Study Guide

Patrick White

Patrick White Biography

Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although born in London, Patrick Victor Martindale White was the son of wealthy, third-generation Australian landowners, who were visiting England in 1912 but sailed for home six months after their son’s birth. He spent his first thirteen years in and around Sydney, then left for Great Britain to attend school in Cheltenham. Returning to Australia in 1929, he worked for three years at a sheep station in the New England area northwest of Sydney before entering King’s College, Cambridge. After he took his degree in modern languages, he remained in London to pursue his theatrical and writing ambitions. Travel through Europe and the United States followed, and in 1939 his first novel, Happy Valley, appeared. With the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force, serving in North Africa, Alexandria, the Middle East, and Greece. He returned to London after the war and there saw his first play, Return to Abyssinia, produced; the manuscript, lost (or destroyed), was never published. At this time, he wrote another play, The Ham Funeral, which did not receive a production until 1961. He returned to Australia in 1947 and except for brief trips abroad remained there.

For the next twenty-five years, he wrote novel after novel, all of which gained for him more recognition in Great Britain and the United States than in Australia. Following the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973 for his impressive achievement as a novelist, he emerged as something of a public figure in Australia, often criticizing his compatriots, voicing his opinion—at one time or another—on politics and politicians, literary criticism and its practitioners, the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, preservation of natural resources, nuclear disarmament, and the treatment of Aborigines. He invested his Nobel Prize money in a fund to assist other Australian writers, established scholarships for Aboriginal students, and donated paintings from his extensive private collection to the New South Wales Art Gallery in Sydney. He continued to write both fiction and drama, although he once vowed never to write for the stage again. In 1986, one of his most famous novels, Voss (1957), was turned into an opera; another Australian novelist, David Malouf, wrote the libretto for the production, which enjoyed tremendous success in Australia. After a long illness, White died at his home in Sydney on September 30, 1990.

Patrick White Biography (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In the course of writing the authorized biography of Patrick White (1991), David Marr gained access to approximately two thousand of Patrick White’s letters, many of which appear in his edition of Patrick White: Letters. After finishing the biography Marr located three other major collections containing approximately one thousand additional letters, a few of which he included in his book. The number of letters is a bit surprising because although White was a prolific correspondent, he frequently implored his correspondents to destroy his letters, which he described as “the devil,” and even sought to emulate Ernest Hemingway, who he believed had successfully blocked the publication of his own letters.

Although Marr includes about six hundred letters to some eighty correspondents, he does not have any of the letters White wrote to Manoly Lascaris, his companion and lover for most of White’s life. (White’s letters to his other lovers, such as Pepe Mamblas and Spud Johnson, are included.) Marr does comment on their relationship, and White often refers to Lescaris in his letters to other people, but White’s letters to Lescaris have apparently been destroyed. In his letters, however, White comments on the nature of their relationship, which he describes as a “homosexual marriage” involving a great deal of give- and-take; and he writes, “Living together means endless arguments and patching up,” adding that only vegetables live happily ever after.

The letters Marr includes are arranged chronologically, beginning with a child’s Santa Claus letter in 1918, though Marr has imposed a kind of thematic structure on the sixteen chapters, which conclude with letters written shortly before his death. In addition, Marr provides a running commentary on the letters, putting them in context, describing literary, political, social, and biographical details that bear on the letters, which are heavily edited. Works, characters, political events—all are identified and sometimes commented on, though not always objectively: Marr characterizes the government of Queensland (1968- 1987) as “shabby and conservative.” On the whole, however, the editing serves to supplement White’s letters and to further Marr’s intent to allow the man to speak for himself.

White’s letters, frank and extremely personal, were written, according to Marr, to “amuse, inform, and upbraid his friends.” They reveal a great deal about his attitudes toward Australia, his family, his literary debts, his travels, his taste in literature, art, and music, his business deals, and his prejudices, but much less about his views on the form or content of his own work. In fact, White seems resolutely opposed to analysis, insisting instead on intuition and discussing what produces creativity. Several of the letters are to academic critics of White’s writing who have, in his view, overinterpreted his work, finding sources for it, as examples, in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Gordon Fraser’s The Golden Bough. White acknowledges the influence of Carl Jung and Martin Buber, but for the most part his letters do not yield much of interest to literary critics concerned with the “meaning” of his work. Like most writers, he uses material taken from his life, but he also lives in his novels: “All my fiction is in a sense about myself.” Marr, however, is analytical and offers several insights about how White’s art and life are related. On the subject of writing White is more forthcoming, especially in his remarks on revision, which he aptly describe as “oxywelding.” White’s only extended critical commentary on his work concerns the problem of narration in The Vivisector (1970), which required both third person point-of-view and a sense of “fragmentation.”

Some of White’s most memorable images concern writing and the people he knew. About Tom Garland, his cousin Peggy’s husband, White wrote that he “remains only an outline, like a man in a novel by a woman,” a comparison that reveals his aversion to dealing with real family problems in other than literary terms and his sexual biases. In another letter, he amusingly describes Ivy White in operatic terms: “Imagine a Brunnhilde who had left the Ring and joined the Salvation Army, taking with her, however, plenty of Wagnerian sex and hysterics.”

White’s literary views are intimately connected to his life as an Australian writer. Like James Joyce, White is both attracted to and repulsed by his native country, which in turn seems ambivalent in its response to him. White notes that he is an Australian writer by fate, not by choice, and yet there is a curious love-hate...

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Patrick White Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Patrick Victor Martindale White was born in Wellington Court, London, on May 28, 1912, of parents whose affluence allowed them the opportunity to travel and enjoy the social pretensions available to prosperous Australians able to play the role of landed gentry. White’s father, Victor (Dick) White, was one of several brothers who enjoyed prosperity in the family grazier business. Although the Whites could trace their lineage to respectable yeoman stock in Somerset, it was only in Australia that they achieved such success. Ironically, their social aspirations so far as the mother country was concerned were forever tainted by their status as “colonials” and Australians, the former penal colony being one of the least prestigious of the British dominions. White’s mother was a Withycombe, and it is to the maternal connection that White attributed most of his imaginative and poetic gifts. At the same time, White disliked his strong-willed and socially ambitious mother, Ruth. Toward his father White was more ambivalent; he pitied Victor White for his weakness but found him impossible because he hid his emotions behind his social role as a landed gentleman. Resenting and distrusting his parents as he did, and contemptuous of their social ambitions and their inclination to conceal their humanity behind public personae, White felt as much an outsider and rebel against the class to which he was born as is his painter hero, Hurtle Duffield, in The Vivisector, a working-class child adopted by a prosperous Sydney family.

White tended as a child to identify with his nanny and her working-class husband, a circumstance that helps to account for the persistent scorn and irony in his fiction directed toward the assumptions and manners of the Australian upper class. In addition to being an “outsider” in his relationship to the Australian affluent class, White found that his status in English boarding schools, and later at Cambridge, was that of an outsider by virtue of his Australian citizenship and accent. Hence, throughout his career, White as artist played the role of an outsider in a double sense, a condition intensified by his frequent alternation of residences between Australia and England in childhood and youth.

White’s major concentration at Cambridge was modern languages, primarily German, an interest augmented by time spent on the Continent, in the...

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Patrick White Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111204716-White.jpgPatrick White Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Patrick White was born in London in 1912. He was the son of Victor White, a wealthy Australian farmer, and Ruth Withycombe, whose family had arrived in Australia from England some years before their marriage. White enjoyed a privileged childhood in rural Australia and then spent his adolescent years in boarding school in England. At seventeen, he returned to Australia and worked for some time in his family’s sheep-farming business. During the 1930’s, he traveled widely in Europe as his literary career began. It was during these years that his distinct personal and artistic identity took shape.

White served in World War II as a member of the Royal Air Force’s intelligence division. He was stationed in Egypt and...

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Patrick White Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Patrick White’s massive and complex novels stand as monuments to the artistic ambitions of the modern age. With a strangeness and an expansiveness as outsized as the Australian continent from which they emanated, they enact fundamental oppositions of the human spirit. It is hard to decide which is the most impressive facet of White’s talent—his artistry or his daring. White’s works will be read as long as the craft of fiction is cherished.

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Patrick White Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111204716-White.jpgPatrick White Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Patrick Victor Martindale White was not only a major Australian novelist but also one of the outstanding English-language writers of the twentieth century. A second-generation Australian, he was born in London in 1912 while his parents were on a visit there. Both his parents belonged to landholding families in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. After his early education in Australia, he was sent to England for four years at Cheltenham, a preparatory school. He returned to Australia to train for life as a grazier but persuaded his family to let him return to England, where he took a degree in modern languages at Cambridge University. He would later stay in England, beginning his literary career. His first novel, Happy...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)