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Patrick White
Born Patrick Victor Martindale White
28 May 1912(1912-05-28)
Knightsbridge, London, England
Died 30 September 1990 (aged 78)
Sydney, Australia
Occupation Novelist, playwright, poet, short-story writer, essayist
Nationality Australian
Citizenship British & Australian
Education Bachelor of Arts
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Period 1935–87
Notable award(s) Miles Franklin Literary Award
1957 Voss
1961 Riders in the Chariot

Australian of the Year Award
Nobel Prize in Literature

Patrick Victor Martindale White (28 May 1912 – 30 September 1990) was an Australian author who was widely regarded as a major English-language novelist of the 20th century. From 1935 until his death, he published 12 novels, two short-story collections and eight plays. His fiction freely employs shifting narrative vantage points and a stream of consciousness technique. In 1973, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.


Childhood and adolescence

White was born in Knightsbridge, London, to Australian parents, who settled in Sydney when he was six months old. As a child, he lived in one flat with his sister, nanny and a maid, while his parents lived in an adjoining flat. At the age of four, White developed asthma, a condition that had taken the life of his maternal grandfather. White's health was fragile throughout his childhood, which, while it precluded his participation in many childhood activities, stimulated his imagination. He would perform private rites in the garden, and would dance for his mother’s friends. He loved the theatre, which he first visited at an early age. At the age of ten, White was sent to Tudor House School, a boarding school in the New South Wales highlands, in an attempt to abate his asthma. It took him some time to adjust to the presence of other children. At boarding school he started to write plays. Even at this early age, White wrote about noticeably adult themes. In 1924, the boarding school ran into financial trouble, and the headmaster suggested that White be sent to boarding school in England, a suggestion which his parents accepted.

White struggled to adjust to his new surroundings at this new school, Cheltenham College. He was later to describe it as "a four-year prison sentence". White withdrew inside himself and had a limited circle of acquaintances. Occasionally he would holiday with his parents at European locations, but their relationship still remained distant. While in London, White did make one close friend, Ronald Waterall, an older boy who shared similar interests. White’s biographer, David Marr, wrote that the two men would walk arm in arm to London shows, stand around stage doors to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars, and give practical demonstrations of chorus girls’ high kicks, with appropriate vocal accompaniment. When Waterall left school, White again withdrew into himself. He asked his parents if he could leave school to become an actor. They compromised, allowing him to finish school early, on the condition that he first come home to Australia, to try life on the land.

Travelling the world

Patrick White: A Life by David Marr (1991). The cover portrait is a detail from a 1980 painting of White by Australian artist Brett Whiteley.

White spent two years working as a stockman at Bolaro, a 73 km² station near Adaminaby on the edge of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, Australia. His parents felt that he should work on the land rather than become a writer and hoped that his work as a jackaroo would cause his artistic ambitions to fade. Although White grew to respect the land, and his health started to improve, it was clear that he was not cut out for this life.

From 1932 to 1935, White lived in England, studying French and German literature at King's College, Cambridge. He struggled in his first term, in part because he developed an attraction to a young man who had come to King's to become an Anglican priest. White dared not speak of his feelings for fear of losing the friendship and, like many homosexual men of that period, feared that his sexuality would doom him to a lonely life. Then one night, the student priest, after an awkward liaison with two women, admitted to White that women meant nothing to him sexually. This became White’s first love affair.

While at Cambridge University, a collection of White's poetry was published under the title The Ploughman and Other Poems, and he wrote a play that was performed by an amateur group. He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1935, and briefly settled in London, where he lived in an area that was frequented by artists. Here, the young author thrived for a time, writing several unpublished works, and reworking a novel, Happy Valley, that he had written while jackarooing. In 1937, White’s father died, leaving him ten thousand pounds. This enabled him to write full-time in relative comfort. Two more plays followed, before he succeeded in finding a publisher for Happy Valley. The novel was received well in London, but poorly in Australia. He wrote another novel, Nightside, but abandoned it after receiving negative comments. He later spoke of regretting that he had not finished it.

In 1936 White met the 18 years older painter Roy de Maistre who became an important influence in his life and on his work. The two men never became lovers, but firm friends. In Patrick White's own words "He became what I most needed, an intellectual and aesthetic mentor". They had many similarities. They were both homosexual; they both felt like outsiders in their own families; as a result they both had ambivalent feelings about their families and backgrounds, yet both maintained close and life-long links with their families, particularly their mothers. They also both appreciated the benefits of social standing and connections; and Christian symbolism and biblical themes are common in both artists' work.[1] Patrick White dedicated his first novel 'Happy Valley' (1939) to de Maistre, and acknowledged de Maistre's influence on his writing. In 1947 De Maistre's painting 'Figure in a Garden (The Aunt)' was used as the cover for the first edition of Patrick White's 'The Aunt's Story'. Patrick White also bought many of de Maistre's paintings for himself. In 1974 Patrick White gave all his paintings by de Maistre to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Towards the end of the 1930s, White spent some time in the United States, including Cape Cod, Massachusetts and New York City, where he wrote The Living and the Dead. By the time World War II broke out, he had returned to London and joined the Royal Air Force. He was accepted as an intelligence officer, and was posted to the Middle East. He served in Egypt, Palestine, and Greece before the war was over. While in the Middle East, he had an affair with a Greek Army officer, Manoly Lascaris, who was to become his life partner.[2]

The growth of White's writing career

Voss (1957). The cover art was the first of several works produced especially for White's novels by Australian artist Sidney Nolan.

After the war, White once again returned to Australia, buying an old house in Castle Hill, in the semi-rural outskirts of Sydney. Here he settled down with Lascaris, the officer he had met during the war. They lived there for 18 years, selling flowers, vegetables, milk, and cream, as well as pedigreed puppies.[3] During these years, he started to make a reputation for himself as a writer, publishing The Aunt's Story and The Tree of Man, which was published in the United States in 1955 and shortly after in England. The Tree of Man was released to rave reviews in the US, but, in what was to become a typical pattern, was panned in Australia. White had doubts about whether to continue writing, after his books were largely dismissed in Australia (three of them having been called ‘un-Australian’ by critics), but, in the end, decided to persevere. His first breakthrough in Australia came when his next novel, Voss, won the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award.

In 1961, White published Riders in the Chariot. This was to become both a bestseller as well as a prize-winner, garnering him a second Miles Franklin Award. In 1963, White and Lascaris decided to sell the house at Castle Hill that they had named "Dogwoods". A number of White's works from the 1960s depict the fictional town of Sarsaparilla, including his collection of short stories, The Burnt Ones, and the play, The Season at Sarsaparilla. By now, he had clearly established his reputation as one of the world's great authors, but remained an essentially private person, resisting opportunities for interviews and public appearances, although his circle of friends had widened significantly.

In 1968, White wrote The Vivisector, a character portrait of an artist. Many people drew links to his friend, the painter Sidney Nolan, but White always vehemently denied any connection. Around this time, he decided that he would not accept any more prizes for his work, and declined both the $10,000 Britannia Award and another Miles Franklin Award. White was approached by Harry M. Miller to work on a screenplay for Voss, but nothing came of it. He became an active opponent of literary censorship and joined a number of other public figures in signing a statement of defiance against Australia’s decision to participate in the Vietnam War.

White's house at 20 Martin St, Centennial Park, Sydney

In 1973, White became the first Australian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature". White enlisted Sidney Nolan to travel to Stockholm to accept the prize on his behalf. The award had an immediate impact on his career, as his publisher doubled the print run for The Eye of the Storm and gave him a larger advance for his next novel. White used the money from the prize to establish a trust to fund the Patrick White Award, given annually to established creative writers who have received little public recognition. He was invited by the House of Representatives to be seated on the floor of the House in recognition of his achievement. White declined, explaining that his nature could not easily adapt itself to such a situation.[4] The last time such an invitation had been extended was in 1928, to Bert Hinkler.

White was made Australian of the Year, but, in typically rebellious fashion, his acceptance speech encouraged Australians to spend the day reflecting on the state of the country. Privately, he was less than enthusiastic about it. In a letter to Marshall Best on 27 January 1974, he wrote: "Something terrible happened to me last week. There is an organisation which chooses an Australian of the Year who has to appear at an official lunch in Melbourne Town Hall on Australia Day. This year I was picked on as they had run through all the swimmers, tennis players, yachtsmen".[citation needed]

The twilight years

White supported Gough Whitlam's Labor government and, following the 1975 constitutional crisis, became particularly anti-royalist, making a rare appearance on national television to broadcast his views on the matter.

During the 1970s, White’s health began to deteriorate—his teeth were crumbling, his eyesight was failing, and he had chronic lung problems. In 1979, his novel The Twyborn Affair was short-listed for the Booker Prize, but White requested that it be removed to give younger writers a chance to win. (The prize was won by Penelope Fitzgerald, who was just 4 years younger than White.) Soon after, White announced that he had written his last novel, and that in the future, he would write only for radio or the stage.

In 1981, White published his autobiography, Flaws in the glass: a self-portrait, which explored issues about which he had publicly said little, such as his homosexuality, and his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize personally. On Palm Sunday, 1982, White addressed a crowd of 30,000 people, calling for a ban on uranium mining and for the destruction of nuclear weapons.

In 1986 White released one last novel, Memoirs of Many in One, though it was curiously published under the pen name " Alex Xenophon Demirjan Gray" and edited by Patrick White. In the same year, his novel Voss was turned into an opera. White refused to see it when it was first performed at the Adelaide Festival, because Queen Elizabeth II had been invited, and chose instead to see it later in Sydney. In 1987, White wrote Three uneasy pieces, with his musings on ageing and society's efforts to achieve aesthetic perfection. When David Marr finished his biography of White in July 1990, his subject spent nine days going over the details with him.

Patrick White died in Sydney on 30 September 1990.



Short story collections

  • The Burnt Ones (1964)
  • The Cockatoos (1974)
  • Three Uneasy Pieces (1987)


  • Bread and Butter Women (1935) Unpublished.
  • The School for Friends (1935) Unpublished.
  • Return to Abyssinia (1947) Unpublished.
  • The Ham Funeral (1947) prem. Union Theatre, Adelaide, 1961.
  • The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962)
  • A Cheery Soul (1963)
  • Night on Bald Mountain (1964)
  • Big Toys (1977)
  • Signal Driver: A Morality Play for the Times (1982)
  • Netherwood (1983)
  • Shepherd on the Rocks (1987)



  • Flaws in the Glass (1981)


  1. ^ Roy de Mestre and Patrick White
  2. ^ Webby, Elizabeth (2000), The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, Cambridge University Press, p. 235, ISBN 0521658438 
  3. ^ Jones, Philip (2003-12-08). "Manoly Lascaris: Patrick White's devoted companion, and a source of good stories for his novels". The Guardian. http:// 
  4. ^ Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, p. 516
  • A Conversation with Patrick White, Australian Writers in Profile, Southerly, No.3 1973
  • Barry Argyle, Patrick White, Writers and Critics Series, Oliver and Boyd, London, 1967
  • Peter Beatson, The Eye in the Mandala, Patrick White: A Vision of Man and God, Barnes & Noble, London, 1976
  • John Docker, Patrick White and Romanticism: The Vivisector, Southerly, No.1, 1973
  • Simon During, Patrick White, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, VIC, 1996.
  • Helen Verity Hewitt, Patrick White and the Influence of the Visual Arts in his Work, Doctoral Thesis, Dept. of English, University of Melbourne, 1995.
  • Holland, Patrick (27 May 2002). "Patrick White (1912 - 1990)". Retrieved 21 June 2007. 
  • Clayton Joyce (ed.)Patrick White: A Tribute, Angus & Robertson, Harper Collins, North Ryde, 1991.
  • Brian Kiernan, Patrick White, Macmillan Commonwealth Writers Series, The Macmillan Press, London, 1980.
  • Alan Lawson (ed.)Patrick White: Selected Writings, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1994
  • David Marr, Patrick White - A Life, Random House Australia, Sydney, 1991.
  • David Marr (ed.), Patrick White Letters, Random House Australia, Sydney, 1994.
  • Laurence Steven, Dissociation and Wholeness in Patrick White's Fiction, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Ontario, 1989.
  • Patrick White, Patrick White Speaks, Primavera Press, Sydney, Publisher Paul Brennan, 1989.
  • William Yang, Patrick White: The Late Years, PanMacmillan Australia, 1995

External links

Preceded by
Shane Gould
Australian of the Year Award
Succeeded by
Sir Bernard Heinze


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Possibly all art flowers more readily in silence. Certainly the state of simplicity and humility is the only desirable one for artist or for man. While to reach it may be impossible, to attempt to do so is imperative. Stripped of almost everything that I had considered desirable and necessary, I began to try.

Patrick White (1912-05-281990-09-30) was an Australian novelist and winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature.



  • Possibly all art flowers more readily in silence. Certainly the state of simplicity and humility is the only desirable one for artist or for man. While to reach it may be impossible, to attempt to do so is imperative. Stripped of almost everything that I had considered desirable and necessary, I began to try. Writing, which had meant the practice of an art by a polished mind in civilised surroundings, became a struggle to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words. I began to see things for the first time. Even the boredom and frustration presented avenues for endless exploration; even the ugliness, the bags and iron of Australian life, acquired a meaning. As for the cat's cradle of human intercourse, this was necessarily simplified, often bungled, sometimes touching. Its very tentativeness can be reward. There is always the possibility that the book lent, the record played, may lead to communication between human beings. There is the possibility that one may be helping to people a barely inhabited country with a race possessed of understanding.
    These, then, are some of the reasons why an expatriate has stayed, in the face of those disappointments which follow inevitably upon his return.
    • "The Prodigal Son" (1958)

The Tree of Man (1955)

  • Conversation is imperative if gaps are to be filled, and old age, it is the last gap but one.
  • Loonies speak their own language, like educated people.

The Burnt Ones (1964)

Collection of short stories.
  • If she had only been able to touch him, they might perhaps have pooled their secrets and discovered the reason for human confusion. But as that wasn't possible, she went outside, into the garden.
    • "Dead Roses"

In The Making (1970)

I've made use of religious themes and symbols. Now, as the world becomes more pagan, one has to lead people in the same direction in a different way...
  • Religion. Yes, that's behind all my books. What I am interested in is the relationship between the blundering human being and God. I belong to no church, but I have a religious faith; it's an attempt to express that, among other things, that I try to do. Whether he confesses to being religious or not, everyone has a religious faith of a kind. I myself am a blundering human being with a belief in God who made us and we got out of hand, a kind of Frankenstein monster. Everyone can make mistakes, including God. I believe God does intervene; I think there is a Divine Power, a Creator, who has an influence on human beings if they are willing to be open to him.
  • In my books I have lifted bits from various religions in trying to come to a better understanding; I've made use of religious themes and symbols. Now, as the world becomes more pagan, one has to lead people in the same direction in a different way.
  • Why can't a writer use writing as a painter uses paint? I try to. When I wrote The Tree of Man I felt I couldn't write about simple, illiterate people in a perfectly literate way; but in my present novel the language is more sophisticated. I think perhaps I have clarified my style quite a lot over the years. I find it a great help to hear the language going on around me; not that what I write, the narrative, is idiomatic Australian, but the whole work has a balance and rhythm which is influenced by what is going on around you. When you first write the narrative it might be unconscious, but when you come to work it over you do it more consciously. It gives what I am writing a greater feeling of reality.
  • The essence of what you have to say you pick up before you're twenty.
  • I always like to write three versions of a book. The first is always agony and chaos; no one could understand it. With the second you get the shape, it's more or less all right. I write both of those in longhand. The third draft I type out with two fingers: it's for refining of meaning, additions and subtractions. I think my novels usually begin with characters; you have them floating about in your head and it may be years before they get together in a situation. Characters interest me more than situations.
  • I have the same idea with all my books: an attempt to come close to the core of reality, the structure of reality, as opposed to the merely superficial. The realistic novel is remote from art. A novel should heighten life, should give one an illuminating experience; it shouldn't set out what you know already. I just muddle away at it. One gets flashes here and there, which help. I am not a philosopher or an intellectual. Practically anything I have done of any worth I feel I have done through my intuition, not my mind - which the intellectuals disapprove of. And that is why I am anathema to certain kinds of Australian intellectual.
  • I've lost interest in the theatre because you can't get what you want ever. I used to think it would be wonderful to see what you had written come to life. Here in Australia it's very hard to get an adequate performance because of the state of the theatre; but even if you have the best actors in the world it's never what you visualised. One can't say all one wants to say, one can't convey it.
  • I am interested in detail. I enjoy decoration. By accumulating this mass of detail you throw light on things in a longer sense: in the long run it all adds up. It creates a texture — how shall I put it — a background, a period, which makes everything you write that much more convincing. Of course, all artists are terrible egoists. Unconsciously you are largely writing about yourself. I could never write anything factual; I only have confidence in myself when I am another character. All the characters in my books are myself, but they are a kind of disguise.

Australians in a Nuclear War (1983)

We must cure ourselves of the habit of war.
Online text
  • In the last couple of years I've been doing this sort of thing constantly, often repeating myself, becoming an avoidable Doomsday bore. But anything of importance — like a garden, a human relationship, a child, a religious faith, even the most convinced brand of atheism has to be worked on constantly if it is to survive.
  • In recent years we have been served up a lot of claptrap about the need for a national identity. We have been urged to sing imbecile jingles, flex our muscles like the sportsmen from telly commercials, and display a heart optimism totally unconvincing because so superficial an unnatural. Those who preach this doctrine are usually the kind of chauvinist who is preparing his country, not to avert war, but to engage in it.
I would like every Australian couple born since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were blasted out of existence to consult these photographic records and for ever after do all in their power to prevent the children they are creating from suffering a fate similar to that thrust upon the children of those two Japanese cities. Let us rouse ourselves and realise this is what we shall have to face.
  • Many of those who hear me believe I am putting on an act, while others who had considered I am one who surely knows the answers, are depressed to find that, by my own admission, I don't. What I do know for certain is that what is regarded as success in a rational materialistic society only impresses superficial minds. It amounts to nothing and will not help us rout the destructive forces threatening us today. What may be our salvation is the discovery of the identity hidden deep in any one of us, and which may be found in even the most desperate individual, if he cares to search the spiritual womb which contains the embryo of what can be one's personal contribution to truth and life.
  • The ideal of non-attachment has been preached again and again in the course of the last 3000 years. It is found in Hinduism, the teachings of Buddha, the doctrine of Lao Tsu, in the philosophy of the Greek Stoics. The Gospel of Jesus is essentially one of non-attachment to the things of this world, and of attachment to God. What the Jewish philosopher Spinoza calls 'blessedness' is simply the state of non-attachment, just as Spinoza's 'human bondage' is the condition of one who identifies himself with his own desires, emotions, and thought processes, or with their objects in the external world.
  • I can only stick my neck out and offer my humble beliefs. If I become an outsider by doing so, this won't be a great hardship as I've be that as far back as I can remember — something strange and unacceptable in the eyes of those who believe they see straight. At least it's given me courage of a kind, which I'd like every Australian to acquire.
In the 14th Century an anonymous English mystic wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, the main theme of which is that God cannot be apprehended by man's intellect and that only love can pierce the 'cloud of unknowing' which lies between Him and us.
  • I don't think I am ghoulish in saying that I would like them, and every morally responsible citizen of the world, particularly my fellow Australians of the World War II period, to refresh their memories by referring regularly to the photographic record of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki happening— the rags of human flesh, the suppurating sores, the despair of families blown apart, the disturbed minds, the bleak black gritty plains where the homes of human beings like you and I once stood. Most of all, I would like every Australian couple born since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were blasted out of existence to consult these photographic records and for ever after do all in their power to prevent the children they are creating from suffering a fate similar to that thrust upon the children of those two Japanese cities. Let us rouse ourselves and realise this is what we shall have to face.
  • I have derived immense comfort, hope, faith, inspiration from a great American, the Cistercian monk-teacher-activist Thomas Merton. Initially a contemplative religious, Merton's spiritual drive was aimed at halting the dehumanization of man in contemporary society, a sickness he saw as leading to mass violence and ultimately nuclear war. War of any kind is abhorrent. Remember that since the end of World War II, over 40 million people have been killed by conventional weapons. So, if we should succeed in averting nuclear war, we must not let ourselves be sold the alternative of conventional weapons for killing our fellow men. We must cure ourselves of the habit of war.
  • The spirit may triumph where politics (the League and the United Nations), socio-political faiths such as Marxism, Italian Fascism and German National-Socialism — all have failed. I see our only hope in faith, charity, and in humbling ourselves before man and God.
  • In the 14th Century an anonymous English mystic wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, the main theme of which is that God cannot be apprehended by man's intellect and that only love can pierce the 'cloud of unknowing' which lies between Him and us. I feel that in my own life anything I have done of possible worth has happened in spite of my gross, worldly self. I have been no more than the vessel used to convey ideas above my intellectual capacities. When people praise passages I have written, more often than not I can genuinely say, 'Did I write that?' I don't think this is due to my having a bad memory, because I have almost total recall of trivialities. I see it as evidence of the part the supernatural plays in lives which would otherwise remain earthbound.

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