Hurtle Duffield begins life as one of a large number of children whose family lives in abject poverty. Mumma Duffield does laundry for some of the wealthier people around, and on one occasion, she takes young Hurtle with her to the Courtney mansion. The Courtneys, childless except for their hunchback daughter, are charmed by the precocious little Duffield boy. They offer to purchase him from his beleaguered parents who, faced with the prospect of yet another baby on the way, agree. Hurtle therefore goes to live with Alfreda and Harry Courtney and their spiteful daughter, Rhoda.
Alfreda and Harry introduce handsome, clever Hurtle to a world of crystal chandeliers, silk ball gowns, bonbons, and private tutors. He eases for his adoptive parents the disappointment caused by the birth of their deformed, unsatisfactory daughter. Hurtle is seduced by the Courtneys’ superficial, materialistic life-style but never feels exactly at home in it. He develops a fondness for Harry but remains wary of possessive, incestuous Alfreda and of his resentful adoptive sister. Hurtle enjoys a good education and long trips to Europe with the Courtneys; on one such journey to England, Alfreda is horrified to come across the display of a little dog which has been vivisected—that is, dissected while still alive. The vivisection of animals becomes one of Alfreda’s causes and, ironically, something of which she later accuses Hurtle: “‘You, Hurtle—you were born with a knife in your hand. No,’ she corrected herself, ‘in your eye.’” Hurtle’s artistic talent has begun to surface, and he obsessively turns out drawings and paintings which disturb those who see them.
With the advent of World War I comes Hurtle’s chance to escape. He enlists at the age of sixteen and remains in Paris for a year after the war ends. Finally, he returns to Australia, though he never contacts his former family. Because of his experiences in postwar Europe, Hurtle begins to experiment and to innovate in his work. He also absorbs some of the existential angst of the times: For example, he comes to believe that total love must be resisted because it is too consuming an emotion. As a result, Hurtle goes through a series of long affairs with women he cannot love. Instead, he uses his lovers as material for his paintings: each successive female form signals a new stage in Hurtle’s career.
Perversely, masochistically, Hurtle pursues people and ways of life which both delight and repulse him. First, he takes up with Nance Lightfoot, a low-class but good-hearted prostitute who fascinates him. She is ample of build, and it is her body which Hurtle seizes upon and paints over and over again, in the form of rocks and cheeses. Meanwhile, Hurtle builds himself a dingy shack in the middle of nowhere and revels in squalid, anti-bourgeois living. As the relationship between the two advances, Nance dares to believe that Hurtle might love her, even while Hurtle does everything in his power to suppress his very real affection for her. Once his aesthetic interest in her body declines, though, he discards her. Nance’s accidental/suicidal fall to the rocks below Hurtle’s shack haunts him so that he eventually leaves.
Hurtle abandons his isolation for a house in Sydney. Once back in the city, he encounters individuals such as Cecil Cutbush the grocer, married but with homosexual inclinations, and Olivia Davenport—formerly Boo Hollingrake, who grew up with Rhoda and Hurtle—now incredibly rich and a patron of the arts. All provide fodder for his work. Hurtle takes Olivia as a sometime lover, but she remains ambivalent and pushes her own friend and love Hero Pavloussi...
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at him. With Hero, Hurtle embarks on another destructive relationship; he desires her physically, but her tragic, Greek air disturbs and depresses him. Dejected, she returns to her wealthy, dictatorial husband and dies a painful death.
With Hurtle’s rediscovery of his grotesque, impoverished sister Rhoda on the streets of Sydney, his life begins to come full circle. Hurtle begs Rhoda to move in with him, and with her reluctant compliance to his wishes they embark on a love/hate reprise of their former relationship. By this time, Hurtle is a wealthy, recognized artist, yet he continues to live in filth and disorder and to experiment with new forms in his work. His final inspiration arrives in the person of Kathy Volkov, a brilliant, nubile girl who seduces him completely. Eventually, she discards him in pursuit of her own promising career as a concert pianist. The novel concludes with Hurtle’s death and his simultaneous discovery of the true color of life.