Patrick White
Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White

Compassion. Compassion towards the outsider, the foreigner, the misfit, the ugly, the plodder: this is the central theme of Patrick White’s 1961 novel Riders in the Chariot. Read it for his view of Australian culture emerging from the Second World War; read it too for an early and harrowing fictional account of the Holocaust, perhaps one of the first in literature - and could one not be harrowing? Consider it to be a reflection of its time which has a universality and a relevance for any age. Enjoy it too as a literary masterpiece, consisting of luminously beautiful prose and wickedly funny satire by a writer at the height of his power.

After The Tree of Man and Voss (both of which I’ve posted about, this site), Riders in the Chariot employs a narrative structure that has been criticised by some as being overly structured. This may be, yet can be surmounted by a suspension of disbelief because the result is what matters. White has woven into a narrative four illuminates, visionaries he called them, illuminati, whose lives intersect around the fictional Sydney suburb of Sarsaparilla. They are outsiders, foreigners, misfits and plodders in whom White invests authorial love.

The Chariot

Patrick White introduces the chariot (often with a capital ‘C’) very early in the book. One of his four central characters, Mary Hare, is asked by her father when only a young girl:

“Who are the riders in the Chariot, eh, Mary? Who is ever going to know?”

Who, indeed? Certainly she would not be expected to understand. Nor did she think she wanted to, just then. But they continued there, the sunset backed up against the sky, as they stood beneath the great swingeing trace-chains of its light. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 25)

The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon
The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon, 1905-16: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As is common with White’s fiction, there are incidents that don’t have an immediately explicit significance. We are frequently required to read his prose as if it were poetry. Meanings are open to interpretation, ambiguous, even multiple. The unmediated and lurching appearance of a celestial chariot is something we have to work on. It reappears throughout the narrative tangentially rather than head-on. We apprehend the meaning of these appearances because of the inner impact they have on the novel’s characters.

For Mary Hare, years after her father’s untimely death (a wonderful scene in which “his great voice began to call through a megaphone of stone” from the bottom of the cistern in which he had fallen - or perhaps was pushed, p. 40), she sees the chariot again. “The wheels began to plough the tranquil field of white sky. She could feel the breath of horses…” It is but one of many set-piece descriptions that discharge ripples throughout the book. In a letter to White’s friend the author and historian Geoffrey Dutton, White wrote:

There must be many chariots of which I don’t know. The reason I chose it as a symbol in the beginning was because it crops up so often even within my knowledge. Ezekiel’s is the most obvious one to anybody like myself of a sketchy classical education, but I have been haunted ever since I was a young man by the painting of an Apollonian chariot by Odilon Redon, which I saw in a Bond Street window. It finally became the chariot by the unnamed French painter Dubbo sees in the art book. (Patrick White, Letters edited by David Marr, p. 193)

White chose an excerpt from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to be the book’s single epigraph, in which Ezekiel is cited as stressing “the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite”. The chariot that Ezekiel saw is a much more elaborate affair than the one in Redon’s painting, not least because it was a vehicle for God’s chosen ones. In adopting this as an artistic device which links his four central characters, the illuminati or visionaries, White never describes the chariot’s form. It remains an inexact symbol, subject of repeated mystical visions. Its wheels turn, well-axled and solid gold, often in the gilded light of sunset. It is often sensed rather than glimpsed. The faces of its occupants are beyond visualisation and never resolve. Its four witnesses share their own knowledge of its existence only among themselves if at all. Its appearance has an epiphanic effect upon them.

The four Riders

The Ezekiel vision has God’s chosen ones ascending to heaven. White documents no such ascent in the living rooms and shacks of Sarsaparilla but Riders in the Chariot gets close into the detail of the four potential riders. Their four lives intersect on Australian soil and each is given a section of the book in which their separate story is told. One is a Sarsaparilla native, one a German Jew who fled Europe during the war, the third is an immigrant from England’s fenland, and the fourth is an Aboriginal half-caste. Two are women, two are men.

Mary Hare, eccentric occupant of a crumbling mansion

Mary Hare is the Sarsaparilla native who lives in Xanadu, a crumbling mansion built by her wine merchant grandfather. Replete with stone, marble, exotic trees, rose gardens and terraces, Xanadu is another of White’s fictional creations, a large house that becomes a character in its own right, not unlike the Glastonbury of The Tree of Man or the Bonners’ Potts Point in Voss. Xanadu happens to be crumbling, literally, and the book opens with Miss Hare not only as its sole occupant but as someone who shuns social interaction. It is her awkward face that peers out from the Penguin Modern Classics cover painting by Sidney Nolan, above, her collapsing wicker hat - giving her the “look of a sunflower or an old basket coming to pieces” - faithfully rendered. (The artist Sidney Nolan, friend to Patrick White, read White’s address to the Swedish Academy after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.) Miss Hare preferred the company of wildlife to people, and crawled through shrubbery on all fours rather than using any path. She is beyond eccentric and is widely ridiculed for it. Her exceptionalism lies in her anti-materialism and what is an almost animistic link with the flora and fauna in Xanadu’s grounds. Miss Hare, White wrote:

respected privacy. Seldom did she meet human beings, and those she did, she would not know how to address. She preferred to peer at them through leaves, when she herself was practically reduced to light and shadow. Then, at last, she was truly in her element. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 68)

Yet, in spite of Miss Hare’s preference for privacy, she forms relationships with each of the other riders. These develop gradually as the novel progresses although there is a curious prefigurement of these relationships early in chapter two when White has her ponder on their fellowship before he has introduced any of the others into the narrative:

Yet the father’s rather oblique remark, made when he was drunk, and uttered with the detachment and harshness of male egotism, encouraged the daughter to expect of life some ultimate revelation. Years after, when his stature was even further diminished in her memory, her mind would venture in foxy fashion, or more blunderingly worm-like, in search of a concealed truth. If fellowship with Himmerlfarb and Mrs Godbold, and perhaps her brief communion with a certain blackfellow, would confirm rather than expound a mystery, the reason could be that, in the last light, illumination is synonymous with blinding. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 26)

We are therefore warned early on that Miss Hare is tuned to rarefied wavelengths. She was, after all, told by her father that she was “ugly as a foetus. Ripped out too soon” (p. 61). And, in keeping with the mythology surrounding the animal from which White has named her, she is indeed timid and perhaps “touched”. Indeed in Jewish scriptures, hares are often sacrificial animals. The Hebrew word aher means “different” or “other”, an attribute most definitely applicable to this character. Yet all these defects aside, Miss Hare extends compassion towards Mordecai Himmelfarb, even to the point of offering him shelter in her crumbling home. (Is it accidental that these two characters share the same M.H. initials?) We come to learn that whilst the community of Sarsaparilla tends towards being judgemental, the four riders in no way follow that trend.

To become a rider in the fullest sense, White introduces into her home a housekeeper in the form of Mrs Jolley, a gossip with an uncommonly vituperative character, who becomes Miss Hare’s live-in, paid tormentor. Miss Hare has no unguarded moments and all of what she says in Mrs Jolley’s presence becomes ammunition with which her housekeeper can taunt her. Letting Mrs Jolley know that Mrs Godbold (another “rider”) who lives below the post office and takes in washing “is my friend”, Miss Hare is subjected to a burlesque piece of sarcasm from Mrs Jolley:

“I would not of thought that a lady like you, of Topnotch Hall, and all, would associate beneath them. Mind you, I do not criticize. It is not my business, is it? Only I cannot truly say I have ever been on any sort of terms with a lady living in a shed.” (Riders in the Chariot, p. 71)

This accumulation of detail exemplifies White’s ear for the demotic. The vernacular swapping of “of” for “have”, the glorious naming of people and places (Topnotch Hall is pure Edna Everage/Barry Humphries - another personal friend of White’s) which is an ever-present delight in White’s work, and the phrasing and timing (commas always playing a key role in White’s prose) help deliver sarcasm that says more of the speaker than it does of Miss Hare.

White’s four riders provide target practice for everyone they meet; it is their first condition of membership. They are social punch bags. Of Miss Hare, White at one point wrote that, “her ankles were elephantine in their plodding. She trailed a sad bladder, filled with the heaviest, coldest sand” (p. 327). The easily-spotted external attributes make her a neon-lit social target, but there is no authorial malice there. She has time for the other “riders” and deals with each more than fairly. When Mrs Jolley finds that Miss Hare had spent time with Himmelfarb in her own orchard and refers to him as “a dirty Jew”, Miss Hare’s reaction is immediate:

Miss Hare was red rage itself. She could not see for the sense of injustice which was rising green out of her. Towering in the perpendicular, it burst into a flower of sparks, like some obscene firework released from the dark of memory. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 331)

Himmelfarb, a scholar in Germany before the war, with a keen interest in Jewish mysticism, confides to Miss Hare that he believes that she is one of the zaddick, the thirty-six holy people living in the world at any one time. “They are the Chariot of God,” he avers ( p.173). With Alf Dubbo, the half-caste, momentarily and without words “their souls had stroked each other with reassuring feathers” (p. 68), as if they had communicated on some animistic level. To each other, surrounded by a degree of modern barbarity, it is as if each of the “riders” recognises something of themselves in each other and White handles this with the utmost compassion.

Mordecai Himmelfarb, “the Jew’, sometime professor of English

White regarded Riders in the Chariot to be variously his “Jewish novel” or “Holocaust novel”. He dedicated it to his Hungarian friend Klári Daniel who had bought her way off a train to Auschwitz, and to his New York editor Ben Huebsch, both Jews. For readers expecting an entirely “Australian novel” (in terms of geography if nothing else), then Riders in the Chariot will come as a surprise, taking off, as it does, for over 100 pages to plant and then water the reader’s better understanding of the book’s central character, Mordecai Himmelfarb. On its own, this section of the book is great literature. In the fictional north German town of Holunderthal, which White based on the Hanover he knew when he travelled to Germany in the 1930s, Himmelfarb is enfolded within his extended family. White handles this with great love and sensitivity, taking great care to show the young man’s growing appreciation of Jewish traditions and rituals. We learn that:

At the university the young man’s intellectual activities were narrowed down to the study of his preferred language – English. Its bland and rather bread-like texture became his manna. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 123)

From this love of English, we see Himmelfarb gain his doctorate in English. He served in the First World War in the German army, was wounded twice, won a medal but remained at the rank of private, unpromotable to the officer cadre because he was a Jew. At his father’s funeral, where he “was buried by a priest with a stammer, and an acolyte with a cold”:

Mordecai swayed from time to time. Because the weight was upon him. Because faith is never faith unless it is to be wrestled with. O perfect Rock, spare and have pity on the parents and the children … So Mordecai wrestled with the Rock, and prayed for his parent, that shifting sand, or worldly man, whose moustache had smelt deliciously and who had never been happier than when presenting a Collected Works in leather. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 145)

Tender though this diversion into Himmelfarb’s German roots undoubtedly is, it is an arc that is inexorably returning to the Australian narrative. First it has Himmelfarb acquiring an interest in Kabbalistic texts and “mystical ecstasy”. He finds himself drawing a chariot though “he is not sure which chariot he is drawing” (p. 151). He is unsure whether he has produced an image of the “Chariot of Redemption”, but knows that he cannot see the expressions on the faces of the riders. He had begun to take “the path of inwardness”, White wrote. Then, on a stay on the Baltic shore - for health reasons - he is faced with an incident in his hotel where a retired colonel explodes with intolerance at being seated in the same room as Jews. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, his new wife being more aware of it than he.

In more normal times, Himmelfarb would have been a brilliantly successful academic, a good teacher and publisher of worthy materials, yet he was striving for something beyond material success and traditional recognition:

For he was racked by his persistent longing to exceed the bounds of reason: to gather up the sparks, visible intermittently inside the thick shells of human faces; to break through to the sparks of light imprisoned in the forms of wood and stone. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 157)

Himmelfarb’s professional growth is interrupted by Kristallnacht and the course of Jews in Germany becomes fixed. His admirable war record and lofty academic position offer no innoculation against the viral prejudices swamping the country. Younger Jews, White beautifully wrote, “would have to accept exile as a hard fact. Some did, early enough. They left for the United States, and fell into a nylon dream, of which the transparent folds never quite concealed the evidence of circumcision” (p. 159). But for those who stayed, the fissile, febrile atmosphere of the pre-war months collapse into chaos when war breaks out. White’s style reaches its purest tone, as here when Himmelfarb dreams:

Then his own wife came and took his hand, and together they stood looking down into the pit of darkness, at the bottom of which was the very faintest phosphorescence of faces… . The voices of darkness ever swelling. So that the quick-lime of compassion, mounting from the great pit, consumed him where he stood. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 187)

This “quick-lime of compassion” image is a fine example of the craft in Riders in the Chariot, combining burning obliteration with tender kindness, dampening decomposition but never memory. It is an extraordinarily haunting image.

Himmelfarb’s track throughout Riders in the Chariot is a rising-falling curve. From his height as professor of English, his descent is rapid. True to his faith, he decides to hand himself in to the authorities. Scurrying through the streets under a hail of bombs, Himmelfarb hears the sound of wheels, in an image that White expands in the telling:

Then wheels were arriving. Of ambulance? Or fire-engine? The Jew walked on, by supernatural contrivance. For now the wheels were grazing the black shell of the town. The horses were neighing and screaming, as they dared the acid of the green sky. The horses extended their wobbling necks, and their nostrils glinted brass in the fiery light. While the amazed Jew walked unharmed beneath the chariot wheels. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 190)

This deus ex machina “supernatural contrivance” brings to an end any semblance of normality for Himmelfarb. In the next section, separated from his wife, he is sent to a concentration camp where he escapes the gas chamber by being selected for grave-digging duties. His miraculous escape is followed by a trek across Europe, down through Palestine (through territory White would have known during the War), then on to Australia where a fresh start is offered but with no possible re-ascent back up the social order. His first work, instead, is in a piggery, imagine, once more showing White as “the great torturer” that we first encountered in Voss. Judging that “the intellect has failed us”, Himmelfarb chooses not to assert himself in any way. He refuses to apply for any academic position and ends up working a bench drill in the Brighta Bicycle Lamps factory in nearby Barranugli. As a reffo, a refugee, he is reminded that if he has trouble with his English he can ask his factory boss, the assimilated Jew Harry Rosetree. He takes the punches and White has him do so with dignity.

The excessive absorption of punishment that eventually awaits Himmelfarb seems “more convenient to the book’s overall plan than causal in terms of his character”, as Peter Wolfe put it (p. 131). More specifically, that criticism is expressed as follows:

Almost everything appears on a preordained design, robbing the characters of their autonomy and causing the symbols to speak too loudly. (Laden Choirs, the fiction of Patrick White by Peter Wolfe, p. 139)

There is indeed an inexorable nature to Himmelfarb’s fate, particularly as the biblical parallels accumulate. He is rejected on the eve of Passover from fellow Jews, the Rosetrees. Shirl Rosetree seeing someone resembling Himmelfarb, whom she has not yet met, crunching up the gravel drive to their home, says to her husband, “I know. But just know. It could only be that one.” White adds:

Even his diversity did not alter the fact that there was only one Jew. It was her father, and her grandmother in a false moustache, and her cousins, and the cousins of cousins. It was the foetus she had dropped years ago, scrambling in the back of a cart, in darkness, to escape from a Polish village. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 431)

There are stories on both sides of the crushing rejection that ensues. It is one of the book’s most illuminating episodes (more on which, below). The Rosetrees, after their flight from Nazi Germany, had decided upon arriving in Australia to do their utmost to assimilate. They anglicised their names and became “Methoes”, Methodists, chameleonising themselves into their new refuge until they were no longer reffos, except to themselves. This is not the path White chose for Himmelfarb, who is taunted for his otherness and becomes the victim of a mock crucifixion at his workplace, suffering wounds from which he subsequently dies. The gearing of the narrative to the Easter calendar has a rigidity and inescapability about it which nonetheless has extraordinary power. Yet there are episodes in the narrative that White inserts between these major structures that cast an eye over contemporary Australia of the 1950s and 60s, none more powerful than that of Himmelfarb’s train journey back through Sydney’s suburbs. Though patrician in tone, observing suburbs that could be of any city, the sense of veracity is palpable.

Ruth Godbold, the “evangelical laundress’

Ruth Godbold lives in a shack that Miss Hare passes on her walk to the post office in Sarsaparilla. She takes in washing and “would scrub, wash, bake, mend and drag her husband from floor to bed when, of an evening, he had fallen down” (p. 73). She discreetly nursed “that old, dirty, mad Miss Hare” through pneumonia:

“Gold,” Miss Hare mumbled. “Champing at the bit. Did you ever see the horses? I haven’t yet. But at times the wheels crush me unbearably.”

Mrs Godbold remained a seated statue. The massive rumps of her horses waited, swishing their tails through eternity. The wheels of her chariot were solid gold, well-axled, as might have been expected. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 73)

Mrs Godbold’s first encounter of any chariot is when the word belongs to a hymn she sings whilst ironing. A separate and substantial digression in the novel follows the young Ruth Joyner - long before she takes the drunkard Tom Godbold to be her husband - as a young girl growing up in fenland England. White initiates her suffering by having her lose her young brother. “As the haymakers watched the slow scene”, “the wheel of minutes ground.” Ruth was left “holding in her hands the crushed melon that had been her brother’s head. In the dying field” (p. 267). This contrast between a cart and a chariot has a bitter resonance.

Ruth emigrates to Australia and to begin with finds work as housemaid to a Mrs Chalmers-Robinson - another target for White’s biting satire. It is there that she meets the chap who delivers ice, Tom, whom she marries in short order. Aware of his shortcomings, she says to him, “But I would bear all your sins, Tom, if it was necessary. Oh, I would bear them … and more” (p. 295):

So Ruth Joyner left, and was married that afternoon, and went to live in a shed, temporary like, at Sarsaparilla, and began to bear children, and take in washing. And praised God. For was not the simplest act explicit, unalterable, even glorious in the light of Him?

Mrs Godbold was sitting on the edge of the chair, in that same shed which had started temporary and ended up permanent … (Riders in the Chariot, p. 303)

White’s placement of Ruth Godbold as one of the book’s four “riders” confirms the novel’s main thrust - that “simpletons”, misfits, outsiders and those who are “other” possess a vulnerability that deserves our attention and our compassion. Later on, White has her extend more generosity to Harry Rosetree (in the form of tea and bread with quince jam) than he was able to extend to Himmelfarb (who was left without sustenance on a chair in the hall). In a telling side thread to the main narrative, towards the very end of the novel, Mrs Chalmers-Robinson, Mrs Godbold’s erstwhile employer, lets her guard slip, becoming the object of social ridicule in admitting that her old housemaid “was a kind of saint” because she was “so trusting”. Of the four riders, with her unconditional love, Ruth Godbold alone survives to the end of the novel. In two dazzling passages in the book’s closing pages, White makes his position clear:

Finally the woman sitting alone in front of the deserted shed would sense how she had shot her six arrows at the face of darkness, and halted it. And wherever her arrows struck, she saw other arrows breed. And out of those arrows, others still would split off, from the straight white shafts.

She had her own vision of the Chariot. Even now, at the thought of it, her very centre was touched by the wings of love and charity. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 549)

Even though it was her habit to tread straight, she would remain a plodding simpleton. From behind, her great beam, under the stretchy cardigan, might have appeared something of a joke, except to the few who happened to perceive that she also wore the crown. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 551)

Alf Dubbo, the “half-caste artist”

Alf Dubbo, the novel’s fourth “rider”, represents the marginalised Australian aborigine, though not archetypically. He was raised by Australians and speaks English as well as any other Australian. (In deliberate detail, White has him use conditional verbs perfectly). His presence in Riders in the Chariot is as the novel’s artist, a painter who sees events in terms of light, shade, colour and form in preference to words. He is a precursor to Hurtle Duffield in White’s The Vivisector. He shares a sense of “otherness” with his fellow “riders”. Race is his first distinction; drunkenness and syphilis follow. But his artistic vision sets him apart from society at large, in a statement by White that is not in any sense casual:

Never forget, Alf, that art is first and foremost a moral force’, she [Mrs Pask] remarked once to her pupil, while demonstrating the possibilities of white as a livener of unrelieved surfaces. “Truth,” she added “is so beautiful”. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 355)

The pun on the author’s name was not likely to have been coincidental, nor was the irony that Mrs Pask’s brother, the Reverend Calderon, comes to be Alf’s sexual molester, adding victimhood to the young boy’s psychological burden. But before that vile act and his subsequent flight from his adopted family, Alf sees in one of the Reverend’s books a painting of the Apollonian chariot, the one White saw in the Bond Street window. “The arm is not painted good,” he offered. “My horses would have fire flowing from their tails. And dropping sparks. Or stars. Everything would move in my picture.” Years later, in a Sydney library:

He realized how differently he saw this painting since his first acquaintance with it, and how he would now transcribe the Frenchman’s limited composition into his own terms of motion, and forms partly transcendental, partly evolved from his struggle with daily becoming, and experience of suffering. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 363)

Alf Dubbo’s life is depicted as a struggle, indeed, and one punctuated with suffering. The war that engulfed Himmelfarb also reaches Australia and Alf, whose work is eventually sought after by art galleries, is put to spray-painting aeroplanes for the war effort. White’s identification with Alf Dubbo seems clear, especially when we first encounter him. On the floor of a brothel, coughing up blood, Dubbo seems to have been given a syphilitic version of White’s chronic bronchopulmonary affliction. White even has Alf Dubbo see the blood he coughs up in painterly terms:

The inexorable crimson stained his wrong deeper still. Then he spat again, and saw that the colour, like all such thoughts, was mercifully fading, though the original cause and weakness must remain. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 409)

His talent as a painter is spotted by a gallery owner and Alf is offered cash to sell them, but this isn’t something he can countenance. His paintings (on packing case boards) are closely personal and he can’t face being separated from them. One of them was of “the Chariot-thing”. When his landlady sells them behind his back, even though she offers him the money, Alf’s world falls apart:

For Dubbo had gone along the passage into that room of which the cardboard walls had failed to protect. Perhaps, after all, only a skull was the box for secrets.

But that, too, he knew, and swayed, would not hold for ever; it must burst open from all that would collect inside it. All pouring out, from tadpoles and clumsy lizards, to sheets of lightning and pillars of fire. For there was no containing thoughts, unless you persuaded somebody – only a friend would be willing – to take an axe and smash up the fatal box for good and all. How it would have scared him, though, to step out from amongst the mess, and face those who would have come in, who would be standing round amongst the furniture, waiting to receive. Then the Reverend Jesus Calderon, for all he raised his pale hand, and exerted the authority of his sad eyes, would not save a piebald soul from the touch of fur and feather, or stem the slither of cold scales. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 414)

White’s depiction of a torrent of natural objects pouring from Alf Dubbo’s imagination is extraordinary. His artist’s skull is inadequate containment for the Aboriginal symbols that reside inside. The merging of the flimsy room in which Alf rents with the notion of a skull as a box of secrets, now exposed, taken, emptied, sold, results in cross-currents of violence. In the turmoil, the image of an axe smashing “the fatal box” comes to Alf, which we take to be some form of suicide - or murder requested of a friend. The Jesus epithet applied to his molester hints at hugely unresolved bitterness. That he thinks of himself as “piebald” - neither Aborigine nor white - is also telling. By the end of the page, we see that Alf had “brought the axe from the yard - it was still standing in the room - and split his old pictures up. Nothing else. All those bloody boards of pictures.” Then Alf once again did a runner.

Two further appearances from Alf Dubbo complete the orchestral structure of the novel, although White preferred to think of Riders in the Chariot as a cantata comprising solos and duets. The first, after his witnessing of Mordecai Himmelfarb’s mock crucifixion, was when Alf denied to a questioning bus conductor that he knew the man, an overt apostle Peter parallel. “It was his nature to betray,” he thought to himself, although this was more denial. The second was when he found himself looking through the window of Mrs Godbold’s shed where the dying Himmelfarb had been taken. Himmelfarb lay “in the bosom of her light … amongst the heaps of sleeping children”. He recognised Mrs Godbold as the lady who had wiped blood from his mouth in an earlier scene and he knew Miss Hare from previous encounters. Both were there comforting Himmelfarb. It is the sole episode in the novel when the four “riders” come together. The two ladies are posed as Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and at that moment Alf Dubbo conceives one final painting:

So, in his mind, he loaded with panegyric blue the tree from which the women, and the young man His disciple, were lowering their Lord…Dubbo, taking part at the window, did not think he could survive this Deposition, which finally he had conceived. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 490)

The density of Riders in the Chariot is a challenge to any reader. It also makes it a hugely fulfilling experience. My interest - as it is in all Patrick White’s novels - is not in the religious or even Christian content. It is in the way an artist at the height of his powers deploys his talent and craft. The interweaving narratives spun in this novel provide a breadth and depth that is intoxicating. The book sits alongside The Tree of Man and Voss but widens the author’s vision into a post Second World War society. It is also not without humour, which must be considered to give the novel due coverage.

The evil harpies: Mrs Jolley and Mrs Flack

As has been noted, Mrs Jolley is instrumental in humiliating Miss Hare. As her housekeeper, she upstages her at every opportunity. As Mrs Jolley forms a closer relationship with Mrs Flack and then moves out of Xanadu to go to live with her in Sarsaparilla, both of them combine to become monstrous agents of discord and evil within the community and eventually for poor Himmelfarb in particular. In these two ladies, White has created a memorable pair, sufficiently detailed to be so much more than stereotypical gossips and hypocrites. His depiction of them, particularly of Mrs Jolley, is also profoundly funny. The couple are well-named: Mrs Jolley stands for the opposite of jollity and Mrs Flack fires nothing less than flak.

Within hours of Mrs Jolley’s arrival as housekeeper at Xanadu, White arranges her role in the novel with economy:

The housekeeper saved up what she believed she had heard, to let it ripen on the shelves of her mind before she took it down for use. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 46)

We learn that she is judgemental at every turn, her pedigree established by her marriage, though we subsequently are given to believe that she may have played some part in her husband’s fall from their roof. On her late husband, Mrs Jolley is keen to establish her social rank relative to Miss Hare:

Oh, yes, he knew everything. He had taken night courses and collected stamps. He was paying off a cyclopædia, for years, in the oak cabinet, beside the settee. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 59)

The commas, long grumbled about by White’s publishers and critics, surely guide the speech pattern being mocked. You must listen to the words being spoken. White’s playwright experience shows. Full stops provide slightly longer pauses, as in this snippet where Mrs Jolley is telling Miss Hare about her eldest daughter. Note the indicator of rank, Merle’s husband being “an executive official in the Customs Service”:

So it is not uncommon for Merle to hobnob with the high-ups of the Service, and entertain them to a buffy at her home. Croaky de poison. Chipperlarters. All that. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 77)

The affectation of adopted French lands wonderfully with buffy, a long way away from buffet, being twinned with Croaky de poison which lurches off from the ignoble croquet into something much more dangerous than fish. The family’s rank clearly places them above having barbecues. Chipolatas morphing into Chipperlarters is Barry Humphries’ Edna Everage once again. (Indeed, Barry Humphries did address this element in Patrick White’s work in an interview when he said, “I thought of a very good description of Patrick White: the Lady Bracknell of Australian letters”!)

Mrs Flack’s impact on Mrs Jolley accelerates influence from mere conversation. Her nephew - he turns out to be her illegitimate son, too embarrassing a fact to admit openly - also works at Brighta Bicycle Lamps alongside Mordecai Himmelfarb and Alf Dubbo, and is the ring-leader of the gang that persecutes then crucifies Himmelfarb. The ladies gossip, simmer, spread false rumours and hatch plans. White’s description of Mrs Jolley’s superficial rectitude as she leaves her friend’s house is masterful:

The two ladies seldom continued their conversation at parting unless to consider briefly the prospects for rain or fine, and soon Mrs Jolley would be going down the street, still holding her head in a chastened way, like a communicant returning from the altar, conscious that all the ladies, in all the windows of all the homes, were aware of her shriven state. For there was no doubt that friendship did purify. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 97)

Returning to work for Miss Hare, in an exchange where Miss Hare clarifies that she had been talking about the Chariot, followed by an accusation that Mrs Jolley was “evil”, Mrs Jolley retorts with the sublime, “Who is not wicked and evil, waiting for chariots at sunset, as if they was taxis?” But Mrs Flack deserves the trophy for evil in these exchanges and White seems to capture this perfectly at the start of chapter thirteen. Accustomed to the telephone being an instrument under her command for the purpose of issuing outgoing rumour, the nuance of how to handle it when it rings is exquisite. It’s a moment of pure theatre: one side of a conversation orphaned from the full exchange amplifies the speaker’s intentions:

Because the telephone is the darkest, the most sepulchral oracle of all, Mrs Flack would stalk around the instrument for quite a while before she was persuaded to accept its summons. Although a considerable pythoness herself, it might have been that she felt the need for invocation before encounter with superior powers. Or was it, simply, that she feared to hear the voice of doom addressing her personally?

Either way, she would at last be heard:

“Oh? Ah? Yairs. No. No! Yairs! Perhaps. Who can tell? I will have to think it over and give you an answer. Well, now! Those who know, need not ask.” (Riders in the Chariot, p. 444)

This “monologue” has great power.

Patrick White’s prose

White, the linguist and a prose purist, allows his more malevolent characters freer rein with demotic forms of English. Mrs Flack and her son Blue exchange onomatopoeically, as in “Ahlbeseeinyer!”, “Whereyergoin?”, “Muckinaround.” Drunken Mrs Plask slurs, “Alfwhereareyou? AlfwhereareyouAlf? Alf?” Mrs Jolley reports that Miss Hare, “had run back up the stairs, to fetch an umberella, she said.”

White also continues his use of zeugma, as noted in posts about his earlier novels. Riders in the Chariot contains in excess of thirty examples, deployed to comic effect when satirising or deprecating individual characters, particularly ones “taking on airs”. The play of bathos where there is a transition from the sublime to the trivial is one of his stylistic hallmarks. Lady guests stroll “in their veils and the afternoon”. Economic and social problems “come to those who enjoy nerves and invested income”. “Passages tunnelled off, into distance and a squeaking of mice”. Mrs Jolley in the cinema drops lolly “paper, along with memories and intentions, under the seat”. In one part of Xanadu, Miss Hare “found airlessness and a quantity of old chicken bones.” Having told his life history to Miss Hare, Himmelfarb declares that he must leave:

So they parted in the tender light. The smaller their figures grew, the more they appeared pressed. Bobbing and thrashing, they swam against the tide of evening, their movements cruelly hampered by anxiety and grass. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 217)

This final example is far from White’s normally mocking use of zeugma. It closes the harrowing section of the book that predates Himmelfarb’s arrival in Australia and introduces his companionship with Miss Hare. This curious image of anxiety and grass acting as twin obstacles to them both perfectly describes how their lives consist of struggle, that the compassion they show each other is not encountered more widely in the community.

Other visual images stand out, some no doubt originating in the lived experience of White’s war service as an intelligence officer in the Middle East. Two examples:

Two silver fish were flaming downward, out of their cobalt sea, into the land. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 190)

At night the sky would be criss-crossed as they had once seen it, and the joyless confetti that the flak made would still be falling for the bride of darkness. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 194)

This kind of luminous, visual imagery is a hallmark of White’s extraordinary prose. Rarely does a single metaphor suffice, when a linked pair, as in the above “confetti” and “bride of darkness”, gives more than double the combined weight of the components. White’s metaphors often play out with the subject being compared appearing after the subject through which White wants us to see it. This seems to introduce more power by momentarily withholding the delivery, producing an effect, when it arrives, that has more resonance. Here a relatively complex metaphor draws attention to the colour of foliage on a summer’s evening:

It was the hour of green, when the acid light that summer has distilled from foliage eats the copper plate of evening. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 470)

We need to re-read this to establish how the light of “evening” (the last word) that has an acid quality is marshalled into position by first being distilled by summer from foliage before the etching takes place. It’s an image about evening light playing through summer foliage, rapidly deployed but needing to be savoured.

In a less complicated fashion, the line where Ruth Joyner, looking at her husband-to-be, Tom Godbold, “would have gone on looking at the man’s face, if he had not been in it” delays its payload until the penultimate word (p. 286). The same is true of this pair of fine descriptive pieces where the final word of each is their own delayed payload:

It was the kindest hour of evening, strewing the floors with a light of trodden dandelions. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 429)

The houses too had dissolved, although the windows had set into shapes of light, thus proving that something does survive. Filled with such certainty, or an evening feed of steak, the bellies of stockbrokers had risen like gasometers. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 439)

Both of these short passages invite us to re-read them, such is the power - and surprise - of their closing nouns.

Sometimes White simply scatters this quality of descriptive prose, dotting episodes with decoration here and there. At other times, especially in sequences of high drama, he applies a more sustained form of surprise metaphor. In the episode where the Rosetrees fail to offer Himmelfarb either comfort or sustenance, we first see Mrs Rosetree’s anxiety about how big a departure from social convention needs to be before it becomes visible in a neighbourhood:

Mrs Rosetree would have liked very much to know whether the house in Persimmon Street conveyed an impression of abnormality from the outside. Needless to say, it did not. Since normality alone was recognized in Paradise East, tragedy, vice, retribution would remain incredible until the Angel of the Lord stepped down and split the homes open with his sword, or the Bomb crumbled their ant-hill texture, violating the period suites. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 495)

And she is perhaps reassured that their social “gaffe” was just that. The hint of some possible judgement day does, however, compromise that comfort, as the image rapidly boils beyond anything she can control. Her husband’s subsequent failure to be seen to be the community elder who did the right thing by paying for Himmelfarb’s funeral is shown in a masterful passage as he returns home, mission far from having been accomplished:

Harry Rosetree drove home so smoothly nobody would have guessed. So much chromium. Such a vision of pink paint. He had turned the radio on as a matter of course, and the car was flying streamers, of pretty music, in addition to those it stripped from the wind. It was only inside, amongst the beige upholstery, and faced with the controls, that the music broke up into little tinkly bits of foil, and nervous glass splinters, and ugly, torn sheets of zinc. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 502)

The journey that starts smoothly eventually breaks into angry, ripping pieces, the “pretty music” shredding everything in the car, Mr Rosetree metaphorically included. He returns home, commits suicide and is found by his wife:

Mrs Rosetree was running through the house, forgetful of the furniture she knew. One particularly brutal chair struck her in a private place. She kicked free once, hobbled by the soft shadows, or a fox cape.

And reached the garden, a place of malice, which she had always hated, she realized, for its twigs messing her hair, spiders tossed down her front, and the voices of the goyim laughing for no reason, at a distance, through the redundant trees. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 505)

This terror of public exposure shatters the veneer of suburbia which the pair had settled to. It is a horrible, dazzling, ignominious descent from respectability.

For a final example of a sustained metaphor, enjoy this passage from towards the very end of the novel. It follows a “luncheon” held by Ruth Godbold’s erstwhile employer Mrs Chalmers-Robinson. The years have passed and the company find themselves somewhere between elegance and decrepitude. White has conducted the essential business of various characters raking over the coals, looking back at the rise and fall of various fortunes, confirming their superficiality compared to the four “riders”, three of whom have by now passed away. The ladies have all buried their husbands. The air is valetudinarian. There is a lull in the conversation:

All the women in the room could have been visited by the same thought: that the men went first, that the intolerable, but necessary virtuosi died of their virtuosity, whereas the instruments they had played upon, and left, continued from habit to twang and murmur. Momentarily the instruments were still. Although they must begin again, since silence is the death of music. (Riders in the Chariot, p. 541)

1/1 Portrait of Patrick White © William Yang, 1980
Patrick White 1980 by William Yang. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. © The artist.


(Page numbers in Riders in the Chariot refer to the Eyre & Spottiswoode edition, 1961.)

In words

  • David Marr, Patrick White: A Life; Vintage, 1991.
  • David Marr (editor), Patrick White: Letters; Jonathan Cape, 1994.
  • Peter Beatson, The Eye in the Mandala: Patrick White, a Vision of Man and God; Barnes & Noble Books, 1976.
  • Peter Wolfe, Laden Choirs: The Fiction of Patrick White; The University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
  • Brian Kiernan, Patrick White; Macmillan Press, 1980.
  • Patrick White, Patrick White Speaks; Jonathan Cape, 1989.
  • Patrick White: from the Nobel Prize website:, first published 29 August 2001.
  • A conversation with Patrick White, Southerly, the journal of The English Association, Sydney, 33 (2), June 1973.
  • Karin Hansson, doctoral thesis The warped universe. A study of imagery and structure in seven novels by Patrick White; Lund Studies in English 69, CWK Gleerup, 1984.
  • Karrin Hansson, Patrick White – Existential Explorer: The Nobel Prize, 29 August 2001.

On film

  • The late, great Patrick White (p1). A discussion with David Marr and Kerry Walker; YouTube, 2nd May 2013.
  • The Life and Faith of Patrick White. Greg Clarke interviews Patrick White’s biographer David Marr; YouTube, 27th May 2012.
  • Interview of Nobel laureate Patrick White; YouTube, recorded in 1973 and published on 22nd January 2010.
  • Patrick White interviewed by Michael Billington; BBC World Service, 9th August 1982.
  • Patrick White Omnibus tribute; BBC, 2nd October 1990.
  • The Strand Archive talks to Patrick White’s biographer David Marr about the author’s unpublished novel The Hanging Garden; BBC, 19th April 2012.
  • Novelist Andrea Goldsmith, in conversation with James Ley, explores the poetically vivid fictional universe of Patrick White: Australian Literature 102: Patrick White: Riders in the Chariot, YouTube, 27 Jan 2015.

[Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White is available in the UK from]

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