Patrick White
The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White

As the near-blind matriarch Elizabeth Hunter, the central character of Patrick White’s 1973 The Eye of the Storm, lies dying for five hundred and fifty pages of this long and complex novel, we are also reading about the writer’s own mother, Ruth. After all, both women - one dominating in life, the other in the fictional world of this novel - died whilst sat on their own commodes.

This correspondence between White’s family - himself included - and his fictional characters is enticing but not secure. Elizabeth Hunter may have a stare that “unshutter(s) glimpses of a terrifying mineral blue” (p. 10), which momentarily suggests “splintered sapphires” (p. 11) from what White wonderfully calls “unregenerate gull’s eyes” (p. 414), but his mother’s eyes were never that colour. White’s own eyes were: he had inherited those from his father, Dick. These and countless other details in The Eye of the Storm throw out grappling hooks into the author’s biography, making the novel a deeply personal one. As White’s biographer, David Marr wrote:

There was never a novel he knew so much about before he put it on paper. (Patrick White, a Life by David Marr, p. 494)

What matters to the reader of The Eye of the Storm is whether these personal links back to its author remain sufficiently concealed for the fiction to be convincing on its own. Can readers who may be largely ignorant of the details of White’s own biography find reading this novel to be a rewarding experience? Let’s see.

Elizabeth Hunter’s life of “patternless entanglement”

In her mid-eighties and largely bed-ridden, Elizabeth Hunter awaits the return of her two children to Sydney. Her solicitor Arnold Wyburd, interviewing a potential nurse, describes the patient as “a difficult case”. “Not exactly capricious - I’d rather say ‘changeable’,” he explained. Her children had, perhaps tellingly, sought fortune abroad and kept their distance from their wealthy and manipulative mother; now short of funds, their return from Europe marks a co-ordinated attempt to mine the seams of the family estate. Elizabeth Hunter occupies the substantial Centennial Park family home, attended by a coterie of nurses, a housekeeper, a doctor and a solicitor, a stilled queen bee amidst a hive of activity. To control pain she is administered morphine which provokes flashbacks, and she “cannot see except by flashes of lightning” (p. 273), although at this stage of the novel the significance of this isn’t clear. Readers have to wait for over four hundred pages before the eponymous storm arrives. Until then, much of her internal world is one of reminiscence on a life that was outwardly conventional, certainly privileged, but marked by the loss of her husband well before the novel’s start. Long ago, told that Alfred was dying of cancer, “the charming filigree of her life had been hammered without warning into an ugly, patternless entanglement” (p. 193-4).

White never chose his words carelessly, so “patternless” and “entanglement” perform significant functions here. The latter alludes to Elizabeth Hunter’s past promiscuity and the string of casual lovers attracted to her by her beauty. The former has deeper resonances, ones that tie this central character to so many of the others that occupied White’s attention and threaded strands of meaning throughout his own life, especially with regard to their incessant search for some form of spiritual significance. Stan Parker in The Tree of Man, Johann Ulrich Voss in Voss, both Mary Hare and Mordecai Himmerlfarb in Riders in the Chariot and Arthur Brown in The Solid Mandala (all separate posts on this site) all encounter epiphanic experiences at the end of their lives as each respective novel closes. In this regard, The Eye of the Storm is no exception: readers will witness an epiphany of sorts in which the surface of the quotidian parts just enough to suggest prospects of transcendence.

What is different about The Eye of the Storm (and indeed The Vivisector too - separate post on this site) is that the experience arrives before the end of the novel, allowing us to see what lasting impact such an insight might have. For Elizabeth Hunter, the central calm of the storm on Brumby Island which Elizabeth Hunter climbed up into from her underground refuge some fifteen years before the novel begins, throws its hallucinatory imagery back at her in the form of “balconies of cloud” and “pyramidal waves of deepest cobalt” (which, with indigo, is used by White to signify the sublime). But by then it is no longer clear that the calm they grant her is quasi-spiritual or merely morphine-induced. Unlike Hurtle Duffield of The Vivisector, whose epiphany arrived by stroke, and who subsequently reaches creative accommodation with his increasing decrepitude, Elizabeth Hunter remains as unsettled by the circumstances of her life as she ever was and resorts more to make-up and artifice than ever she might have before transcendence was offered. The black swans that attended her in the storm’s central calm all those years ago re-appear to her with their crimson beaks as she sits enthroned on her commode, on the point of death. They are “her dark birds” attending her attempt to no longer fill “the void with mock substance” (p. 551).

Sir Basil and his sister the princesse

Mock substance attends the return of Elizabeth Hunter’s adult children. They have flown half-way across the planet to be with her, more to encourage her solicitor to winkle the old lady out of her opulent house in favour of a home, than to see her. They are both flawed characters, children of an ill-equipped parent, damaged by her parenthood and with unresolved issues of their own. Arguably, both have repellent qualities; arguably all three have; and this is perhaps the very point that White is making. We all have flaws and The Eye of the Storm is an exploration of a flawed family.

Sir Basil Hunter is Elizabeth Hunter’s favourite. Knighted for his services to the theatre, Basil’s career has hit a bad patch; fleetingly, his mother reasserts her seniority by telling him that news of a poor review of his King Lear had reached her. He needs funds to support his party-loving lifestyle. Dorothy, divorced from The Prince de Lascabanes and living in Paris with only her poverty and title, has a similar need. The one speaks English like a Brit, the other had the misfortune “to feel at her most French in Australia, her most Australian in France”, as White gloriously put it (p. 44). Dorothy, who admits that “one skates more smoothly with platitudes” (p. 52), has “come back to coax a respectable sum of money out of an aged woman who also happens to be my mother” (p. 214). When they meet the family’s solicitor, she defers to Basil. For someone who averred that “the sound of men’s voices are as logical as typewriters” (p. 55), she sees her role in this as being merely supportive. Ever the thespian, Basil declaims their joint purpose:

What we have to decide is whether a person who has reached our mother’s age derives happiness and comfort from her half-life, in proportion to the elaborate and – and shockingly expensive machinery to maintain it (The Eye of the Storm, p. 262)

It seems to me that White makes no attempt to conceal his dislike of his own creation, Sir Basil. In a telling and deft scene after Basil and his sister have both been presented with generous cheques their mother had made out, they descend on Sydney’s Botanic Gardens to ruminate on their momentary good luck. Basil plomps himself down:

Basil Hunter leant forward on the park bench, trying to interpret the blades of grass. There had been a time when he saw clearly, right down to the root of the matter, before his perception had retired behind a legerdemain of technique and the dishonesties of living. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 273)

It is a brio verbal turn, shifting economically from the minutiae of the park’s lawn to the “root” of the matter which conjures up the artifice of this particular actor’s life. It is made even more powerful by White’s parting the two so that they stroll through the park alone, unaware of each other’s presence until they settle back-to-back, invisible to each other, separated by a dense hedge. Rarely closer, never so far apart, dysfunction squared.

One is intermittently tempted to wonder whether White wants us to see himself in his depiction of Sir Basil. He was playwright as well as novelist and if Elizabeth Hunter is one literary ghost of White’s own mother, then why not consider Sir Basil as a surrogate White? There may be something in that. White was, after all, brutally honest about, even fearsomely critical of, his own character. Further to this, what are we meant to make of the incest scene between the two siblings when they drive out to stay at their childhood home, Kudjeri? What autobiographical ‘entanglement’ might White have been addressing with that? These potential correspondences are slab-like and clumsy; we are better off thinking that White was seeding attributes of family members into his fictional creations, rather than creating surrogates. As the journalist Sandip Roy observed, “Novelists are like magpies. We steal, and the nearest brightest objects are our families.”

Dorothy, though overshadowed by her more extrovert brother, serves her own important purpose in the novel, exemplifying recognisable personal shortcomings. Stylistically on point, White expresses her recognition of this:

If only the lid could be lifted from her head to let out the bursting rockets of thoughts alternating with evil smog, she might see more clearly; but clear vision, she suspected, is something you shed with childhood and do not regain unless death is a miracle of light; which she doubted. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 298)

This is a marker that White no doubt wanted us to keep in mind for when the time comes for Elizabeth Hunter herself to die, it is not a “miracle of light” that attends her but “a glare of lightning or poached eggs” (p. 550). Expectations defied is thus a recurrent theme. We see it again with Dorothy when, arriving with Basil at their childhood home, she belatedly remembers that she should have brought something to hand her hosts, but can only manage a rumage in their own front garden to present them with a grabbed bunch of their own roses:

Dorothy ducked back, looking for some something—anything—a rose, a rose! She trampled the edge of the unkempt bed, and came across one or two autumn buds, cold, tight, pointed, which would dry on their stems without opening. She had torn her wrist, but that was the least of their situation. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 473)

We are not supposed to miss the tear on Dorothy’s wrist, “the least of their situation”. Yet it’s one more flaw that White has included in a litany of imperfections and deficiencies in the novel. It tags onto an already impressive list of slips, falls, spills and dribbles. The first appears in a flashback when (the widowed) Elizabeth Hunter is driven home by Athol Shrieve, a tryst ensuing, and she warns him about the path to the house where “two people have broken legs” (p. 98). It is as if peril awaits visitors to the Hunter home. Mrs Hunter warns all her staff and they tread with care there when they report for duty and sign off. En route to Kudjeri with his sister, Basil stops to buy pies - wholly out of character - and Dorothy watched as “a trickle of pale gravy meandered down towards the cleft in his chin” (p. 468). Basil himself loses his footing as he descends the staircase at the Hunter childhood home, Kudjeri (p. 477). Anne Macrory slops cabbage water on her dress (p. 477). Basil falls out of a tree at Kudjeri (p. 490) then cuts his bare foot whilst declaiming Shakespeare in the bush (p.493). Returning to France, Dorothy’s fractured dreaming contains the image of communion whine “spilling the stain will never come out rubbing spreading the unspeakable oh OH” (p. 589). All these and more hint at a failure of containment, imminent instability, a viral affliction that accompanies the members of the Hunter family which can be transmitted to anyone they meet.

Greasepaint and theatricality in The Eye of the Storm

The Eye of the Storm teems with characters. Even supporting actors, such as the nurses and the housekeeper, have their own supporting actors of families and friends. It’s easy to lose the thread of connection that links people back to Moreton Drive where Elizabeth Hunter endures her supine existence. Yet in that regard, the novel is not materially different from many of White’s other novels; the difference is one of degree. Nevertheless, the stage is crowded and has many set changes.

It is in White’s deployment of costume, greasepaint and wigs that the novel extends beyond its internal psychological narrative. The three members of the Hunter family (whose name, coincidentally, is borrowed from the Hunter Valley where the White family put down roots at the turn of the twentieth century) are clearly role-players, all of whom occupy personas that they play with, modulate and polish, one to a professional level. The book opens with Elizabeth Hunter hoping that “it’s going to be one of my good days”. She so wants to “look—presentable”. Her night nurse seeks to allay her fears by telling her that she will “rise to the occasion”. The suspense of returning family due to pay a visit is palpable. White choreographs this with tremendous skill - to the extent that Sir Basil’s entry is protracted for over a hundred pages.

Preparing Mrs Hunter for this important scene begins with nurse Manhood gathering up “the bundle of creaking bones and acerbated flesh” and manoeuvring it into a seated position (p. 116). The vanity case is brought along side. Foundation cream is worked into “the droughty wrinkles” and Mrs Hunter “was at the first stage transformed into a glimmering ghost of the past”. “Dusk Rose” is then chosen for the cheeks and for the lips “Deep Carnation” is preferred over “Crimson Caprice”. In one of those lunge-parry descriptions that White excels at, the fitting of Mrs Hunter’s teeth is a high point: “It was Mrs Hunter who began to hoist; but you had to shove, until you were both involved in what must have looked like part suicide, part murder” (p. 118). “Delphinium Silver” is then chosen for the eyeshadow. The “resurrection” is topped off with a lilac wig. When Sir Basil finally arrives, he finds a “Lilac Fairy standing in as his rehearsed-for-mother” (p. 124). Only someone versed in theatre could have composed the process from this point of view.

Basil Hunter, we are told, “had reached that alarming stage in any actor’s career when he loses the desire to perform” (p. 125). His imagination around this regresses to a childhood where “mistakes would not yet have been made”. Lear is the performance he hasn’t yet mastered. He thinks of it as a “stony, perhaps unscalable mountain” (p. 149). White would have us equate Mrs Hunter with Lear - on her own heath - tortured by an inheritance that is hers to leave. He also has us see Sir Basil as Gloucester, never in line for any inheritance and never wholly blind to his own faults, but stuck with an iron boot on his foot unable to walk to Dover. This perhaps explains his failure as Lear: he had “become useless, except to stride imagined miles around the stage; incapable of trudging the actual miles to Dover” (p. 492). There are false equivalences here that best demonstrate Sir Basil’s fragmented thinking.

There are sequences where theatricality is overtly employed, as when the solicitor Wyburd introduces Sister de Santis to Sir Basil, their small-talk having referenced a possible storm. The point of view is Sir Basil’s:

The banality of the interweaving voices exorcised any mystery the night might have had, though the actor realized that he himself had contributed to this exorcism. He knew too much, alas. As he stood gloomily watching, a greenish sheet twitched for a moment against the cyclorama, making him listen for a rumble of zinc thunder from the wings.

The thunder missed its cue, and the nurse left them, climbing the terraces towards bedpans and thermometers. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 128)

This supportive symbolism bulwarks what is at the heart of the novel: that Sir Basil’s visit to his mother conceals a deception, shared with his sister Dorothy, to have their mother moved into a home so that the grand house can be sold, with sale proceeds distributed to the two of them.

White also gives us a play-within-the-novel when Sir Basil takes a stab at writing his own play. It stutters its way across fives pages, stage directions included, before petering out as a feeble-minded charade of hamminess. It served to lift the curtain on the disharmony inside Sir Basil, showing us vulgarity and tawdry domestic melodrama, but it reinforces some of the novel’s major themes, that of the difference between life as theatre and life, and of frailty ever-present.

Patrick White’s reaching for new styles in The Eye of the Storm

The Eye of the Storm is one of White’s longest novels. It requires stamina and concentration. Its plot is simple: and old lady lies dying; her two grown-up children fly in from Europe to extract funds from the family estate by having her moved into a home so that the family home can be sold; there is a short flashback to when the central character experiences a storm on an island; fifteen years later, she dies; the children return home, mission accomplished. There are a few plot complexities within that skeletal outline. Most of the action is psychological. Yet the tale has a telling and it is in that narration that the novelist’s craft finds a distinctive and evolving voice.

Reading White often requires close analysis to the text. This is partly in decoding meaning which is often an extractive process involving guesswork. Much is implied or appears to suggest a shading or subtlety. Vocabulary choice and imagery repetition will often resonate and create a linkage between scenes. At other times, it is switches of scenes that will test the reader. A section break will swivel to a separate scene with a change of characters, but the personal pronouns used will hide identities until several paragraphs later a name is given - and all is revealed. If the reader was instead a theatre-goer, character recognition would be a snip. Whether this is White setting aside the novelist’s implicit obligation to keep readers on-side, as it were, or an assumption that his readers will cope perfectly well, even if they have to perform the required excavation, is uncertain. Reading White’s novels chronologically, by The Eye of the Storm one is used to this.

One notices several stylistic changes in this novel, some marking abandonment of older styles, others newly adopted. Commas pepper White’s sentences less than they did in his previous novels; perhaps his editors’ complaints had finally registered. Zeugma falls by the wayside: I counted only one instance of its use. Perhaps the greater importance attached to artifice within the characters rendered it inappropriate.

The novel contains some extended sequences where the second person pronoun “you” is employed to pull the reader into the mind of various ‘players’. In action, again with Sir Basil musing on his reason for returning to Australia:

If you could remain long enough in this garden of ungoverned fronds, twisting paths, and statues disguising their real attitudes and intentions behind broken extremities and mossy smiles; if you could return upstairs and winkle experience out of the blind eyes and half-gelled responses of the Lilac Oracle, you might eventually present the Lear who had so far evaded almost everybody. But you had come here for a different purpose: short, sharp and material. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 127)

The effect is to force the focus on Sir Basil’s self-absorption. Far from having concern for his elderly mother, marooned mid-way between life and death, his vision is one of selfish introspection. This stylistic device comfortably supports the direction of the narrative. White employed this device to help readers focus in the singular psychology of the young Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector. That he re-uses it here helps readers appreciate a kind of stunted development with which he is equipping the adult Sir Basil. “You” applied to other characters seems to amplify their particular characteristics. With Sister de Santis, for example, it is her introspective nature, quietly examining her membership of the “order” that attends to the needs - physical and spiritual - of Mrs Hunter.

Readers of White’s novels will recognise in his prose style fluctuating cross-currents created by sudden shifts in mood, often alternating between joy or anger. These often arrive with little notice within a passage, switched on and then back off again, in the manner of insights and flashbacks. They tend to illuminate the psychological state of a character. Semantically, such passages are often difficult to unpick. They often resist deconstruction. More frequently in The Eye of the Storm one encounters stream of consciousness writing, expressionistic concatenations of images that have a surprising density. In most instances these arise as internal monologues or in dreams or drunken stupors. The writing is experimental and breaks grammatical conventions. Sometimes there is a near-total abandonment of punctuation. One such is the monologue declaim by Sir Basil to himself on his flight back to London. It’s a passage three pages long, with the actor, post whisky, either asleep or engrossed in practising declamation. Here’s a small part: (p. 592-4)

oh the intervals of time the oiled oceans patent leather jungles glass mountains white airports streamlined nembutal the audience is coming back too soon as always the sweat doesn’t dry discovering motives don’t you realize he is as he is because he’s arterio-sclerotic I’ve worked it out everybody is clever today

CURTAIN UP or would be if there was

so why not cut Cordelia Mitty yes we’ll cut her at future performances LILAC KING (yawning smiling) all these daughters bore the pants their lives are one long menopause it’s my fool-son I’ll choose to lie with in my coffin as if DOROTHY CORNWALL will allow I am the one must kill our fool-brother-son-king silence in the total audience … (The Eye of the Storm, p. 594)

By stripping out what would otherwise make these words grammatically correct, White achieves a degree of compression that more closely resembles thought. It’s synaptic, advancing in flashes, veering off from the sequential. I would argue that by imposing on the reader the need to semi-reassemble them in order to establish where the sentences break, we gain a fuller, more vibrant, insight into the mind of the character on whose train of thought we are eavesdropping. Here it is Sir Basil, scrambling together the psychological roles of his now dead mother, his sister, his erstwhile Shakespeare collaborator in London (Mitty) and himself. They combine into a Lear-like jumble because that’s the role that this actor wishes to master - and we anticipate never will. The tragedy is not Lear, or Sir Basil’s failure to master that role, but his inability to have played the role of son to his late mother. There may be something of this turmoil in the way White handled his own mother’s death - and life, although our engagement in the text has made this secondary or even tertiary.

There is some code-cracking in the novel against which I’ve drawn a blank. Mrs Hunter’s father is described as having “put the gun in his mouth” (p. 104) and Flora Manhood, one of Mrs Hunter’s nurses, shields “her eyes from the gun which was neverendingly, inescapably, pointed at her” (p. 189). One is reminded of Miss Hare in White’s towering Riders in the Chariot, whose father blew his brains out through his open mouth. But the relevance to what happens in The Eye of the Storm escaped me. Perhaps this is a biographic event in White’s family’s life that I’ve not yet encountered?

In other respects, The Eye of the Storm is as dazzling a novel as we expect of White if we have been reading him chronologically. There are familiar delights, chief amongst which has to be cumulative metaphor where after the first two or three links between his subject and his metaphor seem perfectly adequate, but which he compounds with a further couple, as in this observation about ranking to be observed between nurse Flora Manhood and Sister Badgery:

Sister Badgery shook her wattles, her comb, and raised her disdainful beak, as though suddenly remembering she was superior, in the hierarchy of the yard, to this shapely but scatterbrain pullet. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 325)

Stuff like this is why readers of Patrick White read him. And there is this moment of potential awkwardness when La Princesse de Lascabanes, Dorothy, is letting herself out of her mother’s home just as Nurse Flora Manhood - whom she’d not yet met - was letting herself in:

As the princess broke out there was a crunch of a key from the other side: a young woman had begun to let herself in. Each staggered while trying to decide who had the better right to the door. Of course Madame de Lascabanes knew that hers could not be denied, and to think that anybody might dispute it had started anger gathering behind her long face. Then her indignation and her sense of protocol left her. The girl was too young, too radiant, to be dispossessed; she was smiling besides, out of bland lips, on which was pasted a delicately aggressive pink suggesting ointment rather than lipstick, while her Perspex ear-rings cunningly gyrated, and a pattern of great suns on her pretence of a dress dazzled the beholder with their cerise and purple, particularly just off-centre from the breasts. It was too physical a moment for speeches of apology. The half-smile the older woman had been induced to wear reminded her that she had forgotten to restore her mouth; her thoughts had shed so much blood, she hadn’t had the heart to resort to further crimson. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 80)

There is much going on here. Young Australia bumps up against fusty and snobbish Europe. The reading of the former by the latter is very French. It also tells us how versed Dorothy is in the superficiality of presentation. How White uses colour to tease out the threat of anger that lies behind Dorothy’s indignation, but doesn’t emerge, is masterly. The proximity of the two women - and yet their social distance - is clear. It was also my first experience of finding the real world of Covid-19 intruding into my reading. Half-way through this paragraph I flinched: they’re not wearing masks; they’re not taking trouble to avoid touching the same surfaces. Aargh! What was I doing wrong allowing White’s prose to not distract me from details of the pandemic? Of course, nothing. As always, it was that White’s prose had conjured a hyper-real, utterly-absorbing, fictional world - and momentarily I was in it.

Students of White will also encounter satire of the Australian middle class (of the novel’s era), here played out at a dinner party laid on by Dorothy’s childhood friend Cherry Bullivant-Cheeseman. Nobody emerges unscathed after the lashing that White dispenses. There is too the dressing-down (about not having children) that Dorothy gets from her sheep-farming host, Rory Macrory. The class resentment is strong. White never failed in observing all strata in the Australian social cliff-face.

Above all, The Eye of the Storm is White’s most feminine novel. David Marr perspicaciously observed that “Elizabeth Hunter is Patrick White in costume”. Enjoy this short passage where the housekeeper Lotte Lippmann, wearing one of bed-ridden Mrs Hunter’s dresses, dances for her in a search for her lost past :

For in the days when Elizabeth Hunter of audacious legs glided out through the dusty light in the opening steps of the next foxtrot, the chiffon frothing and lapping in waves from beneath the spangled surface of what must have given an impression of liquid metal, or restless water, the skirt would barely have reached her knees; so now this stumpy Jewess was able to wear it, certainly not with dash, rather with a reverence suited to the austere tunic the dress had become. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 542)

See how the cadence of this single, long sentence carries a glimpse of faded beauty out onto a remembered dance floor of the past before returning to the present and connotations of decrepitude. Everything is artifice until even that fades and fails.

The parallel between White’s mother and Elizabeth Hunter, the central character of The Eye of the Storm is where I began this review, with the question of whether readers can gain reward from the book ignorant of what this relationship may have been. On balance, one probably can, is the answer. The quality of White’s writing is as dazzling and intriguing as ever. Readers may puzzle over why a death in a fictional family is met with so little regret and why the subject of familial dysfunction should extend to such a page count. We’ve seen it before, of course, in The Vivisector, which could be considered to be this novel’s literary pair. It is in the depiction of femininity, draped in costumes of “chiffon frothing”, that one sees a kind of homage to a mother, even if everything else about the novel is more suggestive of exorcism.

None in the Hunter family attain a state of grace. None see past the surface of the material world to any lasting sublimity beyond. Not even the eye of the storm that Elizabeth Hunter saw on Brumby Island stays with her in any meaningful way. It does not change her for the better. She glimpses again at the end of her life the gulls that she saw there but they are “scraping colour out of the sky” (p. 546), a reductive rather than an additive image. Of the black swans she saw there, it was she who was offering them bread, part-communion but in the wrong direction.

The Hunter family are denied participation in the novel’s final scene where Sister de Santis (anagram of ‘saints’?), having earlier survived a tawdry close encounter with Sir Basil, performs a ‘ceremony’ on the late Mrs Hunter’s front lawn, the one that is observed early on as producing only thorny roses. White had already woven into the narrative a pair of beguiling, rose-laden images that begin with roses that the nightnurse had picked for Mrs Hunter when alive:

The resplendent roses scattered their dew their light their perfumed reflections over the sheet into the straining nostrils the opalescent eyes staring out through this paper mask. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 211)

Seeing the effect the roses have on Mrs Hunter, Mary de Santis is reminded of her peasant mother from Smyrna (whom White had previously showed in a tender narrative detour that gave Sister de Santis stature and substance, a sub-narrative equivalent to that of the one White crafted of Mordecai Himmelfarb in Riders in the Chariot). The comparison is to Mrs Hunter’s detriment:

… the roses sparkled drowsed brooded leaped flaunting their earthbound flesh in an honourably failed attempt to convey the ultimate. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 211)

That first image ends with the nurse’s recognition of imperfection:

… we, the arrogant perfectionists, or pseudo-saints, shall be saved up out of our shortcoming for futher trial. (The Eye of the Storm, p. 211)

That trial comes in due course when after Mrs Hunter’s death, a potential new patient is sought. Irene, a teenager with paralysed legs, tests her visitor by stabbing her outstretched hand with a pin (p. 603). Recognising this as her “further trial”, Sister de Santis accepts the challenge. Returning to Mrs Hunter’s now empty house, she performs a final ‘ceremony’ of feeding the birds, then picks a solitary rose to take to her next patient. The tenderness that rounds off this troubling novel is exquisitely constructed. A form of grace that the writer denies the three members of the Hunter family is ascribed lovingly to this unassuming servant.


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 The Eye of The Storm refer to the Jonathan Cape edition, 1973.)

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.
  • R. F. Brissenden, Patrick White; Longmans, Green & Co., Writers and their Work: no 90, 1966.
  • Geoffrey Dutton, Patrick White; Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • William Walsh, Patrick White - Voss; Edward Arnold, 1976.
  • Patricia A. Morley, The Mystery of Unity: Theme and technique in the novels of Patrick White; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972.
  • R. Shepherd & K. Singh (Eds.), Patrick White - A critical symposium; Centre for Research in the New Literature in English, Adelaide, 1978.
  • J.M. Coetzee, Late Patrick White in J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006 - 2017; Vintage, 2018.
  • Helen Verity Hewitt, Screaming Silent Words - Francis Bacon, Sidney Nolan and Hurtle Duffield; Antipodes, Vol. 14, No. 1 (June 2000), pp. 53-57 (5 pages), Wayne State University Press, (available on JSTOR).
  • Helen Verity Hewitt, Patrick White, Painter Manqué: paintings, painters and their influence on his writing; The Miegunyah Press At Melbourne University Press, 2003.
  • John J. Carmody, Patrick White, Composer Manqué: The Centrality of Music in White’s Artistic Aspiration; Antipodes Vol. 29, No. 1 (June 2015), pp. 153-161.

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.

[The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White is available in the UK from]

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