Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

White, Patrick Victor (1912–1990)

by Elizabeth Webby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Patrick White, by Brendan Hennessy, 1984

Patrick White, by Brendan Hennessy, 1984

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an7568636

Patrick Victor Martindale White (1912-1990), author, was born on 28 May 1912 in London, elder child of New South Wales-born Victor (Dick) Martindale White, grazier, and his wife Ruth, née Withycombe, born in England but of a New South Wales family. His paternal grandfather was Francis White. The family owned three properties in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales—Martindale, Belltrees and Edinglassie. In 1916 Dick purchased Lulworth, a large house at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney. Paddy, as he was known, was soon suffering from asthma, a condition that was to plague him for the rest of his life. In 1920 he was enrolled at Cranbrook School in Sydney; two years later he was sent to board at Tudor House, near Moss Vale, where the climate was supposedly better for his asthma. From an early age his mother had taken him to the theatre, one of her passions. Also enthused, Paddy wrote his first play, Love’s Awakening, and in 1924 published a poem in the school magazine.

In 1925 the Whites travelled to England and placed their son at Cheltenham College. White felt abandoned by his parents, and was also grappling with the realisation that he was homosexual, so did not enjoy his four years at Cheltenham, especially as his asthma failed to improve. He coped by reading widely, writing poems—some of which were privately published by his mother as Thirteen Poems (1929/30)—and visiting the theatre whenever possible. On returning to Sydney, he felt as alien in Australia as he had in England, and was packed off to work on a station in the Snowy Mountains owned by a friend of his father. The landscape and his experiences there inspired White’s 'The Immigrants', later reworked as his first published novel, Happy Valley (1939). In 1931 he was sent to be a jackeroo for his uncle Clem Withycombe at Walgett, where he finished writing a second novel, 'Sullen Moon'.

White had no desire for a life on the land. In 1932 he enrolled at King’s College, University of Cambridge (BA, 1935), to study modern languages. He continued to write poetry and at 21 had his first affair, with another student. In 1934 two of his poems were published in the London Mercury. The next year his The Ploughman and Other Poems was published and his play Bread and Butter Women was produced, both in Sydney. After graduating, he persuaded his parents to give him an allowance so that he could stay in London and write. He took a flat in Ebury Street, the setting of his novel, The Living and the Dead (1941), whose central character, a writer named Elyot Standish, is a portrait of the sort of person White hoped not to become. Also in Ebury Street was the Australian modernist painter Roy de Maistre, who briefly became White’s lover, but more importantly was his 'intellectual and aesthetic mentor', encouraging him to rework 'The Immigrants' into Happy Valley. In the late 1930s White also had some theatrical success when his skit, Peter Plover’s Party, was performed in a West End revue.

In 1939 White travelled to the United States of America to try to find a publisher for Happy Valley and to begin The Living and the Dead. After returning to a London now at war he learned that Ben Huebsch of Viking, the American publisher of the early novels of both James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, had accepted his novel. White later rejected Happy Valley as prentice work, refusing to allow a reprinting, but it was warmly received by English critics, though some commented, justly, on the obvious echoes of Joyce and Lawrence. In Australia, while critics were not so kind, Happy Valley received the first of White’s literary prizes, the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal for the best novel of the year. Huebsch became a great supporter of White’s fiction and was, according to David Marr, 'the rock on which Patrick White’s career was built', accepting The Living and the Dead after several English publishers rejected it.

On 15 November 1940 White was commissioned in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and assigned to the Administrative and Special Duties Branch. He served as an operational intelligence officer with RAF formations and at RAF and Allied headquarters in North Africa, the Middle East and Greece, rising to temporary flight lieutenant (1943) and acting squadron leader (1944). Retaining the rank of flight lieutenant, he relinquished his commission on 7 May 1946. In Alexandria, Egypt, he had met Manoly Lascaris, the 'small Greek of immense moral strength' who became his life partner. While in North Africa he also began planning a novel about Australia, featuring a megalomaniac explorer and a grand passion, later published as Voss (1957).

Back in London, White wrote a novel based on the wanderings of a spinster, The Aunt’s Story (1948). While White wanted to live in Greece after the war, Lascaris’s preference was for Australia. During a brief visit to his homeland in 1946-47, White decided to return permanently. It helped that his mother, with whom his relationship had always been difficult, was now a widow and intent on going in the opposite direction, to London. Soon after arriving she saw her son’s play, Return to Abyssinia, which was a moderate success. Reports of the production in London spurred him to attempt what he hoped would be a stronger play, based on (Sir) William Dobell’s painting 'The Dead Landlord'. It was many years, however, before The Ham Funeral (1961) was produced, to become the first of White’s major theatrical successes.

While White was sailing back to Australia in 1947-48, The Aunt’s Story appeared in New York to a good reception, including a very favourable notice from James Stern in the New York Times Book Review. After Lascaris arrived in Australia a few months later, White purchased a small farm at Castle Hill on the north-western outskirts of Sydney. English reviews and sales for The Aunt’s Story were disappointing and those in Australia even worse. Wondering if he would ever write again, White devoted himself to life on the farm. Both he and Lascaris worked hard, tackling unaccustomed chores both inside and outside the house, but most of their crops failed or did not sell, and White’s asthma flared again in the humid Sydney summer. These years at Castle Hill, however, inspired much of White’s best work, including his novel The Tree of Man (1955), begun in 1950. This radical revision of one of the classic Australian stories, the pioneering saga, opens with Stan Parker clearing his block of land and ends as suburban homes begin to close in on his farm, as they were soon to do at Castle Hill. Near the end of 1951, White slipped in the mud during a summer downpour and experienced a moment of epiphany, in which he became aware of the presence of God in everything, an experience he was to give to Stan Parker. His changed view of the world led to changes in the way White wrote. As he noted later: 'Writing, which had meant the practice of art by a polished mind in civilised surroundings, became a struggle to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words'.

The struggle to write The Tree of Man affected both White’s health and his relationship with Lascaris. He was therefore overjoyed to receive a telegram from Huebsch praising the novel as 'rare and affecting'. White’s London agent was less impressed, and had difficulty finding an English publisher; Huebsch eventually persuaded Eyre & Spottiswoode to take it. His faith in White was vindicated when James Stern’s enthusiastic review in the New York Times Book Review appeared. Other American critics followed suit, as did those in England, but in the Sydney Morning Herald the poet and professor of English A. D. Hope described White’s writing as 'pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge'. White never forgot or forgave this, and remained wary of academics for the rest of his life. Despite Hope’s carping, The Tree of Man sold eight thousand copies in Australia in the first three months, giving White his first local success as well as another gold medal from the Australian Literature Society. In the meantime White had finished Voss, which was praised in London, and became a bestseller there, but received more muted reviews in New York. In Australia critics remained lukewarm about his recasting of another classic Australian theme, exploration, as a story of failure rather than achievement. In 'The Prodigal Son' (Australian Letters, April 1958), White’s reply to Alister Kershaw’s hymn to life as an expatriate, he spoke of Voss as written to prove 'that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism'. Some readers were convinced and Voss became the first winner of the Miles Franklin literary award.

In 1958, with funds boosted by royalties and prize money, White and Lascaris travelled to Europe and the USA to visit their ageing mothers. White’s reunion in London with his nearly blind mother was an unexpectedly happy one, which seems to have inspired the final moving reconciliation between mother and son/daughter in The Twyborn Affair (1979). After returning to Sydney, White commenced Riders in the Chariot (1961), set in 'Sarsaparilla' (otherwise Castle Hill). Its four 'riders' are all, as White believed himself to be, outcasts from mainstream Australia: Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jewish refugee; Mary Hare, an eccentric spinster; Ruth Godbold, a working-class mother; and Alf Dubbo, an Aboriginal artist. The 'average Australian man', hero of so much earlier twentieth-century fiction, is shown to be intolerant of difference, as matey larrikinism almost tips over into murder during the fake crucifixion of Himmelfarb. Riders in the Chariot received admiring reviews in London and became a bestseller. Australian critics also praised the novel and it won a Miles Franklin award, too. Later White refused to allow his novels to be entered for literary prizes.

White’s interest in the theatre was rekindled with the controversial rejection of The Ham Funeral by the governing board of the 1962 Adelaide Festival. This inspired him to write The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962), a satire of the suburban mindset that refuses to face the realities of life, especially those associated with sexuality and the body. The Ham Funeral had a successful amateur production in Adelaide and was later produced professionally by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Sydney. The Season at Sarsaparilla won acclaim when staged professionally in Adelaide and Melbourne and became the most revived of White’s plays.

During the early 1960s White wrote a number of short stories, mostly set in Australia but some in Greece; these were published in literary magazines and then collected in The Burnt Ones (1964). Particularly significant was 'Down at the Dump', another Sarsaparilla story, which contrasts the different lifestyles of working-class and middle-class Australians but hopes for a future where reconciliation will be possible. Another story, 'A Cheery Soul', about a woman who destroys lives while trying to do good, became White’s third play. His fourth, Night on Bald Mountain (1964), was rejected by the governors of the Adelaide Festival.

In 1963 White and Lascaris travelled overseas again; White’s visit to his mother in London was to inform his portrait of the dying but indomitable Elizabeth Hunter in The Eye of the Storm (1973). He also attempted to sell his plays but they were too confronting for London theatre managers. Soon after returning to Sydney, White learned of his mother’s death; he then inherited a half-share in his father’s estate that enabled a move from Castle Hill to 20 Martin Road, Centennial Park. This house—in the eastern suburbs of his boyhood—was White’s home for the rest of his life. The move coincided with the writing of White’s last Sarsaparilla novel, The Solid Mandala (1966), the story of twin brothers, one a sterile intellectual, the other an instinctive lover of life. He then embarked on a novel set in the part of Sydney where he now lived, 'The Binoculars and Helen Nell', covering the many lives of a woman, but abandoned it after about 160,000 words. Soon, however, he was at work on another, The Vivisector (1970), also set in Sydney during the first half of the twentieth century, but with a male artist as its central figure. White had the wall space and the money to begin buying new paintings and drew on his interactions with members of Sydney’s art circles. In 1967 White and Lascaris paid another visit to Greece, aspects of which were also incorporated into the novel.

Increasingly over the years White had been expressing views on political, literary and other matters in letters to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. From the late 1960s he was involved in protests of various kinds, initially against conscription for the Vietnam War. This was quite a departure for someone from a wealthy pastoral family that traditionally supported conservative, Anglo-Australian values. In 1970-71 White appeared in court in both Melbourne and Sydney to defend Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) against charges of pornography. In 1972 there was another battle, against a proposal to build a sports centre at Moore Park that would have involved the demolition of White’s house along with many others. He appeared on television for the first time, and threatened to leave Australia if the plan went ahead. In June he led a march to Sydney Town Hall, where Jack Mundey of the New South Wales Builders’ Labourers’ Federation announced that a green ban had been placed on the project.

White refused a knighthood, along with various literary awards, but in 1973 accepted a Nobel prize for literature, the first Australian to win one. The citation praised his 'epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature'. He pleaded poor health when declining to go to Stockholm to receive the award, accepted for him by his friend the painter (Sir) Sidney Nolan. He used the prize money, supplemented by some of his own, to establish the Patrick White literary award, intended for writers whose work had not received appropriate recognition. The first winner was Christina Stead, whose writing White greatly admired. The National Australia Day Council subsequently named White the Australian of the Year (1973). Accepting the award with some ambivalence, he explained that 'Australia Day is for me a day of self-searching rather than trumpet blowing'.

A historical novel loosely based on the story of Eliza Fraser, which White had begun in 1961, was published in 1976 as A Fringe of Leaves. The Whitlam government’s approval of sand mining on Fraser Island in 1974 saw him once more at the barricades with Mundey. Nevertheless, White rallied to the Labor cause when Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government in November 1975. White was appointed AC in 1975, but resigned from the order the following year in protest against the addition of knighthoods to the Order of Australia and Kerr’s continuing in office. His disappointment at the election of the Fraser government was lightened by the director Jim Sharman’s proposal for a revival of Season at Sarsaparilla. Its success inspired White to write another play, Big Toys (1977), a satire on Sydney high society, featuring a character based on Mundey. While it was only a moderate success, Sharman’s 1979 revival of A Cheery Soul (1963) for the new Sydney Theatre Company broke all box-office records at the Opera House.

The central character in White’s next novel, The Twyborn Affair (1979), switches between male and female roles in a way White himself was only able to do in his imagination. This book, which many now regard as White’s best novel, was published to great acclaim, which encouraged him to write a memoir, Flaws in the Glass (1981). As its title indicates, White was candid about what he saw as his greatest faults: his bad temper, jealousy and unforgiving nature. But the memoir also gave him the chance to thank Lascaris publicly for his unfailing support, explain his political position and settle a few old scores. White’s attacks on Nolan (from whom he was now bitterly estranged), Dame Joan Sutherland and others ensured that the book was a bestseller. His relationship with Lascaris is also at the heart of Signal Driver, a moving play about a marriage that endures despite the worst efforts of both parties, written on commission for Sharman’s Adelaide Festival (1982), to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the festival’s rejection of The Ham Funeral, and directed by Neil Armfield. Its success inspired White to write two further plays, Netherwood (1983), offering a critique of mainstream intolerance of difference that remains relevant, and Shepherd on the Rocks (1987).

In his final years, despite glaucoma and osteoporosis brought on by many years of cortisone treatment, White continued to speak and write against nuclear war, which he saw as the greatest threat to life on earth. He also completed a last novel, Memoirs of Many in One (1986), in which he appears in postmodern mode as the editor of the memoirs of Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray, a former actor suffering from premature senility. A collection of prose poems, Three Uneasy Pieces, was issued in 1987. White, who had supported Aboriginal causes for many years, refused to have any of his plays performed, or works published, in 1988, when Australia celebrated the bicentenary of British settlement. A collection of his speeches appeared in 1989 as Patrick White Speaks. Although he was very frail White attended Armfield’s triumphant revival of The Ham Funeral in November 1989.

Survived by Lascaris, White died on 30 September 1990 in their home at Centennial Park and was cremated; as he wished, his ashes were scattered in the park. A collection of his letters, edited by his biographer David Marr, was published in 1994. In 2006 the National Library of Australia acquired a large quantity of manuscripts, earlier believed to have been destroyed; the first section of an unfinished novel 'The Hanging Garden' was among them. The Art Gallery of New South Wales owns a 1940 portrait by de Maistre and Parliament House, Sydney, a 1980 portrait by Brett Whiteley.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Marr, Patrick White (1991)
  • B. Hubber and V. Smith, Patrick White: A Bibliography (2004)
  • Australian of the Year Awards website (http://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/recipients/?m=patrick-white-1973), accessed 17 Feb 2011.

Citation details

Elizabeth Webby, 'White, Patrick Victor (1912–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-patrick-victor-14925/text26114, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 July 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014