Chilcot and Australia
We cannot be reminded often enough of the perfidy that led in succession to the Iraq disaster, the continuing débâcle in the Middle East, the refugee outflow, and even to populism, Brexit, and Donald Trump. Ross McKibbin’s review of the Chilcot Report does this admirably (‘Whatever It Takes’, March 2017).
He doesn’t note, however, that if Chilcot, whose evidence ends at 2009, had been published sooner than 2016, Britain’s subsequent adventures in Libya, Iraq, and Syria would probably have been voted down by Parliament and the world would be different. Moreover, Chilcot was allowed to report the exchanges Tony Blair had with George W. Bush only from Blair’s side, while the agreement between Bush and John Howard, and its date, were not in his terms of reference.
McKibbin compares Blair’s foolhardy deployments with Howard’s risk-averse commitment on the cheap to the Iraq War coalition, and this was confirmed by an internal Defence report published by Fairfax in late February. But successive Australian governments have refused a Chilcot-style inquiry, enabling them to dodge responsibility for the meaningless, legally dubious deployment of troops to Iraq and Syria which continues longer than both world wars put together.
Unless Australia changes the way governments decide to go to war, more such disasters will follow.
Alison Broinowski, Paddington, NSW
Coffins and covers
ABR’s coffined March cover is not only the best one I have seen on the magazine, it is one of the best magazine covers I can recall. Chilling is what comes to mind. The brilliance lies in the ingenious way the consequences are portrayed.
Neil Spark, Howrah, Tas.
Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s contribution to States of Poetry is a wonderful acknowledgment of an inspiring strong Elder. Her poetry is strong and deep, and her gifts to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders First Nations writers and the local Us Mob writers will be her enduring legacy.
Samia Goudie (online comment)
Kerry Reed-Gilbert, a Wiradjuri woman from central New South Wales, has five poems in ABR’s 2017 ACT States of Poetry, an open- access online national anthology. Next month we will publish a selection from the thirty poems published there, as selected by state editor Jen Webb. Ed.
Margaret Harris (ABR, March 2017) observes that Queen Victoria is ubiquitous in Australia, ‘memorialised ... in the names of two states and innumerable other places’. I hope she will forgive me for pointing out that, using the excellent Geoscience Australia search engine, it is now possible to count the places and geographical features in Australia to which Queen Victoria still lends her name, either directly or by association. The results are fascinating. Of course, it is hardly a competition, but nevertheless the tally by my calculation is Queen Victoria, 148 versus Duke of Wellington, 466.
It is a startling fact that no individual has been and remains commemorated more often in Australia, either directly or by association, than Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, Marquess of Douro, and Earl of Mornington. The map of Australia currently yields twenty-eight places or features named Wellesley; 126 Wellington; three Douro, and fifty-two Mornington. Wellington’s military victories are also directly commemorated: Seringapatam 1 (a reef off the north-west coast of Western Australia); Copenhagen 3; Talavera 6; Corunna 14; Salamanca 3; Nive 21; Pyrenees 7, and, of course, Waterloo 109, and even Hougoumont (a pub in Fremantle). The residences that were presented to Wellington by a grateful nation are likewise marked on our map: Apsley, no fewer than fifty-eight times (for Apsley House in London) and Strathfield Saye or Stratfield Saye or Strathfieldsaye (in Hampshire, which was to Wellington as Blenheim Palace was to the Duke of Marlborough), an impressive total of thirty-four.
Why is this so? Certainly, Wellington had a thirty-year head start on Queen Victoria. He was a brilliant general who did more than anybody else to unseat Napoleon (twice). Many of the Iron Duke’s veterans migrated to the Australasian colonies and made up a hefty proportion of the officer class right up to the 1850s. They obviously did a lot of the naming prior to Victoria’s accession.
Wherever you happen to be in this country, you are never far away from a spot that is named after the Duke of Wellington
Angus Trumble, Canberra, ACT
The first two paragraphs of Peter Craven’s review of Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain (ABR, December 2016) surprised me, with the suggestion that he could be ambivalent about the author’s writing; Winton’s prose, he suggested, was ‘sometimes just a bit too self-delighting’. I had never felt that way. Cloudstreet was the first book I read that made me reread paragraphs simply because of how well they were written. In his largely positive review of The Boy Behind the Curtain, Craven showed that he was fair-minded (and certainly not fawning). Geoffrey Wells’s response to that review (Letters, January–February 2017) seemed much less fair-minded. To imply that an experienced and often forthright reviewer like Peter Craven was ‘fawning to a fault’ seems quite insulting.
Wells expects a memoir to be personal, yet accuses Winton of rarely going beyond ‘his own outrage and sadness’. Who else’s outrage and sadness does Wells wish Winton to express in his own memoir? Apparently Winton is obsessed with his own personal feelings. As Brian Matthews says in his review of Winton’s other memoir, Island Home (ABR, November 2015), ‘Winton ... has little trouble in finding the words, tone, and rhythms, but even he seems to rejoice at times in the freedom of memoir ... the writer of memoir can be triumphantly personal, quixotic, eccentric, risky, and daring.’ Perhaps it is the quixotic part of this new memoir that bothered Wells?
I don’t think Winton is a ‘sacred cow’. As for the suggestion that devotees of Winton’s prose like it because they don’t have to think, question, and learn: I can only thank Wells for prompting me to go back and reread some of Winton’s work, so that I could stop thinking, questioning, and learning all over again.
Andrew Cronin, Robertson, NSW
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Letters to the Editor - April 2017
- Contents Category Letters
The Empire over which Queen Victoria ruled for more than sixty years no longer paints the globe red. Yet Victoria is still ubiquitous. She is memorialised in the Commonwealth of Australia – formally proclaimed just three weeks before she died on 22 January 1901 – in the names of two states and innumerable other places, along with material objects like statues and portraits. The popular image of her is impassive and monumental, while ‘Victorian’ as an adjective is generally pejorative, implying earnestness in all things, and repression in most.
Julia Baird’s ‘intimate biography’ sets out to question such assumptions. Historian by training, journalist by profession, the Australian Baird was encouraged to take on the project by her editor at Newsweek during the 2008 US presidential election, stimulated initially by questions to do with women and high office.
Baird’s thesis is a deceptively simple one, encapsulated in the title ‘Victoria the Queen’, with its implicit tension between the woman and the monarch. The historian approaches her task sharply attuned to the accreted layers of interpretation that surround her subject. Her declaration in a ‘General note’ preceding nearly 120 pages of annotation may appear to be the manifesto of a very literal empirical historian: ‘All passages that discuss what Victoria was thinking, feeling, or wearing are based directly on journal entries, letters, and other contemporaneous evidence’ duly referenced. In fact, the note announces a mission of recuperation, both of material not previously utilised, and of documentary sources that have been demonstrably manipulated: Victoria’s journals by her youngest and longest-surviving child, Beatrice; her letters by ‘Two old Etonians’ who ‘warped our view of Queen Victoria for decades’. The meta-narrative of how the life of Queen Victoria has been written is continued into the present, in a scrupulous account of the barriers that Baird encountered even to gain access to material in the Royal Archives. Only with the intervention of Quentin Bryce as governor-general of Australia did Baird gain admission, but although she acknowledges exemplary assistance from the Keepers of the collections, she also describes an attempt to restrain her from publication of certain material (diaries of Victoria’s last medical attendant, Sir James Reid – which in fact had already been published, and in any case do not form part of the royal collection). The sore point is the queen’s relationship with her Scottish servant John Brown. Baird maintains convincingly that it was extremely close, whether a physical affair in her view ‘not proven’. Certainly, what she uncovers about royal sensitivities over time provides unequivocal demonstration that generations of the royal family and their retainers have been extraordinarily defensive about Victoria’s relationship with the man her children and household referred to as ‘the Queen’s stallion’.
Baird gives Victoria both personality and physical presence. She offers a child wilful and prone to outbursts of temper (a tendency evident throughout her life), who developed and maintained strong attitudes and opinions not always consistent with each other. She was a talented artist. This Victoria is a working woman, no cipher, who took her job seriously and to the end of her life actively participated in the business of government to the point of being meddlesome, for instance in the conduct of the African wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The extraordinary dialectic between her paramount regal authority and uxorial submission to husband as master is demonstrated in detail.
Albert, the Prince Consort, has a starring role, with applause both for his abilities as statesman, organiser, and entrepreneur, and for his lesser-known capacity for tenderness and fun. Whatever his health issues – he is said not to have been strong, and Baird conjectures that he may have suffered from Crohn’s disease – he was evidently virile. Baird is explicit about Victoria’s high libido and its correlate, her obstetric history. She bore nine children between 1840 and 1857, welcoming the availability of chloroform for her eighth confinement (the haemophiliac Prince Leopold in 1853). She considered breastfeeding abhorrent and didn’t much like babies, but warmed to children: it is curious, if perhaps irrelevant, that she detested cruelty to animals.
In the short to medium term, her absorption by childbearing and rearing gave the opening for Albert to become king in all but name. In the longer term, she suffered the consequences. Postmortem examination showed a prolapsed uterus and ventral hernia, apparently never diagnosed or treated, both painful conditions liable to further physical repercussions. It is also salutary to be reminded that several times throughout her reign there was concern that Victoria might have porphyria and be going mad. It is now conjectured that she and her oldest child, Vicky, had a mild version of the poorly understood disorder that overtook her paternal grandfather, George III.
Baird reminds us that Victoria lived and reigned for a very long time, but does not privilege any one period: hence attention to her birth and childhood, through accession, marriage, the histrionic mourning for Albert, down to her apotheosis as queen empress. Received accounts are persistently qualified by fresh research and new readings of previous studies. Throughout there is illumination, often of what might have been, beginning with the race to produce an heir among the six brothers of George IV. The succession, not only to the British throne, but to many European kingdoms and lesser domains, was a constant concern of Victoria and Albert from the birth of Princess Victoria in 1840 on. Often it is the sidelights that are most telling. So we learn that after the lengthy ritual of her coronation and procession through London, the queen returned to Buckingham Palace and washed her dog Dash. Such detail is largely responsible for the originality and liveliness of this biography, and the impressive concision and authority with which major political, social, and economic issues are discussed. Baird’s learning is substantial, and lightly worn.
This volume is itself monumental, and like its subject a triumph of thoughtful discipline. In round figures, it is 750 pages of which 250 are apparatus. I confess to loving a good index, and this is one, and I was gratified by having also a ‘Cast of Characters’ with a paragraph on each, excellent maps – very useful and left to tell their own tale – a judiciously pruned family tree, and generous notes. Among the many illustrations, some in full colour, there is a rare photograph of Victoria smiling, taken during her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887. The image exemplifies the unexpected perspectives on Victoria the Queen developed in this important and at times enthralling study.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Margaret Harris reviews 'Victoria: The woman who made the modern world' by Julia Baird
- Contents Category Biography
- Book Title Victoria
- Book Subtitle The Woman who Made the Modern World
- Author Type Author
- Biblio HarperCollins, $49.99 hb, 752 pp, 9780732295691
‘Victorian Bloomsbury’ appears to be a contradiction in terms. ‘Bloomsbury’, as in ‘the Bloomsbury Group’, is shorthand for the group of writers, artists, and thinkers including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Maynard Keynes, who gathered in the area of central London between Euston Road and Holborn in the early decades of the twentieth century. Disparate in some ways, they united in reaction against what they felt to be the oppressive social conventions and outmoded values of the Victorian period, a reaction epitomised by Lytton Strachey’s irreverent Eminent Victorians (1918).
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Margaret Harris reviews 'Victorian Bloomsbury'
- Contents Category Literary Studies
- Book Title Victorian Bloomsbury
- Author Type Author
- Biblio Yale University Press (Inbooks), $54.95 hb, 393 pp, 9780300154474
Christina Stead is an author perennially ripe for rediscovery. Her acknowledged masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, came out originally in 1940; in 2005, it figured in Time’s list of the 100 best novels published since 1923. But in his introduction to the Miegunyah Modern Library edition of the novel, American novelist Jonathan Franzen cites a more recondite statistic, from a 1980 study which shows that Stead is not one of the 100 most-cited literary writers of the twentieth century, in order to ground his mission of rehabilitation.
It is easy to see affinities between Stead’s big unruly novel and Franzen’s bestselling Freedom (2010):both deal with fractured families, creatures of their (American) times; with the battle of the sexes and the sins of the fathers; with idealism and manipulation. Both depend on comic effects, often dark, generated by the idioms provided to the characters. Both are ambitious novels, Franzen evidently having an eye on Great American Novel status: the nature of Stead’s ambition is less easily categorised, and herein lies the rub.
Franzen’s discussion amounts to a declaration that Stead is unquestionably a writer’s writer. Over time she has been championed by Saul Bellow, Lillian Hellman, Angela Carter, Barnard Eldershaw, David Malouf. It is no accident that her latest reflorescence is in large measure due to Franzen’s enthusiastic advocacy in the New York Times last year.
Publishers also have championed her, and here Melbourne University Publishing’s Louise Adler takes her place in a distinguished line-up that begins with Peter Davies in London in the 1930s. Adler commissioned Hazel Rowley’s important biography for William Heinemann Australia in 1993, then published a revised version from MUP. She also published my edition of the letters between Stead and her husband William J. Blake, Dearest Munx (2005).
Probably the most decisive moment in Stead’s publication history, however, was the reissue of The Man Who Loved Children by Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1965, at the instigation of Stanley Burnshaw. This edition brought Stead the most sustained attention she ever experienced, and led to the appearance of novels such as Cotters’ England (1966) and Miss Herbert, The Suburban Wife (1976), in which no publisher had been interested in the postwar period following her return to Europe from the United States in 1947. Carmen Callil at Virago in the 1970s and early 1980s reissued a number of titles, as well as publishing posthumously the extraordinary I’m Dying Laughing in 1986. It is appropriate therefore that Callil should introduce the second in the Miegunyah series, Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946). For Love Alone (1944), with an introduction by Drusilla Modjeska, is on the way as the third title. In a sense, MUP is now picking up the mantle of Angus & Robertson, whose editions in the mid-1960s of the novels with Australian settings, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934) and For Love Alone (1944),coincided with the reissue of The Man Who Loved Children. A&R made further amends for its earlier rejection of Stead by publishing The Little Hotel in 1973, and subsequently keeping a number of her works in print well into the 1990s.
Franzen is respectful of the history of Stead’s reception, and so is MUP. The decision to include in the Miegunyah reprint the long essay by American poet and novelist Randall Jarrell that accompanied the 1965 reissue and practically all reissues since is an interesting one. Jarrell champions a Stead who nearly makes it into a pantheon of the novel that derives from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, acknowledges Moby-Dick, resists Joyce, and comes to rest on Proust. After more than 12,000 words of praise for the realistic particularity of The Man Who Loved Children, for him a family tragedy revolving around the isolated figures of the three main characters, Jarrell retreats to formalist criteria and denies it greatness because of what he sees as its indiscriminate excess – while allowing that it is as ‘plainly good’ as War and Peace is ‘plainly great’.
Franzen is less equivocal, though he too appears to concede that Stead is rejected because she takes on the literary canon on its essentially male terms. He bemoans the loss of confidence in the novel form from Jarrell’s Cold War day until now. For him any fiction (any text) is inextricably a product of its time, not caught in the timeless web woven by Jarrell. Thus he clearly identifies a political dimension to The Man Who Loved Children – Sam Pollit is ‘the Great White Father, he is literally Uncle Sam’. Franzen also gets that part of the gender dynamic to do with the offensive of the artist as a young woman, Louisa Pollit cum Christina Stead, against the father. He is less astute on the place of Sam’s wife, Louie’s stepmother, Henny, in the central triangle. Curiously, given that he maintains that the book should be a core text in women’s studies programs, Franzen doesn’t see that there is a contest also with the mother, and that Louie is both nemesis and liberator. His reading of the novel as comic is one that perhaps offers more hostages to fortune than he realises, because it backs off from the fundamental boldness of The Man Who Loved Children. The dimensions of that boldness become apparent when this novel is read in relation to its successors, Letty Fox and For Love Alone, as variations on the theme of a young woman affronting her destiny, variations developed in terms more explicit but no less excoriating than those laid out by Henry James for Isabel Archer.
The fact that The Man Who Loved Children is a seriously demanding book has to be confronted: it is long (nearly 500 pages), at once hard and exhilarating because of its relentlessness and intensity. The contemporary livery of the Miegunyah Modern Library volumes, elegantly re-set, with covers by the fashionable designer Miriam Rosenbloom, is intended to attract a new readership for Christina Stead. As Franzen observes, ‘it’s the kind of book that, if it is for you, is really for you’. Melbourne University Publishing now gives readers and critics another chance to find out.
Reading Letty Fox in 2011
by Fiona Morrison
The recent edition of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) from Meigunyah locates the book in an appropriately wide-ranging and international set of influences. The very choice of Letty Fox: Her Luck as the second reissue indicates a cosmopolitan commitment to making easily available in Australia at least two of Stead’s most important ‘American’ novels. These transnational contexts are very appropriate for a book written by an Australian expatriate about a girl of transatlantic origin living and working in New York in the late 1930s and 1940s. Carmen Callil’s introductory account of what it meant to republish Letty Fox at Virago in 1973 is similarly apposite.
What is striking about reading Letty Fox in 2011 is how current it seems (how prescient it was in the mid-1940s), and yet how strange. Hazel Rowley claimed that it was her ‘first truly American novel’, indicating that whereas The Man Who Loved Children reallyoriginated in Stead’s Australian childhood, Letty Fox was always going to be about the modern American girl. Letty Fox was certainly Stead’s one and only first-person narrative, meant to showcase her grasp of American and specifically New York speech patterns and rhythms, among other things. These facts don’t really help all that much with the sense of being somewhat at sea in the novel’s bulging, vivid mass of description, the enormous cast of characters, and the ebullient (to the point of overwhelming) linguistic energy of the title character. Callil calls Letty Fox a comic novel, but this is only useful if you understand that it is comic in the way that Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is comic, and, rather more recently, the way in which Sex and the City mightbe comic: energetic, episodic, satirical.
In a letter to Geoffrey Dutton in 1975, Patrick White wrote: ‘have been reading Stead’s Letty Fox, a kind of picaresque of sex American style. It’s extraordinary to think of that quiet sedate woman writing anything so hilarious.’ White, Callil, and other commentators have invoked, in passing, this key genre from the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Spanish tradition and its many English imitators in the eighteenth century. The term is much more useful than it seems at first glance. Rather than suggesting a vague sense of a roguish title character who rather likeably and comically lurches from scrape to scrape, it precisely describes Stead’s novel – its narrative shape and point of view, inclusion of key episodes, the endlessly mobile central character, the detailed evocations of a highly textured and chaotic social world, and the keen satire of social mores of sex, food, dress, and work. Letty Fox is a textbook picaresque novel, carefully composed using contemporary material, to approximate the great Spanish, French, and English novels in the genre.
Stead is so interesting in this novel in her deployment of the female rogue, or pícara, as a modern working girl in the streets of New York (with the intentional inference of prostitution), who uses her marketable assets of good looks, street smarts, and moral and writerly flexibility in order to survive and thrive. The waning Popular Front and early war years in New York (1936–45) were the perfect stage on which to set this story of the indefatigable working girl on the move, with her thwarted racketeer schemes to attract affection, stay ahead of the sexual game, marry advantageously, and keep financially afloat. True to the original picaresque novels from Spain, England, and the United States in the nineteenth century (haven of the picaroon), social, economic, and political upheaval (1937–45) provided the perfect setting for the mobile female trickster and the kind of ethnographic social detail that interested Stead.
This might not have seemed revolutionary to Stead herself, who was steeped in European literary traditions of the radical left (Rabelais, Cervantes, Stendahl, Balzac, Dickens, Malraux), as well as an abiding fan of Mark Twain, but the female-authored picaresque, like female-authored satire, was, and still is, quite rare. Stead’s attraction to the genre was that it offered a contrast to, and a break from, the more obviously romantic quest narrative, For Love Alone (1944), a narrative form to which she never really returned. It also provided a platform for her main comic and political purpose: to satirise the ineffectual left-wing middle class with which she had socialised in New York since 1935. The way in which this radical set moved through the marriage market and associated libidinal and cash economies was just one indication of its corruption, hypocrisy, and blind American obedience to the structures of capital. It emerges, of course, that Stead was also centrally interested in that bind in which modern women found themselves: between libidinal freedom and a kind of married respectability.
Stead’s novel certainly produces many rambunctiously comic moments, but the work delivers more than the standard comic disapproval of a roguish protagonist. Although planning to embrace the traditionally restrictive spaces of matrimony with a none-too-promising chap at the end of the novel, Letty is still in motion in her tenacious, impudent, and clamorous way; still working for her survival in the urban jungle of New York at the end of the war. Her morally reprehensible behaviour is certainly satirised, but the novel also celebrates Letty’s extraordinary vitality (her ‘bounce’), which stands at the heart of her survival as an outsider – a modern working girl on the make in a man’s world.
- Free Article No
- Custom Article Title Margaret Harris and Fiona Morrison on 'The Man Who Loved Children' and 'Letty Fox' by Christina Stead
- Contents Category Features
It’s not often that literature makes the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, but on 3 November 2006 the lead story was a report by David Marr about the National Library of Australia’s purchase of a collection of Patrick White’s papers, previously thought destroyed. Other media, both in Australia and internationally, picked up the story. The Times Literary Supplement ran a major essay on White by David Malouf (5 January 2007), while ABR carried a piece by Marie-Louise Ayres, the Library’s Curator of Manuscripts (April 2007), in which she described the material and indicated some of the insights it provided.
Four years on, it is possible to say more about the ways in which this new material illuminates the writing life of Patrick White. There has been revived interest in his work, not all directly occasioned by the new manuscripts. Sales of his novels were boosted this year when The Vivisector was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize; and a film of The Eye of the Storm, starring Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis, and Geoffrey Rush, and a chamber opera based on The Cockatoos, are in preparation. Remembering Patrick White: Contemporary Critical Essays, edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas (Rodopi), and generated by a conference held in 2007 to celebrate Voss’s half century, was published in 2010.
In June 2010, another conference, ‘Patrick White: Modernist Impact/Critical Futures’, was held at the University of London’s Institute of English Studies. David Marr spoke on ‘The London White’, and papers by scholars from Britain, Europe, the United States, and Australia discussed many aspects of White’s achievement. There was consideration of White’s relation to his contemporaries Christina Stead, Iris Murdoch, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, as well as to Manning Clark and Barry Humphries. The postmodern aspects of his late works were highlighted. Elizabeth Schafer, in ‘A Ham Funeral: Patrick White, Collaboration and Neil Armfield’, argued that in his productions of White’s plays over twenty years, Armfield has been in effect collaborating with White, the productions generating an implied critique of the plays.
A similar emphasis emerged from ‘The Voss Journey’, a public event that was also an extraordinary exercise in scholarly recuperation, held in Canberra in May 2009. Its focus was on Voss (1957) and its afterlife: the 1986 opera, and various attempts (still ongoing) to produce a film. Many of those involved in the opera production participated: David Malouf, the librettist; Moffatt Oxenbould, then artistic director of Opera Australia; Jim Sharman, the director; and, especially memorable, Geoffrey Chard (Voss) and Marilyn Richardson (Laura). The joint curators, Vincent Plush and Robyn Holmes, are preparing a comprehensive narrative exploring the history of Voss, to be made available online and through the collections of the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive.
Significantly, ‘The Voss Journey’ located White in the context of the flowering of Australian performance culture in the 1970s. It foregrounded the importance of his relationships with key figures of that flowering, such as Jim Sharman. Such a perspective situates White in an Australian, and specifically Sydney, context in which he is no longer the sole colossus; and is exemplary of the way new material and the passage of time can identify unrecognised dimensions of his career.
Turning to our own work on the National Library manuscripts, understanding of White’s writing is deepened by the insights provided into his processes of composition, including the research undertaken for his novels, as well as the nature and extent of his revisions. The ten working notebooks, in use from the 1930s into the 1980s, contain entries that modify previous assumptions about the trajectory of his career because of what they show about the gestation of both published and unpublished works. It was immediately clear, for example, that White had elements of The Aunt’s Story (1948) and Voss in mind earlier than had been realised, but the extensive connections between these novels have become apparent only with closer scrutiny.
The three major unpublished fiction manuscripts present different opportunities for thinking about the ways White returned to and reworked themes and characters. He cannibalised ‘Dolly Formosa and the Happy Few’ (about 25,000 words) and ‘The Binoculars and Helen Nell’ (about 160,000), both dating from the late 1960s, for his last novel, Memoirs of Many in One (1986). ‘The Hanging Garden’, begun and put aside in 1981, is a different case. Although it is clear that White intended it to continue, this 25,000-word story is complete in itself, like parts of The Twyborn Affair and The Aunt’s Story,and we agree with Marr’s description of it as ‘a masterpiece in the making’ (‘Patrick White: The Final Chapter’, The Monthly,April 2008). ‘The Hanging Garden’ engages freshly with both personal experience set against contemporary history, and satirical social commentary cut with lyrical romanticism.
Set in Sydney in the later years of World War II, ending on VE Day, the story centres on an adolescent girl, Eirene, evacuated from Greece, where she was born to a Greek father, now dead, and an Australian mother. She is housed with the British widow of a warrant officer who had served in India with the father of another adolescent evacuee, the English Gilbert Horsfall. The house and garden are familiar from White’s other works, though this time set on the north side of Sydney Harbour. The central dynamic is an exercise in the chemistry of adolescent relationships reminiscent of ‘Down at the Dump’. In a way, it is the story of White and his partner Manoly Lascaris, though Eirene and Gilbert do not end up together. There are familiar motifs: cultural displacement, father figures who are sexual predators, a range of mothers (one may be a whore), a volcano, a cairngorm, fuchsias, together with a box containing a talisman (this time a shrunken head from the Amazon). Less familiar is a recognisable ‘real life’ cameo, of the exclusive Sydney girls’ school Abbotsleigh (here Ambleside), under the legendary Betty Archdale.
White’s use of historical material in his fiction has occasioned debate at least since Voss. In Patrick White: A Life (1991),David Marr insists on White’s concern for factual accuracy in his work. In the notebooks and other papers, we now can see in detail the extent of his research: he quarried Australian sources mainly for Voss, A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and The Eye of the Storm (1973), and studied much Jewish material for Riders in the Chariot (1961).That said, for Voss he read copiously not only in English language sources, but also in German ones such as Leichhardt’s correspondence with his relatives, which, as Angus Nicholls demonstrated in his paper for the London conference, may well have been the main source for White’s depiction of Voss. While he made many notes from Alec Chisholm’s Strange New World: The Adventures of John Gilbert and Ludwig Leichhardt (1955), White’s concern was with factual detail about the terrain, vegetation, and wildlife. Voss does not reflect Chisholm’s character assessments of the explorers or his accounts of their interactions.
Similarly, for A Fringe of Leaves White ranged through nineteenth-century sources dealing with Eliza Fraser and early Queensland history. He looked at studies and translations of Virgil (so important to the fictional Austin Roxburgh); a dictionary of costume; and A.L. Rowse’s Autobiography of a Cornishman: A Cornish childhood (1942). White’s determination to be accurate and to avoid anachronism is everywhere evident: in the manuscript of ‘The Hanging Garden’, there is a note to himself: ‘Hidden in the mangroves blacks are waiting to spear the landing parties of explorers. (Find out about these mangroves.)’
This is one kind of insight into White’s ways of working. There is also the possibility now of fine-grained demonstration of the basis for his famous claim that, ‘I rewrite endlessly, sentence by sentence; it’s more like oxywelding than writing.’ Here is an example of oxywelding from a typescript of The Vivisector, showing the kind of revision that is likely to have occurred many more times than can be documented. On the back of a discarded typed page which refers to the Duffield family ring and the grandfather dying of a seizure in Parramatta Road, there are some handwritten sentences about Mrs Courtney and the boy Hurtle:
She smiled at him so sweetly
She cocked her head, and smiled at him so sweetly
She cocked her head and smiled so sweetly [illegible]:
he might have been a man
We see here progressive elaboration of the basic action, with the interpretation and development of Hurtle’s point of view finally consolidated. Later in the typescript, we find the form of words that appears in the published novel: ‘She cocked her head, and smiled so sweetly at him, you wouldn’t have thought she had the advantage: he might have been a man.’ (Jonathan Cape, 1970, p. 32: the italicised words are added in the published version)
The National Library manuscripts also reveal the extent of White’s work across genres from early in his career. His first publications in the 1920s and 1930s were poems, and some unpublished poems appear in the working notebooks. It is the amount of unpublished dramatic material that is especially interesting. White wrote for the stage in the 1930s and 1940s, then again in the 1960s, and turned to drama even more in the 1970s and 1980s. NLA MS9982 includes copious drafts of plays, a number of them produced, such as Signal Driver (1982), Netherwood (1983), and Shepherd on the Rocks (1987). The most substantial of the unperformed and unpublished plays is the late ‘The White Goddess and the Firebird’, of which there are two full versions. There are many scripts for film and radio plays: for example, screenplays based on the short stories ‘Willy Wagtails by Moonlight’, ‘Clay’, and ‘Down at the Dump’. Further exploration of this body of material will contribute to a revised account of the significance of White’s dramatic works, especially in the last phase of his career.
One of the notebooks contains brief snatches of dialogue and lists of characters relating to several different plays that White had in hand in the 1930s. Though a good deal of the notebook material is fragmentary, there are more sustained drafts for some works, such as a play entitled ‘Marriages are Made in Hell’, which is particularly interesting with respect to White’s later work. These notes begin with an outline of the main theme:
The Bassetts are, in their own opinion, happily married. Brionne and Julian are living in what they accept as satisfactory sin. But Hochtenfel awakens doubts. Why should Mr Bassett accept his wife’s nagging? Has not Mrs Bassett always suppressed somewhat luxurious and ambitious thoughts? Julian has endured Brionne’s tantrums for years because he has not the willpower to avoid them. Brionne’s clinging to Julian is the consequence of ambition and vanity.
Both the Bassetts and Brionne & Julian are the victims of their separate codes, on the one hand the conventional, on the other the unconventional.
The following dialogue makes clear that Brionne is one of the bright young things who feature in many of White’s dramatic attempts from this period, while Hochtenfel appears to be something of a chorus figure:
Brionne: A sense of morality just happens. Some people are born with it, some aren’t. I wasn’t. So however hard you look at me, Mrs Bassett, you won’t make me a good woman.
Hochtenfel: Mrs Bassett once had a sense of morality. Now she’s morality itself.
Brionne: Oh, dear, how uneventful for her. Poor Mrs Bassett!
A later section of dialogue between the Bassetts makes evident that they come from the lower middle classes. Their relationship, as sketched by White in the outline quoted, and demonstrated in this dialogue, foreshadows that between Mr and Mrs Lusty in The Ham Funeral (1947):
Mrs Bassett: You know I could never abide dogs.
Mr Bassett: I must say some dogs ’ave very takin’ ways. There’s Mr Edwards’ Tinker now, ’e can stand on ’is hind legs like a Christian, and smoke a pipe of tobacco.
Mrs Bassett: That brings me no closer to likin’ dogs. Nasty little creatures … soilin’ the carpets, and leavin’ hair over everything. I’ve got no time for ’em.
Mr Bassett: Nobody asked you to ’ave time.
Mrs Bassett: That’s a cheeky answer for a man to give his wife.
Mr Bassett: A man ’as to say something.
Mrs Bassett: There are ways an’ ways of sayin’, Henry. But evidently that’s something you never learnt.
Mr Bassett: All right, Flo. All right.
Mrs Bassett: No, it isn’t all right.
Mr Bassett: All right then, it isn’t. I wonder if tomatoes do down here?
Of course, the long-suffering husband and dissatisfied wife sketched here look forward not only to The Ham Funeral but to Stan and Amy Parker in The Tree of Man (1955) and to many other married couples in White’s later plays, stories, and novels. An interesting feature of these snatches of early plays is their predominant focus on female rather than male voices, something that was to remain true of much of White’s work for the theatre.
Another notebook contains material explicitly relating to The Ham Funeral. This probably dates from White’s return to that play around 1958, rather than from the time of its initial composition in 1947. His renewed interest in The Ham Funeral would seem to have been provoked in part by his very negative reaction to seeing Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955). White’s criticisms of Lawler’s hit play are forthright:
The night I went the line that got the biggest laugh was: ‘These bloody mozzies!’ That line & its reception seems to me to illuminate the very core of the work, & to explain why the author has succeeded. … In The Doll Lawler merely reproduces banality. The reproduction has not the faintest tinge of great art. It remains a rather boring version of the real.
He modified his opinion after reading the play, while continuing to object to its realism. That objection is the basis of his addition of the prologue to The Ham Funeral, where the Young Man warns the audience that this may not be their kind of play.
Immediately following White’s criticisms of Lawler, there is a draft of the most controversial scene in The Ham Funeral, the one where the two knockabout ladies, rooting in the dustbin, find the dead foetus. The next eight pages contain drafts of most of this scene, in one case intercutby a section of draft for Riders in the Chariot. White later made some small but significant changes in the ladies’ dialogue, not always for the better. For example, the Second Lady’s reaction to the First Lady’s scream on finding the foetus is, in the notebook version: ‘Oh, ’ark at ’er! She’s remembered ’er own wedding night.’ In the published version of the play, this has become the rather blander ‘Oh, ’ark at ’er! She’s remembered somethink she lost.’ Generally, however, the final version of their dialogue shows few changes from this draft. More changes were made in the Young Man’s reflections after the two ladies depart, with some of the more pompous lines in the notebook version cut.
These are only some of the ways in which the National Library manuscripts provoke re-reading of White. At once they extend the canon of White’s work, and variously illuminate current perceptions of, and perspectives on, his achievement. More can be expected with the approach of the centenary of his birth in 2012, which will see a number of publications as well as an exhibition and an associated events program at the National Library.
We thank Barbara Mobbs, literary agent for Patrick White’s estate, for permission to quote unpublished material.
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- Custom Article Title Patrick White's Papers
- Contents Category Commentary