Towards the end of Patrick White's novel Voss, White observes for one of his characters that only "the supreme torturer would have tweaked the curtain of illusion" (and thus caused her to imagine her childhood garden to be reflected in the face of her cousin Laura). The image is startling and freighted with meaning. But the description of, one presumes, God - or a deity - as "the supreme torturer", author of illusions, who had by that stage in the story winnowed so many souls, comes with a parallel meaning that it is Patrick White himself as "supreme torturer" who conceived the searing catastrophe of Johann Ulrich Voss's expedition into the burning heart of Australia in the 1840s.
Many of Patrick White's characters are sufferers and this is no less true of both White himself and of the eponymous Voss whom White based on the real-life Ludwig Leichardt who completed a number of successful expeditions into Australia's interior before mounting a final one in 1848 from which none in his party returned. White took these events and moulded them into a psychological drama of the most extraordinary power. White wrote Voss whilst his previous novel The Tree of Man (a separate post on this site) was being published, and the two novels combine into a hugely powerful depiction of Australia as a colony emerging into a nation with its own identity.
We meet the book's two central characters in the opening pages. The eponymous explorer has trudged four kilometres from Sydney to the outer suburbs, to Potts Point, home of the Bonner family. It's a Sunday and the non-believer arrives when everyone is at church, everyone that is, except the orphaned niece of Mr and Mrs Bonner, the "softly sceptical", "rationalist" Laura Trevelyan. After deliberating on the visitor's status - man, gentleman, foreigner - the maid admits the "German gentleman" in to see the priggish Miss Trevelyan. Nuance is in full flight. The book is "Victorian" and one half of it is mannerly in the extreme. (I am on record as having trivialised Patrick White as "Australia's Jane Austen". You get the gist - and you'll see here whether I mean it or not.) Voss, perhaps above all White's novels, is not a straightforward novel where we are directly told what is happening. That would be too easy. Instead, Voss requires to be read for multiple meanings amidst veils of layered imagery. The thought of White as puppet master pulling strings for a range of complex ends isn't easy to shake off.
The two environments of Voss's Australia, the garden and the desert
In her aunt and uncle's absence the intelligent Laura Trevelyan meets Voss the "scraggy" "scarecrow" botanist-cum-explorer. They exchange pleasantries awkwardly, the Bonners and their daughter return from church, and lunch is taken with their guest. Laura and this "odd" explorer both discover something of each other's singularity. They reveal a little of their obstinacy and their pride to each other. An attraction - concealing a mutual revulsion - develops between them despite their evident differences. Laura Trevelyan, alone in the household, seems to understand Voss, even if by intuition alone.
Voss's planned expedition has Mr Bonner as a patron. He will part-fund it and will introduce Voss to two landowners further inland who will supply the expedition with horses, mules, cattle, sheep and goats. White jabs at these patrons "whose wealth had begun to make them acceptable in spite of their unfortunate past and persistent clumsiness with knife and fork" (p. 107). Voss sets about selecting his small team. There will be a mix of fellow-travellers. There is Harry Robarts, an "English lad" whom Voss met on board ship, "simple" if "superfluous". Voss finds him "an easy shadow to wear" and "could sit with him as he would still water, allowing his own thoughts to widen on it" (p. 29). There is Palfreyman, an ornithologist and a Christian, Turner, a labourer and the spirited, young Ralph Angus, a local landowner known to Bonner. There is Frank Le Mesurier with whom Voss had travelled before. He "has great qualities if he does not cut his throat", he tells Mr Bonner (p.18). When Voss invites Le Mesurier to join the group, he replies that "I am not sure that I want to cut my throat just yet" (p.31), which he does (p. 364). "You will be burned up most likely, you will have the flesh torn from your bones and you will be tortured," Voss warns him (p. 32). These ominous signs prefigure the party's future in the crucible of the desert. More will join the party as they make their way inland. Sleeve notes on most editions of the novel make it clear that Voss's expedition is doomed, so the narrative advances towards that finality inevitably. Pressed by her daughter, Belle, to say why she considers Voss to be "already lost", Mrs Bonner says, "His eyes...cannot find their way" (p. 24).
Voss and Laura Trevelyan meet twice more before she rides to the harbour to see Voss's ship prepare to leave. (They travel up the coast to Queensland before disembarking for their journey to the interior.) The first of these meetings is at a beach-side garden picnic at the Pringles' at Point Piper, where "brightly coloured laughter hung from the undergrowth" (p. 54). White provides more clues as to the nature of the pair. Laura Trevelyan wears sombre moss-green; the younger men present who have made her acquaintance before did not care for her because "she was given to reading books". Voss, in contrast, needed to screw up his eyes "at the great theatre of light and water", possesses "the power of rock or fire" (p. 57). This lush environment discomforts him. Garden and desert are their respective habitats, places for either reflection or for action. These opposites attract, yet at one point in the afternoon Laura Trevelyan didn't raise her head for the words the German spoke, "but heard them fall, and loved their shape" (p.59):
Walking with their heads agreeably bowed beneath the sunlight, they listened to each other's presence, and became aware that they were possibly more alike than any other two people at the Pringles' picnic. (Voss, p. 64)
"Your future is what you will make it", Voss says to Laura Trevelyan. "Future is will." Several steps later, Laura Trevelyan suddenly says, "This expedition, Mr Voss, this expedition of yours is pure will." Voss protests that he has restraints in the form of animals and the "practical impedimenta my patrons consider necessary" before admitting that "It would be better that I should go barefoot, and alone." "You are not going to allow your will to destroy you", Laura Trevelyan said rather than asked before admitting to herself that "the man would be ludicrous...if it were not for his arrogance; this just saves him" (p. 68). As the day ends, Voss takes his leave. "The German, walking into the sunset, was burnt up" (p. 69). Laura Trevelyan had encountered pure willpower.
The next meeting between the pair is when Mrs Bonner persuades her husband to give a dinner to mark the expedition's start, "to do justice to an event of national significance. An historical occasion", she proffered (p. 74). The day is set, guests arrive, and dinner is taken. White tightens anticipation that the pair will once again exchange ideas and learn more of each other. As dinner ends, with "lamp-light suffused with the palpitating rose colours", Laura Trevelyan goes outside "through the moths to the terrace...where somebody had been crushing geraniums". Voss follows. Provoked by Voss's persistence, Laura Trevelyan admits that she is fascinated by him, that "You are my desert!" (p. 83). Their arms brush and Voss "was conscious of some extreme agitation or exhilaration in her". Voss suspects that she would like to pity him. "You would like to mention me in your prayers", he said. She protests that she does not pray and he counters by asking if she was an "atheistisch" but she doesn't know.
In this verdant setting, which White frames beautifully - always deft at depicting nature whether freshly-blooming or turning beyond pungency - Voss feels forced to admit that he remains a believer, "though I worship in pride", he admits. "My God, besides, is above humility," he adds. The peak of their exchanges is upon them:
"I shall think of you with alarm", she said. "To maintain such standards of pride, in the face of what you must experience on this journey, is truly alarming."
"I am not in the habit of setting myself limits".
"Then I will learn to pray for you".
. . .
"You are an Apostle of Love masquerading as an atheist for some inquisitorial purpose of your own. My poor Miss Trevelyan! I shall be followed through the continent of Australia by your prayers, like little white pieces of paper. I can see them, torn-up paper, fluttering, now that I know for certain that you are one of those who pray." (Voss, p. 85)
This turns out to be the cruellest prefigurement in the novel. Though some of Laura Trevelyan's prayers do arrive by letter, the "little white pieces of paper" that end up fluttering in the desert are either a letter written to Laura Trevelyan by Voss himself which, undelivered, is torn up by the aborigine Dugald (p. 209), or the notebook of Le Mesurier which he tears up prior to slitting his own throat (p. 364). The enfolding safety of a garden may well be a place conducive to composing perfumed prayers, but White is to ensure that the desert is not the place where they will be answered.
The final meeting between Voss and Laura Trevelyan takes place on the quayside on the day of the expedition's departure. Final practicalities are being completed. Palfreyman and Robarts realised that "they would melt together more fiercely under that blue sky. Or burn to ashes" (p.90). "They had reached that point at which they would be offered up, in varying degrees, to chaos or to heroism" (p. 90). Laura Trevelyan arrives on horseback, a distinctive figure, one that even provokes flashes of imagined drama in onlookers. "This young woman, leaping the gunnel on her black horse, could easily have surprised them, and inflicted wounds" (p. 96). The horse had not leaped, no wounds were inflicted. She controlled her horse by will, sitting on it with pride "rather than with that humility which she had desired to achieve" (p. 106). The Governor's representative arrived in an open landau, speeches were made, a horse dropped its dung, Voss and Laura Trevelyan shook hands wordlessly. Everyone departed. Later Laura Trevelyan watched Voss's ship head for open water:
Wind and see were tossing the slow ship. Gusts of that same wind, now fresh, now warm, troubled the garden, and carried the scents of pine and jasmine into the long balcony. (Voss, p. 115)
In a little over a quarter of the book, White has succeeded in establishing a perfectly incomplete relationship between the novel's two main characters, yet it is one that becomes the motor for the remainder of the book. It is a relationship so unlike any you may have read yet it establishes a bond which will sustain the dramatic and stylistic force that arises in the following chapters. There is enough material here for the "supreme torturer" - whether in God-like form or in authorial form - to now go to work.
The letter-writing narrative of Voss
The narrative gearing that White applies to the relationship between Laura Trevelyan and Voss is letter-writing. From the point when Voss's ship sails, Voss becomes a part-epistolary novel, and White employs the technique deftly. Voss starts the short exchange. The expedition has first to disembark at Newcastle and then ride inland to Sanderson's Rhine Towers. Whilst there, Voss writes his first letter, the text of which White allows us to read. This is essential for the narrative's suspense as the letter needs to reach Laura Trevelyan in Sydney so that she can get her reply back to Voss's next stop at Jildra on the Darling Downs where the party will re-provision before heading into the interior. The letter is headed with the date, Oct., 1845, the only date mentioned anywhere in the novel. It's not a long letter but it includes the following:
I am aware that a companion must stumble almost daily over the savage rocks of circumstance, but that a companion of strength and judgement, such as I have already perceived to exist, would be forearmed against destruction.
Dear Miss Trevelyan, do not pray for me, but I would ask you to join me in thought, and exercise of will, daily, hourly, until I may return to you, the victor.
In the meantime, also, I would ask your allowance that I may write to your Uncle, Mr Bonner, with necessary formality, for your hand. (Voss, p. 145-6)
Voss envisages that Laura Trevelyan might be able save him from destruction, but White's choice of vocabulary tells us otherwise. There will be much stumbling to come and the rocks of the Australian desert will be savage. Back to Sydney, where spring is in full bloom and "green was garlanding the windows, the post of balconies, the knobs of gateways, in celebration" (p. 151), "Laura's glistening green laughter was threaded through the days". News arrives that the expedition is in good heart and Laura Trevelyan is handed Voss's letter. White doesn't show her reading this, but later that evening it has a profound effect upon her. White marks this with the first instance of many where the couple imagine they are together in spite of the distance:
...she closed her eyes, and they rode northward together between the small hills, some green and soft, with the feathers of young corn ruffled on their sides, others hard and blue as sapphires. As the two visionaries rode, their teeth were shining and flashing, for their faces, anonymous with love, were turned, naturally, towards each other... (Voss, p. 156)
Stirring from this reverie, Laura Trevelyan writes her reply. It is longer than the one Voss wrote to her. White keeps us guessing as to its contents. Voss's party is on the march again and White wants us to see what impact her words will have on him. His progress to Jildra is marked by increasingly arid vegetation:
By now the tall grass was almost dry, so that there issued from it a sharper sighing when the wind blew. The wind bent the grass into tawny waves, on the crests of which floated the last survivors of flowers, and shrivelled and were sucked under by the swell. All day the horses and the cattle swam through the grass sea. Their barrels rolled and gurgled. (Voss, p. 158)
Jildra proved to be a tougher stop that the one provided by Sanderson at Rhine Towers. The earthy station-owner, Boyle, is a heavy drinker and "had torn the boards off Homer to chock the leg of a table" (p. 159). He is blunt to Voss:
"Of course, every man has his own obsession. Yours would be, it seems, to overcome distance, but in much the same way, of deeper layers, of irresistible disaster. I can guarantee," he said, stabbing the table with two taut fingers, "that you will be given every opportunity of indulging yourself to the west of here. In stones and thorns. Why, anyone who is disposed can celebrate a high old Mass, I do promise, with the skill of a blackfeller and his own blood, in Central Australia." (Voss, p. 160)
The expedition must press on and the letter Voss had been hoping for arrived just in time before they had to set off. It contained a conditional acceptance of his offer, a request that they "may pray together for salvation" (p. 177). Voss "went out into the darkness...as he embraced the past tremblingly beneath a vast audience of stars" (p. 178). His reflection on the relationship that was starting to form across the distance is key:
Voss thought how he would talk eventually with Laura Trevelyan, how they had never spoken together using the truly humble words that convey the innermost reality: bread, for instance, water. Obsessed by the struggle between their two souls, they had threatened each other with the flashing weapons of abstract reasoning, while overlooking the common need for sustenance. But now we shall understand each other, he said, glancing about. At that hour fulfilment did appear to prevail, in the dry river, with its recurring pot-holes of greenish-brown water, in the drifts of white flood grass tinkling on bushes, in the ugly, thumping lizards and modest birds. Through the marriage of light and shadow, in the infinite distances of that dun country of which he was taking possession, all, finally, would be resolved. (Voss, p. 181)
I don't think White refers to either Voss or Laura Trevelyan as "lovers". Their relationship is never positioned as one of passion, yet it is more than platonic. They lack shared interests but they do perhaps share a sense of alienation or "apartness". Voss is a foreigner, often referred to as "the German". He sets himself apart from others and sees himself to be different. He is non-materialistic but not intellectual. If anything, he is ascetic. Laura Trevelyan shares some of that disposition. Though she relates well to the females of her adopted family, her delight is more in verbal sparring than in gossip. Adopted at a young age, she has had to learn the rigours of emotional self-sufficiency. Both are outsiders in a young Colony that is by its geography "out on a limb".
The landscape Voss had entered was becoming thorny. In an extraordinary image, "the udders of those of their goats which had kidded were slashed and torn by twigs, and the glassy eyes of the most rational of all animals were seeing far too clearly as they advanced into chaos" (p. 201). All the party, men and animals alike, were beginning to suffer. Yet Voss manages to write what is his last letter to Laura Trevelyan, a beautiful one, whose contents we see, which includes the following tender, tragic image:
So we are riding together across the plains, we sit together in this black night. I reach over and touch your cheek (not for the first time). You see that separation has brought us far, far closer. (Voss, p. 206)
This is the letter, destined to be carried back to Jildra by Dugald, the elderly aborigine whom Boyle had leant Voss, which Laura Trevelyan never receives. It is the one that Dugald shreds into pieces but days into his return leg of the journey, his horse dead, his food gone. This is mirrored by a second letter that Laura Trevelyan writes to Voss in the following chapter. "We are close to each other, my dearest, and shall strengthen each other," she wrote (p. 228). Blistering her fingers with the sealing wax in order to hand the letter to the waiting courier, Laura Trevelyan "went from her room, carrying in her hands extinguished fire" (p. 230).
As both of these letters will never be delivered, White shows us their contents as they are being written, heightening the tragedy. Narrative suspense can be dispensed with when the plot's trajectory is predictable. The delusional Voss's failure to traverse the continent is inevitable. He and nearly all his party ride, stagger or crawl to their deaths. One is reminded of Melville's Ahab, similarly monomaniacal, driven by a vision, surrounded by a small multi-national crew, heading to their inexorable doom. Voss's party lose half their food to winter rains and flooding but, unlike the crew of the Pequod, they do not meet their end in a watery grave. Their fate awaits in Australia's searing desert, whose seasonal heat returns towards the end of Voss in a furnace that White describes with as much skill and craft as he uses to depict the verdant gardens of Sydney where Laura Trevelyan sees out her future. These verdant gardens are, however, not exempt from Patrick White's role as the "supreme torturer". It is one he plays with extraordinary élan, making Voss hauntingly unforgettable.
Voss and Laura Trevelyan fused through Aboriginal visions and telepathy
Just as Voss is associated with the desert and Laura with the garden, both require each other to achieve their own metaphysical transformation. These polarities combine into a metaphysical unity that White repeatedly presents as a closing of the distance between them. As Voss's advance into the desert progresses, the incidence of these hallucinations increases. On Christmas Day, preparing for a rare feast with the slaughter of a lamb, Voss seems to see Laura Trevelyan walking amongst his men, her flesh "spotted with blood from that same sheep" (p. 189-90). Some of these manifestations are nocturnal dreams but many appear as symptoms of the extreme physical weakness that accompanies Voss's starvation and thirst. There are multiple passages where Laura's imagined presence in the desert provides a form of succour to the weakened Voss. Two in particular seem to evoke strongly religious tones:
Then they were drifting together. They were sharing the same hell, in their common flesh, which he had attempted so often to repudiate. She was fitting him with a sheaf of tender white.
"Do you see now?" she asked. "Man is God decapitated. That is why you are bleeding."
It was falling on their hands in hot, opaque drops. (Voss, p. 348)
Thus hopeful, it was obvious she must be at his side, and, in fact, he heard a second horse blowing out its nostrils, the sound so pitched he would have known it to be morning without the other infallible signs of a prevailing pearliness. As they rode, the valleys became startling in their sonorous reds, their crenellations broken by tenuous Rhenish turrets of great subtlety and beauty.
But of greater importance were his own words of love that he was able at last to put into her mouth. So great was her faith, she received these white wafers without surprise. (Voss, p. 375)
In their separate hallucinations, they fuse with each other across the distance that separates them. It is as if they are joined through some telepathic process in which hallucinatory visions play a role. These sequences are one of the aspects of White's writing that marks parts of Voss utterly distinctive, if not at first sight difficult, even incomprehensible.
There is an undoubted cathartic transformation that White appears to be working on both Voss and Laura Trevelyan. A major theme of the book is their individual repudiation of pride as part of a process towards individual humility. As the doctor bleeds Laura Trevelyan's fever with leeches, she avers that "When man is truly humbled, when he has learnt that he is not God, then he is nearest to becoming so. In the end, he may ascend" (p. 369). This is of a piece with some of the religious (if not Christian) themes operating in White's The Tree of Man, although the mechanism of visions and telepathic presences make their first appearance in Voss. There are clues which might provide some sort of broader framework to understanding what White might have been wanting to achieve. Peter Wolfe cites White saying that:
Telepathic communication does exist. I'm continually receiving evidence of it myself. I'm convinced that life is built on coincidence and strange happenings. (Peter Wolfe, Laden Choirs: The Fiction of Patrick White, p.117, citing A conversation with Patrick White, p. 138)
Before rushing to the hills in the belief that White was heavily invested in fringe philosophies, it pays to dwell on this a little further. Peter Beatson also addresses this aspect of Voss (suffering here with a more extreme version of White's own affliction of comma over-use):
There is a strange link between Voss and Laura, which may, for much of the novel, be explained naturalistically, but, at least in the climactic chapter, must be accepted at its face value as a "real" abnormal psychic event. Like so much in the book, this telepathic relationship shows the blend of European and aboriginal beliefs that White creates. (Peter BeatsonThe Eye in the Mandala. Patrick White: a Vision of Man and God, p. 83)
He then goes on to quote at length from the late 1930s work of the anthropologist Professor Fikin of Sydney University (see below) who had studied accounts of telepathy and thought transference in different aboriginal cultures. Of course, it doesn't matter whether this belief is able to withstand scientific scrutiny or not. What matters is that White took these beliefs and adopted them within a literary context.
The most distinctive manifestation of these themes in Voss concerns the sighting of a comet by Voss's group, by the aborigines massing around their final camp and by Laura Trevelyan and Mrs Bonner. Mrs Bonner is the first to see the comet, "a most unusual and wonderful thing" (p. 358). Laura Trevelyan, on her sick-bed, eyes closed, did not turning to look out of the window where Mrs Bonner stood, but simply said, "I have seen it...it is the comet. It cannot save us. Except for a breathing space. That is the terrible part: nothing can be halted once it is started" (p.359-60). In the desert, the aborigines are the first to note the "unearthly phenomenon", their fresh body paint and rising and falling singing suggests that they are observing some form of ceremony. Voss, barely able to stand, remarked that the twinned singing and the comet were "too beautiful to ignore" (p. 361). Jackie, one of the group's aborigines explained to Voss the story of "the Great Snake, the grandfather of all men". This is one variant of an Aboriginal myth in which a star falling from heaven takes up residence as the great Rainbow Serpent. It is this that the aborigines around the camp are celebrating. When the comet has "glided almost the length of its appointed course" (p. 372), Voss notes its position as a point marked by the Southern Cross, and subsequently:
He did not dare raise his eyes towards the sky. When he did, at last, there were the nails of the Cross still eating into it, but the Comet he saw was gone. (Voss, p. 373)
The comet's unknown but mystical significance to Voss is heightened by White's transformation of the Cross's axes into Christian nails right at the moment when the comet's rainbow arc disappears and completes the aboriginal myth. It is the signal for the aborigines to take Voss's life.
That moment synchronises exactly with events in Sydney where Laura Trevelyan's fever breaks, signified by her uttering, "It is over. It is over" (p. 377). The telepathic nature of these events is unmistakeable. They are reminiscent of the unspoken bonds between Leopold Bloom and Gerty MacDowell in the Nausicaä section (chapter 13) of Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that White admired greatly, in parts, whose author he considered, in his youth, to be "practically God". (David Marr Patrick White Letters, p. 165). It is a final bond between the pair that at the moment of Voss's death releases Laura Trevelyan for the next phase of her life.
Patrick White's stylistic power in Voss
I have done my best here to liberally scatter this post about Voss with examples of Patrick White's polished style and vivid imagery, but I hope without dropping too many spoilers. I apologise if I've not achieved the right balance between these two competing demands. But rest assured: Voss is so densely-packed with literary jewels you are sure to enjoy many that have not been unearthed here. It's undoubtedly the case that White's writing style can provoke gasps of delight and of surprise and shock. The business of White roiling his characters in his role as "the supreme torturer" does ease at times to allow his writing style to give great pleasure. I think much of this is that White saw with the eye of an artist. The broad canvas provides a stage on which the context and perspective of his narrative gains intellectual power, and the detail of his brushwork feeds our more physical needs. Marr's biography of White details how White aspired to paint but enjoyed little success. He was a keen gallery visitor and in later years accumulated something of a collection. He read some of Van Gogh's letters and found the activities of Picasso, Matisse and Braque "stimulating". Sydney Nolan (whose cover for Voss is used for this post) and Francis Bacon were friends. Colours are always important and in Voss Australia is a place of "pigeon-coloured mornings" where "the most dogged devotions are shot through with a glint of parrots" (p. 193). These images don't in themselves inform the narrative so much as warm the reading experience. A great wordsmith is at work.
When White wrote that "pelicans rose on wings of creaking basketwork" (p. 165) or that "rags of cloud polished the moon's face" (p.168) it feels as if a great talent is enjoying himself. When he wrote that "the German's upper lip was as long in amused appreciation as a hornet is in legs" (p. 168) I suspect that White might have been playing a sport where the joke would be very much on us, but I savour it. I can picture a hornet's legs from experience but I haven't yet been able to overlay that image onto Voss's pursed upper lip. No matter how many times I fail to combine the two images meaningfully, I still enjoy the way the words fit together and envy that astonishing ability.
There are passages where White assembles metaphor in a more extended fashion so that the meaning of an individual scene is drawn out and more firmly attached to the narrative's broader sweep. One such is when Voss is preparing his expedition at Boyle's Jildra station. The party is not just finalising the preparedness of their gear. White is also keeping them there until the arrival of the letter in which Laura Trevelyan accepts his request for her hand in marriage. Voss grumbles about the wait:
All his days were wasting away in precise acts. His feet were heavy with dust as he tramped between shed, tent, and stockyard. Now his distaste for men returned, especially for those with whom he had surrounded himself, or, to be more accurate, with whom an ignorant jackass had surrounded him against his will. Blank faces, like so many paper kites, themselves earthbound, or at most twitching in the warm shallows of the atmosphere, dangling a vertebral tail, could prevent him soaring towards the apotheosis for which he was reserved. To what extent others had entangled him in the string of human limitation, he had grown desperate in wondering. (Voss, p. 170)
The arrogance that comes to Voss is depicted brilliantly. He is destined for the upper altitudes whilst his men are "blank", "vertebral" and "earthbound", "twitching" in the "shallows", "entangling" him. It is an unforgettable accumulation of vocabulary that clarifies Voss's unfitness for leadership. We can be in no doubt that these defects will prove to be calamitous in the harsh environment into which the expedition is headed.
There is the moment when the party's splinter group that turned back and tried to return to safety encounters dreadful privations. Fellow traveller Ralph Angus, unable to go further, falls from his horse and cracks his head on a rock:
But Ralph Angus was haunted by a fear that he might not know how to die, when it came to the moment, in a manner befitting a gentleman.
So the great gong boomed in his ear and Ralph Angus died, as young ladies of his own class offered him tea out of Worcester cups. Deliciously, their fingers of rose and lilac braided him up in their possessive hair. They smothered him, and mothered him, until, at the last, he was presented as a swaddled baby. (Voss, p. 406)
This comes across with considerable sympathy and maybe a touch of gentle mockery. The emphasis upon Ralph's status and class, inadequate to save him from the inevitable, is beautifully supported by the best china and feminine gentility to which he should otherwise have returned, at the sound of a gong heralding not tea but his ultimate departure. Whatever else, a young life has been tragically cut short. This delicate, nuanced tone that White adopts is something you can find throughout his writing, especially in Voss, a curious counter-weight to much of the seething cruelty that is also present. We see this too when Laura Trevelyan insisted that her cousin Belle carried pear blossom for her wedding bouquet, in two passages, first as a plan then on the wedding day itself:
And she looked at her cousin, who was the more poignant in that her pure poetry could transcend her rather dull doubts. The blossom was already breaking from her fingertips, and from the branches of her arms. (Voss, p. 297)
...and a few criticized the bride for carrying a sheaf of pear-blossom, which was original, to say the least.
Standing upon the steps of the church, in the high wind, Laura Trevelyan watched her cousin, in whose oblivious arms lay the sheaf of black sticks, of which the flowerets threatened to blow away, bearing with them tenderly, whitely, imperceptibly, the myth of all happiness. (Voss, p. 316)
The first passage, with the fevered imagining of growth forcing itself from her cousin's flesh, is testament to Laura Trevelyan's strength of will. It is nevertheless a gorgeous image, straight from some surreal canvas, perhaps a Dorothea Tanning. The second scene is a contrast, the black of the sticks distracting from the beauty of the blossom, the wind on the point of exposing any marital bliss as a myth. It is bitter-sweet because a potential tenderness has been exposed to the winds of fate as Laura Trevelyan's own relationship will clearly never ripen into marriage. There is an echo too with the basket of pears that Mr Bonner left in Laura Trevelyan's bedroom which, in her fever, she never touched, their rotting into a "viscid" state being one more instance of transience in this exceptional novel.
White's blend of tenderness and cruelty is applied to characters, both female and male, and to landscape and the natural world. Here's a brief glimpse he allows us of butterflies, hallucinatory against the seasonal flood in the desert:
Over all this scene, which was more a shimmer than the architecture of landscape, palpitated extraordinary butterflies. Nothing had been seen yet to compare with their colours, opening and closing, opening and closing. Indeed by the addition of this pair of hinges, the world of semblance communicated with the world of dream. (Voss, p. 248)
"Palpitate" seems a fitting verb to describe the trembling action of butterflies in flight. That they are composed of "hinges" captures the essence of that repetitive movement in spite of it dropping a thumpingly heavy attribute onto such delicate tracery. It's a daring image, one that initiates the transition to the almost impenetrable connection between semblance and dream that follows. Out of the immensity of the Australian bush arises an ethereal, transient beauty, momentary relief from the persistent torture.
(Page numbers in Voss, first published in 1957, refer to the Everyman's Library edition, 2012.)
- 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: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1973/white/article/, first published 29 August 2001.
- The Wikipedia article on the Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt
- A.P. Fikin, Notes of the Psychic Life of the Australian Aborigines; Mankind The Journal of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, January 1937, 2(3), p. 49-56. PDF available for download from the University of Newcastle, Australia.
- A conversation with Patrick White, Southerly, the journal of The English Association, Sydney, 33 (2), June 1973.
- Australian Literature 101: Patrick White: Voss; YouTube, 27th January 2015.
- 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 his unpublished novel The Hanging Garden; BBC, 19th April 2012.
[Voss by Patrick White is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]