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Poetically the Most Accurate Man Alive

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977
A Fringe of Leaves. By Patrick White. Viking. $10.00.

LOVE is your last chance. There is really nothing else on earth to keep you there.” This quotation from Louis Aragon is one of Patrick White’s epigraphs for A Fringe of Leaves, his tenth novel. Love in all its manifestations and guises—primitive, civilized, banal, sacramental, narcissistic, familial, mundane, romantic, carnal, platonic, natural, unnatural—is the encompassing theme of White’s fiction. His most ambitious treatment of this subject occurs in The Eye of the Storm, the novel published on the eve of his winning the Nobel prize in 1974. In that great fiction, one of the leading characters thinks to herself: “Love and disgust are one . . ., the same shooting pain in both mind and body. Love: she must learn love.”

Such is the burden of Ellen Gluyas Roxburgh, a peasant from a “Cornish heath . . .within reach of the land’s end.” By chance she becomes Mrs. Austin Roxburgh, the wife of a well-to-do gentleman of intellectual pretensions, who has been groomed for a life of indolence and ill-health. Mr. Roxburgh and his mother remake Ellen, creating her in the image of a lady of leisure who will be mistress of a country estate. But Ellen Roxburgh is too much herself to be wholly confined in her new identity, and her bedrock nature as an unpretentious hardy yeoman who has known backbreaking work and parental neglect is what enables her to be one of the two people who survive when the Bristol Maid founders. She endures many days in an open boat on the high seas, the murder of the crew (including her husband), life with a cannibal tribe, an only slightly more bearable existence with her rescuer (an escaped convict), and a long tortured period of convalescence on a frontier farm. Upon her return to “civilization” she realizes what thin boundaries separate (often unjustly and ironically) savages from criminals, criminals from common folk, and common folk from the gentry and those in power. This complicated web is revealed clearly in Mrs. Roxburgh’s carnal relations—with her husband (an ineffectual lover more concerned with the state of his heart than hers), his brother Garnet (a sensualist of criminal tendency who forces himself upon her when she is defenseless), and the convict Jack Chance (a man of deep feeling who gives her physical love and moments of joy). At the novel’s end we see Mrs. Roxburgh leaving Moreton Bay to return to England at last, and she seems to be gravitating toward a London merchant who is also on board ship.

Such is Ellen Roxburgh’s life story as it is recounted in a series of episodes which are framed by the beginning of two voyages to England—the first abortive, the second just beginning. White seems naturally inclined to writing fictional biography, and indeed all his mature novels can be described in this way—from The Tree of Man through A Fringe of Leaves. White is fascinated by the possibilities of man’s life as it unfolds in time. Consequently, as in The Eye of the Storm, the chief technical means of exploring and rendering action is through the time-shift. The author has slowly but steadily mastered the technique of disrupted chronology and sequence, and in his hands flashback and digression become powerful instruments of dramatic and narrative enactment.

The impact that White’s fiction makes upon the reader is not so much technical as it is verbal and thematic, however. White is old-fashioned in many of his narrative procedures and his means of adumbrating character, and he also puts great faith in his story, what James calls the irresistible determinant, “the prime and precious thing.” This story, like Voss, comes from Australian colonial history and mythology, but White characteristically takes considerable liberty with his sources. In A Fringe of Leaves, the protagonist remains passionately committed to her rescuer, Jack Chance, and insists upon his being found and pardoned. Her prototype was not so loyal. And there are other important departures. All the same, it is easy to see that White was chosen by this story of physical and spiritual privation to at least the same extent that he chose it. He is retelling the myths of the noble savage and of the fruitful garden, but the ensuing fable is by no means a simple tale of love and adventure, no more so than Voss, the novel to which it is closest.

Mrs. Roxburgh’s life takes on a picaresque suggestiveness as she abruptly moves from one level of society to another. A Fringe of Leaves can also be viewed as an ironic novel of manners in which the leading character unwittingly fulfills the role of intruder. She first moves from a Cornish farmhouse to a Cheltenham drawingroom; next she is a visitor among the gentry (of whom Garnet Roxburgh is one) in Van Dieman’s Land; then she is thrown among the crew of the Bristol Maid; next she is a slave among savages; and upon her return to white society she is first a guest at a frontier farm and then a member of the commandant’s household at a penal colony. In each instance but the first she is an outsider.

White depicts all these walks with characteristic freshness, vigor, and accuracy, investing them with vitality and credibility. One of the most affecting passages is devoted to Jack Chance’s life in London as a bird-seller and sewerman before his transportation for murder to Van Dieman’s Land. Here White seems to draw upon some of the characters in Henry Mayhew’s great work, London Labour and the London Poor, although the novel is set earlier in the 19th century. The figures who make up Chance’s history are all there, including a returned convict who endured a total of 875 lashes at the triangle. White re-creates the half-world of London in a way that recalls not only Mayhew but Dickens. But to say that Mayhew is a source for A Fringe of Leaves or that Blake is a source for Riders in the Chariot is to provide only the most rudimentary insight into this author’s genius.

In an oddly fumbling review (New York Times, Jan. 18, 1977), Christopher Lehmann-Haupt suggests a list of seminar topics which might apply to A Fringe of Leaves. He overlooks many of the most significant aspects of the novel—the attack on British imperialism, the comic comprehensiveness of the action, the pervasive imagery of transformation (life and death, birth and rebirth, exile and homecoming), the rich metaphorical patterns (of birds, flowers, plants; of clothing and the stage; of the lash), the brilliant dream sequences, the colloquial style (especially Mrs. Roxburgh’s peasant idiom and the colorful verbs—tittuping, racketed, scrummaging, fossicking); and he complains—as do many of White’s critics—about the presumed “comic mockery of the characters.” White does not ridicule his characters, no matter how important or trivial their roles: he does reveal their vices as well as their virtues. That is the impact of a passage that Mr, Lehmann-Haupt criticizes. It is devoted to Austin Roxburgh, the professional malingerer and amateur scholar: “His mind glided marvellously when not threatened by the shoals of human intercourse or the bedevilled depths of his own nature.” Hence Mr. Roxburgh can risk death to salvage his beloved Elzevir edition of Virgil; hence he thinks regularly of death as a conceit; hence he can write that “thought, not action . . .makes an eventful life.” His wife, in contrast, leaves her journal on the sinking Bristol Maid. But Roxburgh subsequently achieves a certain manliness and humanity and independence in his last days and dies a better man. His wife is not granted the reprieve of death and has to find her salvation under far greater privation of spirit and flesh.

When the reader first meets Mrs. Roxburgh her “most luxurious indulgence” is “a self-conducted tour through the backwaters of experience” and that experience has been quite limited. By the end of the novel she can tell the commandant: “To live is to experience crudeness,” adding that “the mind is not always sheltered . . .from its own thoughts and imaginings.” She says to the chaplain that her conscience “can be more terrifying than any unseen criminal,” and on the point of her departure for England “she might have turned and run back into the bush, choosing the known perils, and nakedness rather than an alternative of shame disguised.” Ellen Gluyas Roxburgh is not so great a character as Voss, Mary Hare, and Mordecai Himmelfarb (Riders in the Chariot), Hurtle Duffield (The Vivisector), or Elizabeth Hunter (The Eye of the Storm); but all the same she is a brilliant creation by any standard.

I expected Mrs. Roxburgh to be one of White’s illuminati (like Theodora Goodman in The Aunt’s Story, Laura Trevelyan in Voss, Mrs. Hare, and Mary de Santis in The Eye of the Storm). I was surprised not to find at least one genuine eccentric among the characters, and I found myself missing White’s usual heavy complement of overripe images, dense metaphors, and elaborate pathetic fallacies. He does still flatly announce his themes from time to time and otherwise intrude as author, and the dramatic foreshadowing is occasionally all too obvious. Even so, White has his novel firmly under control, and in some respects it is his most finished novel since The Solid Mandala, even if it is not so ambitious as Voss, Riders in the Chariot, and The Eye of the Storm.

Patrick White is a writer whose fiction inevitably demands much of the reader. (Many of his critics have responded handsomely to the challenge, especially William Walsh, whose new pamphlet on Voss in the Arnold Studies in English Literature series is the latest of his perspicuous and acute interpretations of White.) His vision is romantic in many respects, and he is enchanted with the transcendent, but at the same time one is confronted by his equal involvement in the common actuals of everyday life and the natural world. White has the primitive animistic imagination of Dickens— the capacity to bring the world of inanimate objects to life without violating their essential’character. This intensely individual vision marks him as a writer of the first rank who has the rare ability to create his own distinct and distinctive country. White’s domain is as much his as Hardy’s Wessex or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. Like Antaeus, he has derived his strength from the soil, the sullen earth of his native Australia. Since his characters are all rooted in the physical world, it is possible for us to believe in their strange habits of mind and their queer yearnings. They are often visionaries who succeed in their groping efforts to achieve epiphanies of the spirit while they are simultaneously incapable of coping with the mundane world. The mysterious richness of their lives jolts us into a new awareness of the possibilities of our own experience.

If The Eye of the Storm is White’s Lear, then A Fringe of Leaves is his Tempest. It is a darker version of Shakespeare’s last play, to be sure; but it nevertheless has a kindred spirit of reconciliation and redemption. If Mrs. Roxburgh does not say, “O brave new world/That has such people in “tl” she does forgive the treacherous second mate of the Bristol Maid, and she steadfastly pursues the matter of Jack Chance’s pardon. And unlike Miss Scrimshaw, a secondary character who is a superb ficelle, Mrs. Roxburgh remains “ineluctably earth-bound.” After her ordeal, she refuses to feel self-pity or to demand sympathy from others. Like Miranda, she returns to the common lot of weltering humanity.

In 1954 a critic wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that “Faulkner is all true—he is poetically the most accurate man alive, he has looked straight into the heart of the matter and got it down for good.” Many Americans on that occasion must have felt a shock of recognition. The Australian reading public has grudgingly come around to White in much the same way that Faulkner was finally acknowledged in the United States. The coming decades will make it increasingly clear why Patrick White is now poetically the most accurate man alive.


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