Although based on an actual expedition which attempted to cross the Australian continent in 1845, Voss is by no means a conventional historical novel. The exploration is as much of the psychological and spiritual nature of the characters as it is of the actual terrain, though Patrick White renders the latter most vividly in his concentrated and poetic style. As the novel opens, Johann Ulrich Voss, a German immigrant, calls on Edmund Bonner, the major financial backer of the expedition, and meets Bonner’s niece Laura Trevelyen. The development of their ensuing relationship parallels the fate of the expedition.
In Sydney, Voss recruits four members of the expedition, one of whom, the boy Harry Robarts, attaches himself to Voss, making himself useful and idolizing Voss as benefactor and hero. Palfreyman is a rather sickly young man, an ornithologist commissioned by a titled Englishman to make a collection of flora and fauna. For Frank Le Mesurier who has held a number of jobs but none for very long, the expedition may provide fulfillment and self-knowledge, though he is prophetically uneasy about the undertaking. Turner, a drunkard, forces himself upon Voss, assuring him that he will do his part.
Meanwhile, Edmund Bonner and his wife are preoccupied with their own affairs, to which Voss and the expedition are peripheral. Their daughter Belle is a beautiful but rather empty-headed young woman; her cousin Laura is the quiet, bookish one. The Bonners’ secure, middle-class household is disrupted by the discovery that Rose Portion, their servant, who was transported for the manslaughter of one illegitimate child, is now pregnant again. Rose, an awkward, ungainly young woman with a harelip, thought that she had done what was best for the child. Like Harry Robarts, she is somewhat simple.
Although they have spoken only a few times, at the farewell dinner the Bonners give for the expedition Voss talks for some time with Laura in the garden and requests permission to write to her. Laura agrees. The expedition sails the next day for Newcastle, where they will pick up supplies and the other members of the expedition, staying with the Bonners’ friends the Sandersons. Voss is uneasy about including the former convict Judd but realizes that he has to accept him after Judd cares for Palfreyman, who falls ill at the Sandersons’ house. The Sandersons’ neighbor, Ralph Angus—wealthy, arrogant, and handsome—also joins them. At that time, Voss writes to Bonner and also to Laura, asking her permission to write her uncle requesting her hand in marriage.
From Newcastle, they set out overland. The last stop is Jildra, where Voss receives letters, including one from Laura, who accepts his proposal on condition that they “pray together for salvation.” Voss writes her for the last time from this final outpost of civilization, a scruffy outback town where their last host is Brendan Boyle, his home a filthy shack. In Jildra, Voss takes on the final members of the party, the aborigines Dugald and Jackie. At first, the journey is relatively uncomplicated, but as they penetrate further and further into the interior, the weather, the terrain, and increasingly hostile aborigines menace the expedition. Dugald finally begs to return, and Voss entrusts to him his final letters. Dugald encounters a tribe of his people and destroys the letters.
Laura, in the meantime, composes a number of letters to Voss, whom she begins to think of as her husband, and she becomes greatly attached to and concerned for Rose Portion. Identifying with Rose, she stays up with her during the birth of the child, Mercy, caring for her and adopting her when Rose dies. The child becomes a symbol of her spiritual union with Voss. As the expedition becomes imperiled, Laura becomes withdrawn and ill, almost dying of a fever but recovering at the moment of Voss’s death. Voss, meanwhile, composes letters...
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