David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life, written with the encouragement and cooperation of his subject, is the definitive biography of the Nobel Prize-winning Australian man of letters. Using hitherto unavailable letters, some twenty-five hundred of them, Marr depicts White’s life, demonstrating how events, characters, and geography pervade and illuminate the fiction, poetry, and drama of Australia’s most critically acclaimed author. Noting that White believed that “what we inherit can never be entirely denied,” Marr explores the backgrounds of Victor (Dick) White and Ruth Withycombe, second cousins and White’s parents. In addition to their wealth, which allowed White to follow his literary inclinations with little concern for a “real” career, his parents had diametrically opposed allegiances: Dick was a devoted Australian, while Ruth was an Anglophile devoted to returning to England. This split had profound implications for White, who saw himself as “the stranger of all time” (the quotation that introduces Marr’s biography), a person forever an alien, a foreigner in his birthplace, London, and an outsider in his adopted country, where he lived much of his adult life. In fact, Marr sees White’s life as consisting of a series of divided loyalties. Ruth had much more influence on White than Dick did. Her dominating personality and ambition for her son simultaneously aided him professionally and impeded his own development as he sought to establish his own identity. His feelings for her were divided, and as a child he was drawn to his nanny, Lizzie Clark, described by Marr as seeming to be “his ‘real’ mother.”
For Marr, White’s “best years” were those childhood ones spent in Australia, where Lizzie and sympathetic teachers encouraged the asthmatic youth. Asthma remained a health problem for White, who regarded it as yet another indication of his status as a “stranger,” isolated from “normal” children. Published before he was ten, thanks to Ruth’s efforts, he shared his mother’s vision of himself as a writer. The “best years” were followed by White’s “exile” to England, where his education at Cheltenham College was marked by alienation and persecution. His unhappiness was mitigated by his own writing and reading (dramatists August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov were favorites) and by his friendship with Ronny Weatherall, who shared White’s developing interest in the theater. It was also at Cheltenham that White came to terms with his homosexuality, about which he also had divided feelings. Marr notes both White’s “strong vein of self-loathing [that] marked him for life” and his pride in the “feminine sensibility” that gave him insight and understanding as a writer.
After his Cheltenham education, White returned to Australia, where he predictably “felt a foreigner at home.” As a homosexual, he was not at home at the parties given by the Sydney Younger Set, which Marr describes as a “shameless marriage market.” Consequently, White was relieved to leave Sydney to “jackeroo” on a sheep farm owned by one of Dick’s friends. In the brush he wrote three novels, mostly about his experiences, before he returned to Sydney and to Ruth’s influence. Although she was unwavering in her support of White’s writing, she believed that a real career, diplomacy, was necessary for his advancement. White subsequently returned to England, where he earned a degree in modern languages from the University of Cambridge. His Cambridge years were productive ones, particularly in terms of his writing; he had poems published in the London Mercury, which also published the work of D. H. Lawrence, and in The Best Poems of 1935, which included contributions by Robert Frost and Siegfried Sassoon. Meanwhile, Ruth was busy in Australia seeing The Ploughman and Other Poems (1935) through publication and persuading Bryants’ Playhouse to open its 1935 season with White’s Bread and Butter Women.
Between 1935 and 1949, when he returned to Australia, White’s career was on hold. His play writing career in London failed; despite his obsession with the stage and his recurrent efforts, he never really enjoyed much success in the theater. Fiction was another matter: The Immigrants, written while he was on the sheep farm, was revised and published in 1939 as Happy Valley. Shortly thereafter he traveled to the United States, where he met Ben Huebsch, an editor for Viking, who was “the rock on which Patrick White’s career was built.” Viking published Happy Valley (1940), The Living and the Dead (1941), and The Aunt’s Story (1948), although the last two novels were not published in Australia until 1962 and 1958, respectively. A promising author abroad, he had yet to win critical approval in Australia; even when approval eventually came, it was grudging and qualified.
White was more fortunate with his personal life. After his failed affair with “R” at Cambridge, he entered into a relationship with Roy de...
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