Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714
The Twyborn Affair is the tenth novel by Patrick White, the Australian writer who was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature. It is an elegant, refined exploration of a very complex theme, the sexual identity of a man who prefers to live as a woman. The history of Eddie Twyborn is primarily the story of his struggle to guard the secret of his dual existence. His evasive maneuvers are motivated not by a feeling of shame, but by his conviction that discovery would make it impossible for him to relate to those he finds attractive.
In each of the novel’s three sections, the protagonist plays a different role. On the French Riviera, he is Eudoxia, the lover of an elderly Greek gentleman, Angelos Vatatzes. In Australia, he is himself, Eddie Twyborn struggling to be a man among men on a sheep ranch. In London, he is Eadith Trist, the aging madam of a house of prostitution.
Although it is clear that the novel is Eddie’s story, the existence of two other characters dominates this narrative of tormented deception. Eadie Twyborn, Eddie’s mother, is seldom seen but always oppressive in her absence. Joan Golson, Eadie Twyborn’s lesbian lover, is the link between Eddie and many of the other characters and the stimulus for almost everything that Eddie does in his attempts to escape detection. Riding through the countryside on the Riviera, Joan sees Eudoxia and Angelos walking arm in arm. Later, she observes them playing the piano through the window of their cottage. After she elicits an invitation to tea, Eudoxia’s fear of discovery motivates him to flee to another village, where Angelos dies of a heart attack. Years later, after Eddie has spent the war in the trenches and then gone to Australia to visit his parents, Joan Golson comes for a visit. Eddie flees to the south of Australia to work on a sheep ranch run by a friend of his father. Joan Golson again comes to visit, but Eddie disappears. On the eve of World War II, Eadith, the madam of prostitutes, encounters Joan on a street in London. He learns of the whereabouts of his mother in the same city, which discovery leads to the climactic scene of their reunion on a park bench outside a church. Eadie Twyborn, who always wanted a daughter, asks this “woman” dressed in her elegant, worn finery, whether he might be her son, and is relieved to hear that he is her daughter, Eadith. The last moment of the novel portrays Eddie, in the clothes of a man and the makeup of the madam, dying beside a soldier on a street in London, his hand blown off by a bomb. As the city turns to flames, Eadie sits in her hotel room transfixed amid a fantasy of waiting for her daughter in an Australian garden, while the bulbul bird sings and turns its face to the sun.
This story of a man’s search for sexual identity is curious in many ways. Not until that final scene is it clear that it has been a struggle to gain his mother’s acceptance and love, to be the daughter that he should have been. Throughout the novel, the vacillating sexuality of almost all the people around Eddie creates a web of intricate relationships. Joan Golson, married to a man but in love with Eadie Twyborn, lusts after Eudoxia, the beautiful woman who is really a man, and writes Eadie letters about the “delicious creature” that they both should pursue. Angelos Vatatzes, Eudoxia’s “husband,” fears that Curly Golson has come to take her away from him. Eadie’s friend Marcia Lushington becomes Eddie’s mistress while her husband exhibits a fatherly interest in Eddie that verges on incest. Don Prowse, the tough, masculine ranch manager, engages Eddie in a series of subtle seduction scenes, finally rapes him, then cries for forgiveness and willingly submits to rape as Eddie takes his revenge. Roderick Gravenor, in love with Eadith Trist, confesses to her that he is “different” as he almost succeeds in seducing her. His nephew, Philip Thring, refuses the advances of the prostitutes, but finally loses his virginity with Eadith, the madam queen in full drag.
The final scene of the novel is a perfect culmination to this history of indeterminate sexuality. Eadith trades her finery for Eddie’s clothes and turns the brothel over to Ada Potter. Going through the streets of London in search of his mother, he sees in a mirror that he is still wearing the makeup of Eadith the madam. In this grotesque state of ambivalent sexuality, he dies alongside the soldier who shouts, “something happening at last, eh?” just before the bomb hits.
Although the theme of the novel and the plot developments are potentially lurid and sensationalistic, Patrick White maintains an attitude of tasteful elegance. He accomplishes this remarkable feat through a skillful control of the narrative voice and through his invention of a fictional reality dominated by an atmosphere of upper-class gentility. This is a world of dainty tea cakes, perfumed face powder, aromatic cigars, leather armchairs, and the graceful choreography of well-rehearsed social interaction. Behind the delicate sensibility of this polite British society lurks an obsession with sensuality, seldom expressed except in evasive, circuitous terms.
The omniscient narrator of The Twyborn Affair has access to the thoughts of all these characters. In fact, the portrayal of this reality is developed primarily through the perceptions of the characters themselves. What the characters perceive reveals much about their values, and furthers the exploration of the novel’s intricate relationships. Joan Golson the Australian is intimidated by Lady Tewkes with her “rings growing out of the bone itself,” by the mercilessly polite, arrogant English with their unflinching eyelids and noncommittal smiles when faced with what is “regrettably colonial.” After her meeting with Eudoxia and the “last delicious spasm” of a glance into her eyes, Joan Golson churns away on her bed in the Grand Hotel Splendide at S. Mayeul “amongst the scum and knotted tresses of dreams.”
Through this technique of portraying reality in terms of each character’s perception, the narrator is able to create a story of perverted passions, told in the proper, fastidious language suitable to the social refinement of the participants in these events. Their dreams, however, reveal the sordid depths, the scum and knotted tresses of their emotions.
The consummate skill of Patrick White as a novelist is evident in the parallel that he creates between the story that his narrator tells and the techniques of telling it. Through the first third of the novel, there is no clear indication of whose story this is. The perspective shifts from Joan and Curly Golson to Eudoxia and Angelos Vatatzes, and back again, with frequent references to Eadie Twyborn. Until the beginning of Part Two, there is no suggestion that Eudoxia is really a man. Thus, one of the most powerful scenes of the first part, in retrospect, becomes ironic and overwhelming in its significance. On the Riviera, Monsieur Pelletier watches a figure in the distance, poised nude on a rock, preparing to swim. He becomes aroused by the equivocal nature of the scene, as he is unable to determine from a distance whether it is a man or a woman. As he masturbates, consumed by the mystery of the swimmer, the scene becomes a metaphor of his entire life experience. It is also a metaphor of the experience of the swimmer, Eudoxia Vatatzes. This episode sets the indeterminate sexuality of the protagonist long before the reader suspects the truth about Eudoxia, or even before there is any indication that this novel is not the story of Eadie Twyborn, as it seems it will be.
The technique of this scene is the key to White’s success in creating a polished portrayal of distorted, disturbed sexuality. The narrator always presents this reality in terms of the characters’ observations of it, and those observations are always perceptions based on the characters’ own experience. Monsieur Pelletier’s interpretation of the swimming scene reflects his experience, condensed in one moment, which in turn explains the predicament of Eudoxia-Eddie-Eadith. By the end of the novel, the narrator has revealed an intricate reality made up of the complex sexual responses to Eddie Twyborn of many characters, some of whom do not even know one another. The narrator observes that Monsieur Pelletier and Mrs. Golson had not met at any point, and that “it was only in the figure now clambering down over rocks, that the two might have agreed to converge.”
The Twyborn Affair is a remarkable exploration of a maze of complicated relationships, at the center of which are Eadie and Eddie Twyborn: Eadie, a mother in love with her son as if he were her daughter, and Eddie, the object of his mother’s lesbian lover’s desire and the lover of his mother’s best friend. While this plot material has the potential of being quite tasteless, it is transformed into a fascinating analysis of authentic human experience. The key to White’s artistry in this novel is the emphasis on each character’s rather obsessive observance of his surrounding. Whether it be Eddie concentrating on Don Prowse’s nipples wreathed by a “generous golden fell,” or Eadith rubbing gravy from her bronze tunic as if “all the stains of her life were concentrated in this greasy emblem,” the minute details of fleeting reality are dissected and implanted in the accumulated experience of the characters.
Through this concentration on the characters’ perception and studied evaluation of details, the novelist effectively exploits the characteristic of fiction that has contributed most to its universal appeal, its voyeuristic quality. The ideal reader of fiction—that imagined audience addressed by the fictional narrator—is forced into the position of voyeur and made to observe the reality of the novel with an intensity seldom achieved in the real-life experience of the actual reader. The authenticity of the fictional reality depends to a great extent on the novelist’s ability to evoke that intense observation of experience. Patrick White has created an extraordinary example of novelistic art in The Twyborn Affair through a concentrated analysis of the complexities of human sexuality.