Frank Dalby Davison

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Louise E. Rorabacher

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[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 entire section contains 2216 words.)

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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 distinguishing features that serve to imprint a character sharply on the reader's mind?… [We] don't know one [character] from another in personal appearance, dressed or undressed. (p. 175)

[The book's two-volume] size alone is a serious flaw, not that length is objectionable in itself … but that it should be compatible with the material. The points Frank is trying to make here are often valid, but he makes them and makes them, over and over again, in what often becomes a monumental verbosity. This is a strange comment to be called forth by the work of a writer trained in the short story and capable of masterly small works like Man-Shy and The Wells of Beersheba. (pp. 175-76)

The author's obsession with sex (and it is admittedly no less) is clear in his choice of incident. In these post-Freudian days other human drives are accepted as ranking with sex: the need for personality fulfillment, for example, and greed, and the passion for power…. But Frank has little or no room for such. (p. 176)

[The reader] who started with volume two was blessed, for at this point the tiresomely detailed anatomizing of sex is pretty well out of the way, and the narrative begins to move much more vigorously. To the reader of the whole, however, there is a new element in this second volume that is both surprising and disappointing. Let us assume him to be an admirer of Frank's earlier works, not only of the economy of their telling but of their quiet truthfulness to life. He will consequently be unprepared for the strong element of melodrama that the author allows himself here. (p. 177)

In the span of the roughly two decades covered by the action, it is to be expected that some deaths would occur, and some do. But save for one [minor character] who expires toward the end of the book …, no one dies of accident, disease, or age. No, all are in the prime of life, and come to violent ends by their own hands, or those of others, or an avenging law. The tally includes three suicides, three murders (complete with murderers known to the victims and to us), and one hanging. Furthermore, these deaths are remarkable not only for their numbers, in the small world in which the story moves, but also for the shocking fact that every one of them was motivated by sex. (pp. 177-78)

I have personally observed from a close reading of Australia's newspapers that crimes of passion do not appear to be in the ascendant there, or if they are, they certainly yield place to more urgent national concerns such as sports. Yet the Thorntree's list of major events provides us not only with the fatalities just mentioned but with several rapes. All of these justify us, surely, in accusing Frank Dalby Davison of having surrendered, in this late book, to the coarse delights of melodrama. (p. 178)

Curiously, Frank's most convincing characters and certainly the most appealing are those who are least able to lead normal lives, perhaps because they make the heaviest demands on our sympathies. (pp. 179-80)

Frank lacked the poetry to share with us much of sex's ecstasies. And if he had, as one suspects from occasional remarks, the irony to let us in on the great cosmic joke [as some authors have done], he rarely exercised it; rapture and amusement alike have little place in his matter-of-fact reporting. Instead, he was primarily concerned with a factual presentation of the urge, the outlets, the consequences of sex. Someone has credited The White Thorntree with having avoided the pornographic; great sections of it read with all the titillation of a how-to-do pamphlet, and its people often seem less characters in a novel than case histories out of Kraft-Ebbing or Kinsey.

This is realism rather than romanticism or caricature, but it is a realism with curious limits. For instance, one of the major problems of sex for Western man since the Crusades has been the venereal diseases, from which Australia is, unhappily, not free. Yet with all the promiscuity in the book, including a good deal of prostitution, not one case appears; the subject is never even mentioned.

Another problem of sex, far older and more universal than syphilis, springs from its basic purpose, reproduction. This, too, Davison almost completely ignores…. One might call The White Thorntree an idyll of constant but disease-free, virtually pregnancy-free, sex. (pp. 182-83)

[Frank's] greatest contributions to the subject besides his thoroughness (which unfortunately has the weakness of its strength) are two: first, his sympathetic understanding that perversion is not the result of a monstrous love of degradation but devious paths into which society's pressures encourage the weak or the maladjusted; second, his recognition that sex is almost equally a problem for girls and for boys, for women and for men….

[But this awareness] leads him to a curiously excessive trick of balance [for he falls in love with his own device and tends to overuse it]. (p. 185)

By the time The White Thorntree was published it was a less daring book than it must have seemed during the earlier years of its writing; Frank's concern about its publication was caused increasingly by its size, not its contents…. [Yet he] seems curiously torn between the pruderies of his youth and the freedom—and convictions—of his age. Sometimes he writes with all the scientifically objective details of a treatise on sex…. He seldom uses any of the vulgar words descriptive of sex…. [His] constant euphemisms come to seem curiously Victorian, even coy…. (p. 187)

Whatever one may think of The White Thorntree …, its style marks a notable improvement over much of its author's earlier writing…. [His] style had matured to the point that it is fluent and altogether serviceable. Gone are the clumsy constructions so prevalent in Blue Coast Caravan and occasional in most of his early work, creative as well as critical. But missing too is the lyricism of much of Man-Shy and The Wells of Beersheba, denied to the Thorntree, no doubt, by both subject and purpose. Still, if the heights to which inspiration had carried him in those small works are missing here, a more than satisfactory middle level is remarkably well sustained…. (p. 188)

[As] man and critic Frank worked throughout his first period to further the cause of Australian letters, and … as writer he limited himself almost entirely to Australian subjects….

Scarcely a word in all his writing of … [his five] years in the United States; the only thing he "published" while he was there was a long poem about Australia. England and Europe … [appeared] only in wartime, and then, in "Fathers and Sons," surrounded by an Australian frame; and Palestine, in The Wells of Beersheba, is only a backdrop against which we watch the heroism of Australian horses and men. All of the rest of Frank's early writing is not only written by a native son but is itself pure dyed-in-the-merino Australian, in settings, in characters, and most of all, in spirit.

This is why, quite apart from the subject matter of The White Thorntree, the Davison devotee may find himself ill at ease with this late novel. Set in Sydney, yes, with a long character list of Australians, but there is nothing to identify them as such; the entire book could just as well have been written of a big city in, say, the United States…. It is as though one must balance the land, the animals, the people—the very soul of Australia—in Frank's first period against this monumental aberration of his second….

[The] odds seem at the moment to be heavy on the side of Frank Dalby Davison's continuing to be known as a writer for his first period rather than his second…. (p. 196)

Louise E. Rorabacher, in her Frank Dalby Davison (copyright © 1979 by G. K. Hall & Co.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1979, 219 p.


Harry Heseltine