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.