Louise E. Rorabacher
[The writing career of Frank Dalby Davison] falls into two parts. The first covers some fifteen years, extending from his sudden appearance on the literary scene in 1931 through his first eight published books, the last of which appeared in 1946. Had this present study been made in the middle of the century, it would have recorded his success as a writer of novels and short stories, mostly of Australia's back country, fiction that accurately and sensitively portrayed the lives of animals and men alike. These books are mostly small in size, but several of them are acknowledged Australian classics.
Frank lived on for another quarter of a century, however, most of which he spent developing the last thing his earlier readers would have expected of him—an enormous novel of urban life consisting of an in-depth study of a single aspect of that life, sex. This book, The White Thorntree, and the necessity of bringing it to terms with his earlier work will certainly occupy—even preoccupy—the minds of his serious readers for a long time to come. (p. 9)
As "a fictional investigation of our sex culture," [The White Thorntree] represents such a change of subject matter, such an apparent change of purpose, from his early output that one is tempted to write a book on "The Two Literary Careers of Frank Dalby Davison."…
It is apparent [in his fiction] that all life faces conflict of one kind or another, some outer, some inner. In Man-Shy, it rose between beast and man …; in Dusty, between the two diverse sides of the dog's inherited nature…. In The White Thorntree,… it rises between the natural desire for sex and the restrictions placed upon that desire by society. (p. 161)
[To the general public, this novel was] remarkable in many respects. First, it was huge, especially by local standards…. Second, it was an urban novel, exclusively of city people, by an author whose literary reputation had long since been established as a portrayer of animals and men of the outback—not the book Davison devotees had come to look for. Third, despite its size it dwelt with a single subject, sex—not one to be expected in a nation that has long been known, at home and abroad, for treating sex more casually than most. (p. 163)
The White Thorntree avowedly began with [this] purpose: the exploration of sex experience in a given time and place, the characters and situations being created as needed to illustrate certain facets of that experience. (p. 169)
[The] principal characters (there are dozens of lesser ones) [are] four couples thrown together socially at an age when the confines of marriage were growing increasingly inadequate, even oppressive…. [Their couplings] may sound to modern ears like a small circle engaged by mutual consent in wife-swapping, but no—these were secret adulteries, fraught with pain and danger for all concerned. And the greatest danger? Love. Men and woman alike will die, in The White Thorntree,… for love.
It is, after all, with romantic love, not just sex (although we find plenty of both) that the book concerns itself. (p. 173)
It is [the] devastating power of sexual love as portrayed in The White Thorntree that is particularly difficult to credit in its Sydney setting. Australia of all nations has a reputation as a man's country. There the West was won not by families making their way into the wilderness in covered wagons, as in America, but by horsemen—explorers, then drovers, who set up cattle and sheep stations far from home and womenfolk. As a result this young country has long been the land of "mateship," celebrated alike in Australian song and story, a dependence not upon women but upon one's fellowmen…. National literature by writers of both sexes, as well as reports of observant visitors from abroad, abound in references to the Australian man as an unromantic, even an inept lover: he continued to be a man's man…. Sex has of course not been neglected by these manly men …, but it has not been anything to make much of a fuss about, either.
In The White Thorntree, however, it is the only thing…. [The author's] subject is inevitably the aberrations, physical as well as social, resulting from the frustration of the natural sex drive by the culture of the time and place. Well and good, but the reader comes to wonder if fiction is the proper vehicle for such a limited intention. The author's technique, one suspects, was to make an outline of all possible types of sex experience, normal and otherwise (he had read Kinsey), and then to create—or recall—persons and situations to illustrate each. There is nothing wrong in such a method if the results truly reflect life. But The White Thorntree becomes a monochrome of sex, more tedious than titillating, and the reader is left unconvinced, needing less, wishing more.
Frank pleads "the interests of fictional freedom" as his excuse for ignoring public events and giving little attention in the book to "period fixings." Well and good but what of other components of life that we have come to expect, in fiction, to enrich the bare bones of event? Where, for instance, are hints, at least, of the Sydney scene, to give us a sense of place? (pp. 174-75)
Where too are those visually...
(The entire section is 2216 words.)