I’ve been collecting First Editions of Australia’s only Nobel Prize winning author, Patrick White* for a while now, but had given up hope of ever getting my hands on any edition of his first novel, Happy Valley, (1939). This is because White refused to have it reissued during his lifetime and it is as scarce as hen’s teeth. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was when I discovered that this long-suppressed novel was being reissued as one of the Text Classics series.
And since all my readers know that I am an unabashed fan of Patrick White, you can also easily imagine my pleasure in reading it at last. Here is just a small sample of how, even in this first novel published when he was only 27, we can see the power of his astute observations and his acerbic wit:
Alys Browne and Mrs Belper, the patterns scattered and the cutting scissors, were drinking tea in the sitting-room at the bank. Alys had gone down to help Mrs Belper run something up. That was the difference between Mrs Belper and the other people, Alys Browne went to Mrs Belper whereas the other people went to Alys Browne. Another difference was that Mrs Belper thereby got something off, as issue at first illogical, but consider the distinction of Running Up, I mean as apart from Making a Dress, and she always gave a slap-up tea and really it was only right. Not that Mrs Belper was mean, she practised what she called economies. So here they were having tea, in the sitting-room at the bank, with its encrustations of pokerwork and pervading smell of dog. Mrs Belper had a passion for dogs. There was always one in her lap, or one protruding from under her skirts, the little fox-terriers that she bred, or if she answered the front door there was always a screaming, and snarling,and gnashing of teeth from little flighty, spring-toed dogs and laborious bitches about to whelp, the pandemonium threaded through with Mrs Belper’s soothing voice, her there, there, Trixie, you know who it is, or, how nice to see you, Mrs-er, no, no, Box won’t bite, will you, Box my lovely boy? So on the whole it is not surprising that the sitting-room, or even Mrs Belper herself, should be redolent of dogs. For she did smell of dogs, and she had a rich rasping cough, of which you were never certain how much was laughter and how much was cough.
God bless my soul, said Mrs Belper, I’m sweating at every pore. Like a pig.
Mrs Belper is very unconventional, said Mrs Furlow once upon a time, unwilling to launch a suspicion that Mrs Belper was common, I ask you, using expressions like that. This was before she learnt about Mrs Belper’s cousin who was secretary at Government House, which made her decide that after all Mrs Belper was just a Good Sort. It did not worry Mrs Belper. Nothing annoyed her, except when other people refused to trumpet like herself, or somebody cast a disparaging eye at the pool that one of the puppies had made, as if they could help it, the lambs, she said. The Belpers’ house was like that, you had to tread warily on account of pools, and sometimes even worse.
Patrick White, Happy Valley, Text Classics, p153
*This depends on whether you count J.M. Coetzee or not. I count him as an Australian like anyone else who has emigrated here and taken out Australian citizenship, but he won his Nobel for his body of work in South Africa, well before he became an Australian.