Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5470
White, Patrick 1912–
A British-born Australian playwright, short story writer, and novelist, White won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature. His work is characterized by its broad scope and technical precision. His panoramic stories encompass nearly every facet of Australian life, and his sardonic wit and preoccupation with death are always evident. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 4, 5, 7.)
Johann Ulrich Voss [in White's novel Voss] is an explorer whose nature shows a deep ambition to fulfil itself in previously uncharted, insidiously "unmaking" country. Voss is counterpointed by Laura Trevelyan who, like him, seeks to be flawless. The two protagonists have the desert and the garden as their literal and metaphoric environments, and these settings, derived from powerful archetypes, serve as symbolic polarities of experience. The desert is most strongly associated with Voss; the garden with Laura. But both symbols are complementary, for they work together in a relationship that sharpens the radical theme of metaphysical completeness.
One of the most remarkable features in White's construction of the Voss myth is a transformation of the traditional relationship between garden and desert. Prior to this novel, myths of the land posit the garden as a more important force than the desert because it represents the progress of civilization, but Voss shows that true progress comes out of conflict with uncivilizable forces. It is not the garden but the desert with its abstract strength that confirms or makes character. (p. 557)
Unlike the garden, the desert is a primeval feature of Australian landscape and is filled with sand, scrub, and exotic creatures many of which are unfamiliar to all but the aborigine…. In Voss, its implacable rigors are never minimized, but its barrenness and unfamiliar spirit tempt Voss to create something in place of its seeming emptiness. Apparently infinite in its power to reduce humans to impotence, despair, and madness, the desert is the hell through which Voss and his party journey, away from the comparative Eden of the city-garden.
Because of its immense scope and self-sufficiency, the desert is a proper metaphor for Voss. It is true to itself and not delimited by humans. It merely is, extending for miles that seem to vanish into infinity. The desert is remote from human society and is hospitable only to those, such as the aborigines, who apprehend its spirit of place. As such, then, it has affinities with Voss who would himself like to be remote from humans and capable of indulging his appetite for power and infinity.
Just as the desert is inaccessible to many people, Voss is unreachable in a psychological sense. He is clearly an outsider in Sydney, for much is made of his German accent, coarse beard, shabby dress, and aloofness. White, who has often focused on outsiders …, concentrates on Voss's self-containment which makes the character "sufficient in himself" and "one of the superior ones" … who invites the hostility of Sydney's colonials. (p. 558)
White's technique of chiaroscuro portraiture reveals how Voss is kept a foreigner in New South Wales. Shadow or obscurity at first covers everything that is not the surface of the German's personality, whereas light or revelation falls only on Voss's accent; beard, restless fidgeting, and paradoxical self-assurance. We don't immediately see his face, and his inward disposition is kept more than a little ambiguous and inscrutable….
Voss has a Protean quality by the fact that he is different things to different men, and the profusion of his images suggests an immensity of personality that matches the desert in sheer scope. Just as the desert does not appear to be contained by any tangible, visible boundary, so also Voss's character appears to sprawl across vast areas of attitude. He is variously described as a crag upon which "truth must batter itself to survive" …; a burning element …; a scarecrow …; a greedy-looking pig …; a juggler of hopes …; a madman …; and, most climactically of all, a devil…. The miscellany of images compounds Voss's mystery, for nobody—except Laura later in the story—is able to apprehend his essence. (p. 559)
The desert becomes Voss's means of establishing distance between himself and the company of men whom he loathes for their weakness. White often depicts Voss as a reserved man who turns his gaze away from people to fix it on some vague, distant point…. Voss appears to be happiest in silence "which is immeasurable, like distance, and the potentialities of self…". (pp. 559-60)
It is space, as an enlargement of self, that becomes the object of Voss's vision: sometimes the space is formless, uninterrupted, and only vaguely delimited; and at other times it is defined as a desert of unrealized possibilities and unstated consequences. Even when he sits in the Botanic Gardens, he hopes "soon to enter his own world, of desert and dreams" …, and we note his obsession not simply with geophysical spaces but with regions of the imagination and soul. Voss, for whom will power is a voluptuous sensation, appears to believe in taking possession of space by simply concentrating his gaze upon it. (p. 560)
Concretely represented by the image of the desert, distance is a paradox in Voss's life, for while it separates the explorer from most men by making him appear a fugitive from civilization (in the manner of the Wild West hero in the second half of nineteenth-century American literature), it also unites him with Laura who never reencounters him once he has left for the desert except by telepathic communication and dream. In effect, distance and the desert are conjoined in three journeys for Voss: one, a literal adventure where he and his party attempt to discover unknown and unnamed country; another, a psychic journey into his self whereby suffering and experience of the expedition will produce metaphysical knowledge; and a third, a spiritual journey, where he can imagine Laura by his side and thereby grapple or wrestle with human weakness before Laura and he can be finally and irrevocably united in spirit.
All three journeys confirm a special significance for the desert symbol. They occur in a wasteland where the stark truth of human relationships splinters into debris of wasted potential. The desert is an obvious counterpoint to the genteel civilization of Potts Point and the poignance of Rhine Towers. Despite the brilliant munificence of its colours …, the desert offers no appeal to the draper, Bonner, or to his class of merchants for whom progress is never a thing of the spirit but a result of economics and technology. The desert is too vast and too ambiguous for a person like Bonner who believes in planting his feet on earth as solid and as dependable as his sturdy ankles and calves. Its shimmering mirages would either confound or terrify Bonner by evoking a spirit of place foreign to his "civilized" rationality. (pp. 560-61)
Few of the characters in this novel ever think of Australia as a country to which they can have a positive attachment, and even those who do exclude the desert from their area of interest. Australia is most commonly evoked as a colony, still recognizably British, whose social progress is measured by homes, public edifices, administrators, and the achievements of settlers…. Mrs. Bonner divorces herself from the land and its coarseness … and finds congeniality only in society whose members are as squeamish as she is. Laura, who was born in England, has only a negative attachment to the country …, and Topp, too, disappointed by "barbarian minds" and the stupor of gentry …, rejects Australia and says it is his country only by an unfortunate accident. Australia, as Mrs. Thompson sees it, is exasperatingly a country of contraries …, and, ironically, its colonizers who loathe it are in turn repudiated…. Only Voss has the courage and the strength of will to face the continent even in its barest places in order to seize the possibilities of remaking it according to his purpose….
Before we look at Voss's power, we need to acknowledge the force of the desert which reconciles or juxtaposes characters and exposes the intrinsic incompleteness of humans. Thus, we find Angus, the amiable one who has once known "Palladian splendours" …, suffering in the company of Turner, the cruel drunkard and ex-criminal, before the two are reduced to a common nothingness by their long journey so that they become more alike than not …; or Le Mesurier, the cynical poet, contrasting with Palfreyman, the meek Christian; or Judd, the dangerous convict, intimidating Harry, the inarticulate naif. The groupings work best, of course, when they relate specifically to the theme of completeness, for it is this subject which constitutes the underlying core of the plot. Voss, who cannot tolerate weakness in men, is compelled by the circumstances to accept Angus, Harry, and Palfreyman. While incapable of cherishing these men, Voss lets them follow because they look to him to perfect themselves. The three weak ones are awaiting some form of self-improvement, but they lack the power to achieve this on their own…. Voss would find it easier to be reconciled to Le Mesurier who, like him, believes himself "admitted to infinity" at times….
In Nietzschean terms, Voss's aspirations are not instincts of the herd but strengths of the Übermensch. The desert becomes a challenge to Voss's strength and pride. Its rigors and unknown spirit are intriguing to him, and (in the Botanic Gardens episode) he experiences the desert before he ever reaches it. Later, on the way to Rhine Towers to meet Judd, Voss sees a mirage …, but if this vision is an illusion, his pride and will to power are not. Believing, like Nietzsche's Zarathustra, that man is something that has to be surpassed, Voss uses his own ego as the measure and value of all his experience.
Voss pursues his quest, maintaining a contempt for human weakness and feeling poignance only for human effort to surpass itself. Unlike Le Mesurier, he does not look for a paradise-garden in the desert, and, as he conducts his group farther west, he adventures deeper into chaos:
So the white men continued westward through what could have been their own perpetual sleep, and the fruit of the mystic bunya bunya contracted in their mouths.
Several days from there they came to a ridge, of hills even, at which a brigalow scrub whipped their flesh back to waking. Mules began to buck. The udders of those goats which had kidded were slashed and torn by twigs, and the glassy eyes of the most rational of all animals were seeing far too clearly as they advanced into chaos….
The evocation of chaos is later intensified by subtle changes in White's diction which makes increasing use of negatively prefixed words. Emphasis is placed on such things as "the violence of uncontrol" …, the "unwisdom" of the despairing explorers … as Voss's travels continue; and we read of the "fierce heat of unreason" … threatening to wither any oasis of refuge in the Bonner house whose members have eroded spiritually (pp. 561-63)
Unlike the desert, the garden is not a primeval feature of Australian landscape, for its organization and upkeep are material evidence of colonial progress where life can take root and prosper in hitherto uncleared wastes, thereby providing for some characters, such as Mrs. de Courcy and her guests, "ecstasies of soul."… Mr. Bonner is understandably proud of his garden because it satisfies his materialistic nature: its shrubs, bushes, and flowers establish a world of substance that is firm, tangible, visible, and undisturbing. The merchant likes to feel "safe in life," and when he is not churning the cash in his trouser pocket, he can sometimes be found in his garden free from the larger tensions of intellect or spirit…. Completely oblivious to the consequences of his enforced colonization of the land, he does not see how his technology and science, learned from Europe, have encroached upon the integrity of Australia and violated its landscape by imported flora. He is too much a shopkeeper to worry about psychic integrity, and his horticulture is, in effect, an attempt to exorcize the spirit of Australian terrain…. But he does give Laura her garden, the only physical space in which she finds a combination of comfort and mystery because its darkness and foliage screen "the most intimate forms, the most secret thoughts."… (pp. 563-64)
Throughout the book, the montage of garden and desert is a technique of developing symbol into myth. In themselves, the garden and desert have solid meanings but when connected by the same characters and in overlapping manner, they form a mythopoeic matrix for the novel. Just as Laura and Voss grapple with their own weaknesses and also with themselves in a metaphysical sense, the garden and desert enter into symbolic conflict, raising the question of ultimate power and its significance in terms of Voss's ambition to achieve what has hitherto been impossible.
Implicit in the symbolic conflict is the doctrine that untouched nature, symbolized by the desert, while a source of primitive strength and integrity, is sternly antagonistic to human progress while civilized nature, represented by the garden, is a refinement of cosmos. New communities often acquire the image of a garden suggested by the poetic imagination as a comprehensive symbol of fecundity, growth, increase, and civilization. Just as in American literature of the Deep South, where the myth of the garden affirms that the dominant force in the future society of the Mississippi Valley is agriculture, so also in Voss, the garden comes to represent a civilized achievement of the colonials in New South Wales. In this way it becomes a modified version of the agrarian myth in pastoral literature, where the plantation and the idealized yeoman are replaced by the colonial mansion and the bourgeois merchant. Gardens in Voss are built by the Bonners and de Courcys, so they are for serious people who look upon land as an instrument or measure of success and respectability. (pp. 564-65)
[The desert] landscape (which promises no more than stones, thorns, and skeletons) becomes the landscape of Voss's obsession. He is the only one who imagines he can possess it; others try to take control but fail. Harry Robarts, for example, fills his empty face with those distances: but in their eluding his control he remains lost …; and Judd watches his hopes dry up in "the desert of earthly experience."… Voss, on the other hand, turns to "the infinite distances of that dun country" … to take them into his possession and satisfy his spiritual yearning. His daring and his dry, uncompromising will align him with some of the dominant qualities of the desert, and although his flesh is reduced to such an extent that he can no longer smile, he is spared the despair and crumbling of those in his party who surrender to the subjugating power of the desert…. (p. 565)
Voss's desert expedition serves the explorer's sense of conflict and his will to power…. We have the feeling that Voss will actually seek conflict as an exercise of his will, and the scenes with him and Laura are sometimes represented as a wrestling match. In Bonner's garden the struggle between the two lovers is depicted as intellectual grappling whereby their minds are "again wrestling together."… The desert … becomes a suitable arena for Voss's self-testing because it afflicts with heat, aridity, and cruel loneliness. But Voss accepts these punishments as a means to "further trial, and, if necessary, immolation."…
The desert fulfills Voss's interest in Australia's "great subtlety" … while the garden exists to comfort Laura in her "remote colony." (p. 566)
The ironic thing about the contrasting settings is their link in mystical sensation. White generates a mystic communion between the two lovers by a sophisticated conflation technique where a recurrent emblem joins desert and garden. The author prepares his design carefully, beginning with color and then continuing with botany to his chief metaphors. Laura is shown to have a great liking for Bonner's garden whose greenery provides atmosphere for her "glistening, green laughter."… Away from Potts Point, Voss experiences an air of peace when green becomes the dominant color with spears of grass massing distinctly in the foreground. The image is coupled by "a great, indeterminate green mist" rolling up out of the distance and a "good scent of rich, recent, greenish dung."… As a botanist, Voss is meticulous about cataloguing plants of unorthodox seed formation, and he himself is described in terms of roots and seeds as if his dark appearance were seminal to his being…. The emblematic association between Laura and Voss is deepened when Voss discovers wild lilies in the desert. Here, in keeping with his scientific nature, he contemplates the German word for their seeds and by a clever semantic method is able to unite himself seminally with Laura in thought, word, and symbol. The episode is a startling one in the novel because of its dramatic ingenuity and symbolic invention, but its point is sharpened only after we have apprehended the preceding drama of communication between the two lovers. In a letter to Voss, Laura suggests that the two of them should pray together for salvation, and when Voss has developed the idea zusamen (together) from samen (seeds), White writes:
Then Voss began to float, and those words last received. But together. Written words take some time to thaw, but the words of lilies were now flowing in full summer water, whether it was the water or the leaves of water, and dark hairs of roots plastered on the mouth as water blew across. Now they were swimming so close they were joined together at the waist, and were the same flesh of lilies, their mouths, together, were drowning in the same love-stream. I do not wish this yet, or nie nie nie, niemals. Nein. You will, she said, if you will cut and examine the word. Together is filled with little cells. And cuts open with a knife….
In this brilliant passage (much celebrated by various critics), ideas of conflict, characterization, and symbol blend in virtuoso fashion, suggesting White's ingenuity somewhat on the order of James Joyce. What results is a seedy link between Laura and Voss, a kind of consummation which is reinforced by other recurring symbols such as those of stone, light, and trembling earth.
The desert and the garden both exert an influence over the two lovers, with the desert breaking down Voss's illusions and the garden acting as a comforter for Laura. Voss refuses to deliver his expedition from disaster and remains in the blinding light of the desert which humbles him. (pp. 566-67)
White is explicit in indicating that this is Voss's purgatorial vision where the two lovers are linked again by lilies which are symbols of two things: first, Laura's progress for the journey to his coronation; and second, communion wafers which Laura receives without surprise…. But despite the elevating vision, Voss does not survive much longer, becoming a murder victim to Jackie who wishes to break the white man's "magic."…
At Potts Point, Laura's terrible brain fever breaks just when Voss dies by decapitation, having lost his head to Jackie's knife, and a pronounced change occurs in Laura's disposition as she begins to adjust to the environment "to which she was no longer expected to belong." She becomes detached enough to see life "more deeply and more truthfully" and often loves what she sees…. This is not to imply, however, that her knowledge is ever capable of completeness, for she is certain only of the mystery of truth, asserting that she does not even know the truth about herself unless she dreams it….
Laura sees the limitations on human will and power and is satisfied in her discovery that knowledge comes out of suffering, not out of geography. She is explicit on this point, maintaining that knowledge "overflows all maps that exist" and "only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind."… (p. 568)
The geography of desert and garden ends in the knowledge of soul, and the image of the moon fertilizing the Bonner garden seals the seminal idea of Laura's fecund wisdom produced out of the process of Voss's mortification in the desert. And I am tempted to conclude that perhaps the two dominant symbols submerge a Nietzschean metamorphosis in Voss. Nietzsche's Zarathustra designates three metamorphoses whereby the spirit becomes a camel ("the strong loadbearing spirit" hastening into its wilderness), a lion ("lordship in its own wilderness"), and, finally, a child ("a new beginning, a game,… a first movement, a holy Yea"). Now I do not wish to mislead the reader, for Voss is not a photocopy of Zarathustra, but there are unmistakable parallels between the spirits of the two characters. It is possible to see—in the broadest manner—an allegorical relationship between Voss's spirit and that of Zarathustra, for Voss (like a camel, perhaps?) hastens into the desert with the burden of ambition where (like a lion?) his spirit becomes lord of all the wild. His will, a "regal instrument" … to achieve his ambition, is exerted over the desert, and with the help of Laura who is described as being pregnant with a plan …, he conceives an idea, a yea to life, which—despite his violent death—survives as an intrinsic part of his myth. He dies incomplete, but he perishes having willed and striven to make himself better than all other men in the strong conviction that self-completeness is his manifest destiny. (p. 569)
Keith Garebian, "The Desert and the Garden: The Theme of Completeness in 'Voss'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1977, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Winter, 1976–77, pp. 557-69.
Of human bondage—the major theme in Patrick White's fine, new novel ["A Fringe of Leaves"]—is perhaps the oldest motif in Australian literature. From the earliest "transportation ballads" to the fiction of the 19th century, Lord Sydney's mournful penal colonies have had a lot of literary attention and have inspired at least two remarkable novels, Marcus Clarke's realistic "For the Term of His Natural Life" and William Hay's romantic "The Escape of the Notorious Sir William Heans." And, even though modern, urbanized Australia has about as much connection with the desolate penitentiary-land of its origins as we have with the Conquistadors, the image and the theme seem to persist.
As might be expected from such a subtle novelist as White, "A Fringe of Leaves" is something quite other than a simple penal-colony tale. Woven into the story are considerations of several different kinds of bondage, several different illusions of freedom. It begins with the genteel servitude of a wife in the English upper middle class of the 1830's….
[There is a] familiar cast in a predictable little drama perhaps, but White is continually turning it to his own, original purposes.
The inevitable seduction scene, for instance—it's not a simple case of Garnet's lust prevailing but a multi-layered psychological happening in Ellen's mind….
Embarking at Sydney and sailing north along the coast, the Roxburghs one day find their ship wrecked on a coral reef…. [Disaster] is followed by cataclysm and—to skip over a narrative sequence Defoe would admire—… Ellen is taken to the native camp as a slave.
The new form of bondage is totally physical, totally degrading; the English lady is bit by bit reduced to an aboriginal state of filth, danger, nakedness and hunger….
[At last she escapes; and] this part of the novel is splendidly successful; so compelling in fact that the reader is almost persuaded that everything—shipwreck, captivity, escape—has never been related before. But then, after this strong surge of narrative, both Ellen and the story dwindle off. (p. 3)
Though Ellen recovers her health and balance, the novel now declines, all its vital signs fading. It finally ends in a welter of small incidents and minor characters as she prepares to go back to Sydney by boat and to some unknown, further life. And this is very strange. For a novel that has involved such moral themes, has touched so powerfully on issues of personal subjugation and freedom and has produced a remarkably sentient heroine—for such a novel to end idealess and inconclusive is wrong. What do all the events finally signify in the life of a woman? As part of the early Australian experience? As a lived-through drama of Necessity and Free Will?
For authenticity's sake, Mr. White has successfully employed Victorian attitudes and adopted a Victorian style. I only wish that he had also accepted the Victorian convention of entelechy in the novel and had come to a resolution in terms of some drama, some vision or some symbol. (pp. 3, 27)
Robie Macauley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 30, 1977.
Patrick White has written eight very good novels, the best known of which are probably Voss and The Eye of the Storm, so it seems sure that his new novel, A Fringe of Leaves, will be widely read and liked by at least some of his devoted followers. That, I'm afraid, is about the best I can say of it, though I count myself among those who follow with devotion. One of the things that makes White's work attractive is his elegant style; another is his ability to tell a superb story, closely plotted, more or less in the manner of an adventure thriller, yet thoughtful, at best profound; still another is his gift for making what is for us Americans a foreign landscape and people familiar, interesting, and significant. On all these counts A Fringe of Leaves seems parody of the best Patrick White….
White makes, in my opinion, one fundamental mistake. He imitates the style and form of the Victorian novel, with all its circumlocution, its arch asides, its leisurely pace, and he fails to enliven Victorian conventions—as Dickens did—with charged rhetoric and the charge that comes with cartoon-like simplification or concrete language….
One can understand, I think, White's purpose in all this. He wants to use an imitation of Victorian style for a novel in which Victorian values, and, by implication, all overcivilized values, stand in shocking contrast to the facts of existence and survival in a hostile universe. The device fails for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that brute existence is treated in the same abstract, genteel way….
No matter how thrilling the adventure may be, in theory at least, such language dulls its effect. Mr. Roxburgh dies with a spear through his neck. We yawn. Mrs. Roxburgh, starving, eats human flesh. We yawn. The whole book, I'm afraid, is a grand miscalculation—with one small exception, a character named Mr. Jevons, introduced in the last few pages, who looks like a toad but has a splendid, gentle heart, a man whose only function is to save the day. If only he'd arrived two or three hundred pages sooner!
John Gardner, "Victorian At Sea," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 27, 1977, p. E9.
A Fringe of Leaves is a novel based both on the historical Mrs. Eliza Frazer who was shipwrecked on her husband's brig off the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef in May 1836 and on the accretion of legend around the disaster. After the Jacobean drama of The Eye of the Storm, A Fringe of Leaves appears to derive from a part of White's nature that is descended from Jane Austen rather than from John Webster. Its opening is low-key in tone; it is more severe in diction, more disposed to social—as it is more objective in moral—analysis. It is also a tighter, more enclosed novel—in spite of the vast geographical span covered; each phase of the action is defined by a formal, containing line: by a Cornish farm, an English manor, a ship, a boat, an island, the conventions of an aboriginal tribe. The composition is organized around the idea of a voyage—not a voyage out but a return voyage…. Another feature of the design is the delicate insistence with which a single phrase, a fringe of, is stitched again and again at critical points throughout…. I should add that the fringe is not a "symbol" with an abstract one-to-one correspondence, of the sort we have been accustomed to have excavated for us in recent years. It is a natural image, natural in a domestic context, cloudy, intricate, and mobile, carrying a whole set of intuitions and suggestions, hints of both comfort and desperation, of settled convention and the tattered ends of experience.
Dramatic in structure—how naturally the story falls into acts and scenes—poetic in telling—though with a drier poetry than the luscious norm in White's other fiction—and endlessly probing for some missed or missing metaphysical or religious truth: these marks of the other novels are very positively present in A Fringe of Leaves. There is, as well, a symmetry between the English material on the one side, Mrs. Roxburgh's hard life with a drunken father on the crude Cornish farm, and then the gentility which absorbs her when she gratefully marries their convalescing lodger, the invalidish Mr. Roxburgh (as he continues to be called by his wife); and on the other, the bourgeois patterns of Sydney and Hobart and the Australia of convicts, assigned servants, and aborigines. (pp. 509-10)
One cannot but be struck by the professional subtleties of the novelist shown in this work, a matter apt to be overlooked with a sensibility so positive and dominant as Patrick White's. The use of the diaries for the purpose of defining the linked and confused territories of sincerity and self-deception is one such. Another lies in the difference of tactic with which the characters are made present to the reader. The less important, for example Garnet Roxburgh, are seen in vivid particularity and are given a markedly physical description. The more important are dealt with from the inside.
The inner truth about Ellen Roxburgh which she begins herself painfully to appreciate—how finely White renders this difficult birth of recognition—is that she is torn between reality and actuality. That intelligent spinster Miss Scrimshaw notes at the beginning of the novel something enigmatic and inexplicable in her. She had always been deprived of some ultimate in experience, and the novel records the efforts of an ordinary, good, sensitive but not particularly talented woman to come closer to what she had missed and to be prepared to suffer in her pursuit of it…. The events of the novel, the crises of her experience, make up a full register of a convincing human life; and Ellen Roxburgh's constant search for some intensity of being gives point and dignity to, as it confirms the strength and reality of, her humanity. She accepts in the end the modest consolation offered by Miss Scrimshaw: "I expect we shall make our blunders, but would you not say that life is a series of blunders rather than any clear design, from which we may come out whole if we are lucky?" There is a species of modesty in this conclusion suited to the ordinariness of Ellen's nature. But it is also a nature, the novelist convinces us, like any human nature, capable of (or at least desirous of) a reality beyond the ordinary run of experience. (pp. 510-11)
I find A Fringe of Leaves one of the most satisfying achievements in White's oeuvre. The distancing in time, the immaculate historical sense, the lithely moving narrative, the firmly framed and validated universe, the acceptability of the central character, the rich and lucid design make for an effect of maturity and calm. In most of his novels Patrick White uses some deviation from the norm—it may be eccentricity, neuroticism, disfigurement, genius, violence of the will or feelings—to mark the figure who will project the essential experience of the work. Ellen Roxburgh is superbly ordinary, and her importance is to embody one of the constituent convictions of Patrick White's art. This novel develops and makes explicit, presenting and confirming, as not abstract doctrine but grounded belief, the idea that man must have, as D. H. Lawrence puts it, a religious connection with the universe. Like Lawrence, White is concerned to open to the modern consciousness the neglected springs of life, the sources of a full and kindled consciousness, in separation from which the soul is crippled and incomplete. His purpose is to demonstrate, or rather to render in the terms of art, the essential religious connection which man must have with life. Religious may be an odd term to use for one who has written so scorchingly about religion and religious people as White, but religious, stripped of sectarian sacking, seems to be the only word adequate to White's intention. (p. 511)
William Walsh, "Patrick White: The Religious Connection," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1977 by The University of the South), Summer, 1977, pp. 509-11.
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