The 1950s seem to have been a time for introspection about what it means to be an Australian, or rather, how it was that the archetypal Australian had come to be a working man from the bush, independent, resourceful, hard working when necessary, and contemptuous of authority – all attributes which had been freely applied to the soldiers of the Second AIF, now just returned from fighting the Japanese, and before them, to the First AIF, the original ANZACs.
Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties came out in 1954, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend in 1958 and, between them, Voss, in 1957. Not directly influenced by either, but part of the same discussion and informed by White’s own war service, in the deserts of North Africa.
You can’t write about White without writing about class. White was of the class of whom the working men in the bush were contemptuous, the squattocracy. His family owned large properties throughout NSW; all his adolesence was spent at boarding school and university in England; and during the war he was an intelligence officer in the (British) Royal Air Force.
Yet, it seems his roots as a writer were in Australia and he returned here permanently in 1948. I said in an earlier post that he wrote Voss from his study in inner Sydney, but in fact he and Manoly Laskaris lived on their hobby farm in Castle Hill, on the outskirts of Sydney until 1963 when they moved to, I think, White’s late mother’s house in Centennial Park.
Patrick White was one of the great writers of High Modernism, so Voss is much more about its eponymous hero’s interior, than it is about Australia’s, which in any case White had barely experienced. But I want to write about some other aspects of the novel.
This novel is White’s great contribution to the dominant myth of Australianness, the lone bushman, but he is cognisant also of its limitations. He posits one man against a hostile interior, but that man is a loner only in that he must be the leader; in Voss, crossing Australia is an upper middle class venture, supported by wealthy merchants, with, of the lower classes, only the ex-convict, small-landowner Judd playing an important role; the Australian legend excludes women, the Bulletin‘s version is openly misogynist, yet White has Laura riding alongside Voss, in spirit if not in fact; the mythical Australian bushman of the 1890s on whom all subsequent iterations of the Australian legend are based is white, Anglo. White subverts this by making his hero German, and by making the attempt to include Aboriginal actors and culture.
The bushman of the Australian legend, of say Such is Life, is a complainer, yes, but he is comfortable in the bush, on his own or with companions (‘mates’). Voss is not comfortable, and the bush – often waterless brigalow scrub and desert – sends him mad.
Voss of course is not Ludwig Leichardt and more often during my reading I felt dissonances rather than resonances. So Voss has walked up the NSW North Coast, from Newcastle to Moreton Bay (Brisbane) but Leichardt had also walked (or ridden) from Brisbane to Port Essington (Darwin) which would have revealed to him the nature of much of the country, and in particular that there were no great rivers in the north east quarter of the continent. Leichardt would have been both better prepared than Voss and more competent.
The other aspect of Voss as historical fiction which played on my mind is that White, in the 1950s, knew that the Australian interior was arid and hostile. Even without ever going further north and west, a year as a jackaroo (gentleman station hand) at Walgett would have made that clear! But Leichardt, in the 1840s, would not have known, and may well have believed that around the next corner he would come upon a Lake Baikal, a Great Lakes, or a Mississippi running in some other direction than North East (sailors mapping the mouths of the Ord or Fitzroy Rivers for instance, in the north west, had no reason to believe that they didn’t extend far into the interior).
What I am saying is that White’s description of the geography Voss faced was as accurate as research could make it, but he gives no hint of the beliefs that motivated Voss to set out on a 5,000 km walk into the unkown with a party of just six men (though in the end it is the two Aboriginal men who attach themselves to Voss at the last point of ‘civilisation’, and especially Jackie, who prove themselves the most valuable members of the party).
I have been chatting with Bron about whether Voss is still my number one Great Australian Novel, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not. It is a brilliant novel of its times, and probably still one of the great works of Modernism. But. Early accounts of Australia have Aboriginal people as shadows between the trees, as servants or stockmen (unpaid except for ‘rations’), as missing. Only from the 1920s do writers attempt to bring them into focus – Ion Idriess first, then Xavier Herbert and Eleanor Dark. White does well to treat the Blacks accompanying Voss, Dugald and Jackie, as real people, though of course they are still servants. You might imagine that Thomas Keneally was following on from White in making Jimmie the protagonist of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). White’s accounts of tribal Aboriginal culture are less successful and today wouldn’t be attempted.
Much as I love Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) and the important work of re-imagining first contact in That Deadman Dance (2010), number one must be Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) which is both brilliantly written, and holds the possibility that our acceptance of its truths might lead us forward to a place where we are partners rather than settlers in this country.
Patrick White, Voss, first pub. 1957. Audiobook from Bolinda, read by Humphrey Bower. 19 hours