plumped down on the uneven bench, so helpless in herself that the tears were running down her cheeks, her own name again mumbled, or rather, tolled, through her numbed ears …

At last she must have cried herself out: she could not have seen more clearly, down to the crack in the wooden bench, the bird droppings on the rudimentary altar. She did not attempt to interpret a peace of mind which had descended on her (she would not have been able to attribute it to prayer or reason) but let the silence enclose her like a beatitude.

This little unconsecrated chapel which has provided its architect and builder with no sort of release, at last frees Ellen. She is able to accept what she has done and what she is, because this God that she experiences is not the one she has been led to believe in; this God is the embodiment of life itself.

This is the stage at which Laura, too, arrives. The tragedy is that they cannot bring their deliverers, Voss and Jack Chance, with them. In each novel, a few sentences express these regrets – in Voss:

Given time, the man and the woman might have healed each other. That time is not given was their one sadness. But time itself is a wound that will not heal up.

And in A Fringe of Leaves:

What she offered was in some measure, surely, a requital of all he had suffered, as well as remission of her own sins? Of deceit, of lust, of faithlessness. She hoped that if she could prolong their journey to Moreton Bay, if not lose themselves in it for ever, she might, for all her shortcomings, persuade him to believe in true love.

Here again we see a manifestation of Ellen’s absolute conviction in the omnipotence of love.

As well as this strong religious theme, White is making strong comments on society throughout his novels. In The Vivisector, the fictional biography of an artist, (though with an autobiographical flavour) this comes across very well. Hurtle Duffield is in one sense like Ellen. As a child, he was sold into a different class, the two different sections of society he lives in again being represented by his two names; the one he was born with and his adoptive name Courtney. Whereas his own family is presented within an aura of warmth and physicality (of course in keeping with the senses of a child of six) the Courtneys’ house is in colours of cool blue and mauve, full of beautiful, glittery objects which mustn’t be touched – including Maman herself. Hurtle remains withdrawn, seeing with an all-critical eye. Later when he is an established artist, he is aware of, but largely indifferent to, the fact that his rich admirers cannot begin to understand what his paintings are about, and cannot even recognise themselves (as Nance Lightfoot, his mistress/prostitute proves). He remains indifferent to this because those paintings which are most dear to him, he never reveals. Although he never even tells anyone of these, knowing they will be found after his death, rumours of the existence of some such secret works abound; and it is significant that are called his “God paintings” by the gossips.

The Vivisector is perhaps one of White’s most disillusioned and condemnatory novels. He notes in his autobiography that he received a letter from a woman who was so revolted by the book that “she could not understand how she had ever admired my books”. In other novels, although the criticism is always evident, it is relieved by characters with redeeming features. Mrs. Bonner, though absolutely a typical member of the colonial society in Voss is one:

‘Ah,’ Mrs. Bonner accepted, ‘my niece Laura, who will be down presently, is the one for reading books … most men, of course, are prejudiced against education in a woman … but then on the whole, men are timid things … Although, in my opinion, timidity in certain avenues does enhance manliness. Just as intellect in a woman can spice her charm and sweetness. As in our Laura.’

Oh Mamma, Belle barely breathed, who had not suspected her mother of such enlightment.

Here we see Mrs. Bonner, because defending the niece she loves, to be suddenly perceptive. She is one of the “good” members of society, though seen as foolish by her acquaintances (as she often is, of course). That is not far from the simplicity which White gives such value. Those who are simple, like Harry Robarts, or simply drunk, like Turner, often produce most lucid and fundamental statements, ignored by others because of their lack of profundity. It is almost a case of “out of the mouths of babes and innocents” except that White sees no one as innocent, certainly not children, who can be exceptionally cruel.

I have already mentioned the hypocrisy in attitude towards Voss; the fawning while he is there, the laughing at him when he is not; the erection of a statue despite his failure. This is another method of showing that people in general judge by surfaces. Only Laura, of the colonials, can see what lies behind Voss’s crumpled wooden exterior. Only Mrs. Bonner, if inarticulately, momentarily catches a glimpse:

‘And do you really intend to send the creature on an expedition into this miserable country?’ asked Mrs. Bonner of her husband. ‘He is so thin. And,’ she said, ‘he is already lost.’

‘How do you mean lost, Mamma,’ asked Belle, taking her mother’s hand, because she liked to feel the rings.

‘Well, he is,’ said Mrs. Bonner. ‘He is simply lost. His eyes,’ she said, ‘cannot find their way.’

She herself was grasping after what her instinct knew.

The silence with which this strange statement is greeted demonstrates the lack of perception the others (apart from Laura) possess, and once again Mrs. Bonner is left feeling foolish. However, she is not an example of one of those who have discovered another dimension to their lives; Arthur Brown, with his mandala or marble, is. So White is not insisting that simplicity is always in conjunction with possession of this “secret”. Equally, being rich, hard as nails, and highly intelligent also does not preclude that ultimate experience. Elizabeth Hunter, an arrogant old woman manipulating all around her in her dying moments, is the paradoxical example in The Eye of the Storm. But it is perhaps worth remembering that before her experience on the island, Mrs. Hunter was not aware that there might be any further dimension to life. But once again, this lack of searching is not a consistent trait with White invests the characters of his “elite” – there are plenty of people who remain unaware and unawakened.

This baffling ambiguity, the lack of consistence in the manner of revealing a constant theme, makes it very difficult to pin White down. He notes in Flaws in the Glass that:

Throughout my writing life I have encountered fiercely contradictory judgements: that Himmelfarb is/is not a Jew; that I know everything/nothing about women; that what I write illuminates, or on the other hand, that my novels are incomprehensible, boring rubbish.

He also presents his characters, as well as his themes, in ambiguous lights. We see Voss at his most sensitive, his most arrogant, and his most brutal. We also see him through Laura’s eyes, or more correctly, her mind. In her visions, he is good, remarkable, loving. Which do we accept? We know that Laura is proud, intelligent, and loving. Their visions are presented ambiguously. The enigmatic and charismatic qualities of Voss are brought out, and because we also share his visions of Laura, we too can see the side of him that Laura sees. Nevertheless, Laura’s judgements are not really to be trusted, for she can only be said to know Voss through idealisation.

The same sort of problem occurs in A Fringe of Leaves. We see Jack Chance, apart from events, entirely through Ellen’s grateful eyes. She, like Laura, seems able to enter the mind of a man:

‘Nobody was choosy, least of all the bugs. I’ll not mention the women.’

He would not have had to. He could not guess the extent to which she was taking part.

But there is certainly not the visionary link which forms so strong a thread in Voss. We do not really get to know Jack; to understand his motives for leading Ellen to safety when he could more easily have kept her with him. (Ellen, as always, fell into the way of life in which she found herself, and was hardly insistent that they find help immediately.) Jack’s stature as a character is so great because he means so much to Ellen, and it is through her eyes that we see him.

In keeping with the complexity of his novels, it seems that White is suggesting several things, through the characters he creates. One clue comes in a comment of Rhoda’s in The Vivisector. Hunchbacked herself, she says:

‘Almost everybody carries a hump, not always visible, and not always of the same shape.’

This is a more explicit comment on the implicit criticisms White makes in his portrayals of society. Rhoda is treated kindly by some because she has a hump, shunned by others because of it. Everyone carries their own “deformity”, and to shun the obviously deformed is one of the great hypocrisies. White’s obsession with the surface being unrepresentative is the undercurrent here, though he by no means is so simplistic as to state categorically that the ones who are ugly, boring, or simple are the ones who possess that extra dimension of life.

A clue to the nature of that “extra dimension” is found in a conversation between Rhoda and Hurtle towards the end of The Vivisector. She asks him about the gory painting he produced on his bedroom wall after the suicide of his tutor.

‘I was only a child of course but I think I was trying to find some formal order behind a moment of chaos and unreason. Otherwise it would have been horrifying and terrifying…’

‘I really do pity you, my dear,’ Rhoda pursued, ‘if you should believe in a “god”. Whatever I suffered in my childhood and youth from being ugly and deformed, at least it gave me that other strength: to recognise the order and peace, and beauty in nothingness.’

‘I believe,’ he said, ‘in art.’ He would have liked to elaborate, but was only strong enough to add: ‘I have my painting.’

‘Your painting. And yourself. But those, too, are “gods” which could fail you.’

The last sentence obviously brings Voss to mind. It seems that the key to that inner truth – which is not so much Rhoda’s “nothingness” as an “everything” – lies in suffering. Hurtle, living in the twentieth century, has to cause his own suffering and isolation. Voss also knows that the secret lies in suffering, but is looking for the wrong thing. Those who have suffering thrust upon them, but who have always been conscious of some difference – Elizabeth Hunter, Laura, Ellen, Theodora – do briefly but everlastingly reach an understanding of what might be God. To return again to The Vivisector, Mrs. Volkov’s uneducated letter to Hurtle offers an explanation:

I dreamed of God’s love and an understanding of his purpose. I did once for a moment understand if I cannot properly explain. There was some pine trees awful lean it was the sandy soil above the sea I had gone for a walk along the Links because something or everything had forced me out. There was a wasp nest hanging from a bough. I got stung not by putting my hand up my hand was put. I was shocked white, it felt. Although dizzy I should say I remained standing on my feet. It was like red hot needles entering entering at first very painful then I did not notice any more only sea and sky as one, and me like a rinsed plate. I have often remember this, and was never struck to the ground, not in the cruelest moments. I cannot tell you more, but you are an artist Mr. Duffield and will guess…

I have ventured to run on Mr. Duffield because I believe the afflicted to be united in the same purpose, and you of course as an artist and the worst afflicted through your art can see farther than us who are mere human diseased.

It is only after Hurtle has had his stroke – and Cec Cutbush, the grocer, has produced his pleasing pun, that Hurtle was “stroked by God” that Hurtle, recovering, begins on his last and most significant paintings.

Patrick White is not saying that only those who have been outwardly made different from the rest of society have the ability to discover the core or inner meaning, of life or God. He is saying that the whole human race has great areas in their subconscious, of feelings of which they are afraid and set up barriers against. It is natural to want to avoid suffering; but that is running away from the thorns to dwell among the roses – which are usually secreting maggots in their petals anyway. Those that are ostracised by society, because they are outwardly different, are thus pushed into a position where they are forced to suffer. Through their suffering they discover that quality or essence, loosely defined as God, which gives some central permanence to lives which might otherwise be too full of “chaos and unreason” to be bearable.

© 1982 and 2017 Roz Kay



By Patrick White:

Voss                                         Penguin 1976

A Fringe of Leaves                 Penguin 1979

The Vivisector                         Penguin 1981

The Aunt’s Story                     Penguin 1981

The Eye of the Storm              Penguin 1977

The Living and the Dead        Penguin 1977

The Cockatoos                        Penguin 1978

The Solid Mandala                 Eyre and Spottiswoode 1966

Flaws in the Glass                  Jonathan Cape 1981


Barry Argyle Patrick White   1967

Peter Beatson The Eye in the Mandala: Patrick White. A Vision of Man and God 1976

Brian Kiernan Patrick White 1980

Patricia A. Morley The Mystery of Unity: Theme and technique in the novels of Patrick White 1972

Ed R. Shepherd and K. Singh Patrick White: A Critical Symposium 1978

William Walsh Patrick White’s Fiction 1977