Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2009

Opening Lines: Riders in the Chariot (1961)

Riders in the ChariotRiders in the Chariot won Patrick White his second Miles Franklin Award in 1961, five years after Voss took out the inaugural award in 1957.  I haven’t read it yet: I want to read The Twyborn Affair next. (Update: I’ve since read both of these, see here and here).

It’s astonishing to me that I was able to buy a first edition of the Nobel prize winning author’s  book – complete with intact dustjacket with the Sidney Nolan illustration –  for a mere $25 in a country bookshop.   It’s inscribed, ‘Wishing Mother a very happy birthday, from John, March 24th 1962’.  Did ‘Mother’ like it, I wonder?  I hope she did, but I fear not, for Wikipedia tells me that ‘the novel did little for White’s popular or critical reception in Australia, selling a measly amount of copies, and further alienating him from the public’.

These are the opening lines;

‘Who was that woman?’ asked Mrs Colquhoun, a rich lady who had come recently to live at Sarsparilla.

‘Ah,’ Mrs Sugden said, and laughed, ‘that was Miss Hare’.

‘She appears an unusual sort of person,’ Mrs Colquhoun ventured to hope.

‘Well,’ replied Mrs Sugden, ‘I cannot deny that Miss Hare is different.’

But the postmistress would not add to that.  She started poking at a dry sponge.  Even at her most communicative, talking with authority of the weather, which was her subject, she favoured the objective approach.’

Was there ever an author who could so comprehensively pour scorn on a certain kind of woman as Patrick White?!

Author: Patrick White
Title: Riders in the Chariot
Publisher: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961
Source: Personal Library


  1. Having recently read the major White novels, Lisa, ‘The Tree of Man’ defeated me and ‘Vivisector’ is too grim, but I adore the rest. The endings are so spectacular, and ‘Riders in the Chariot’ is there with the very best. I warm inside as I remember how ‘Voss’, ‘The Eye of the Storm’ and ‘The Twyborn Affair’ ended.

    As for pouring ‘scorn on a certain kind of woman’, Mrs Edna Dun from ‘The Solid Mandala’ cops the worst.


  2. I too read ‘The Solid Mandala’ for the ABC First Tuesday Book Club in 2007, and watched the disappointing TV program discussing each other’s preferences. I recently listened to the slightly better ‘Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala’ on TheBookShow - TheBookShow failed to do justice to Arthur, describing him as a fool who became even more foolish in the end!

    Part 2, written from Arthur’s point of view, is wonderful in its piercing clarity, reflecting the real, inward Patrick White – an autobiography. Regarding the glass mandala, clever Waldo understands nothing: dumb but intuitive Arthur, a surprising amount. Far too much for John Brown and his son Waldo.

    Waldo died because he increasingly lacked the wherewithal to sustain life, and while the aged and wretched dogs survive for a time on his bodily remains, Waldo’s corpse proves as barren as his life. By contrast, Arthur exudes and celebrates life, even in a nut-house.


  3. Hi Gladys, thanks for joining in the conversation:). I love the portrayal of Mrs Merivale in A Fringe of Leaves as well…”unable to practice charity every hour of the twenty-four’ (p17) and the ghastly Mrs Courtney in the Vivisector.
    I keep promising myself to read David Marr’s bio because I think I would get even more out of the novels when I do. One day, one day!


  4. It is always a thrill to pick up first editions. I have been lucky too and have both Flaws in the Glass and The Twyborn Affair in first editions published by Jonathon Cape and both less than $15.00 each.


    • It’s amazing, isn’t it? Can you imagine finding say, Nadine Gordimer, or Coetzee so cheaply? Lisa


  5. One of the reasons I like Voss, is that the “certain kind of woman” gets a little vindication by the end. I don’t know if White meant it that way, but it seems to me that Mrs Bonner is a more sympathetic and understood character than, say, the mother in The Aunt’s Story, who, a kind of earlier equivalent, is just vicious, selfish, and wicked.


    • This is where I think that getting round to reading David Marr’s biography of White, not to mention Flaws in the Glass, would be useful. I’d like to know more about his relationships with women in general and his mother in particular, and how these relationships might have mellowed, or otherwise, over time. Lisa PS DKS -what is your name? It doesn’t feel very friendly to address you by your initials!


  6. Deanne.


    • Hello and welcome, Deanne:) I finished The Twyborn Affair today, and am blogging it now. What a wonderful book it is! Lisa


  7. Isn’t Laura Trevalyan, Deanne, supremely vindicated at the end of ‘Voss’?

    As for the selfish mother in ‘The Aunt’s Story’, Lisa, nothing tops Eddie Twyborn’s mother enjoying her Sydney garden at the end.


  8. Gladys, I’m a bit confused about where old Eadie is at the end, London amid the falling bombs, or Sydney. I do think that White was more sympathetic towards her with that moment of reconciliation and acceptance (see and while she contemplates the birds and the flowers in the garden she says that she ‘must not fail Eadith now that I have found her’ (p431). But where is she, as she waits for Eadith to come? Overhead there are silver planes and searchlights, ‘bombs and their consequences’ but the bulbul is not found in Europe or the UK and I don’t think hibiscus grow in London.


  9. I read ‘The Twyborn Affair’ a couple of years ago. As I remember, Old Eadie is back in Sydney with her earliest hopes for her disappointing child realised and incarnated in EADITH, whether a bomb victim or no.

    A euphoric twilight awaits the old woman, especially as she can never be disillusioned. The happiest of endings…for her.

    Thanks, Lisa, for mentioning the exotic but rasping ‘bulbul’. I had tried this morning to Google the bird but the spelling eluded me.


    • Do you have the book handy, Gladys? It’s really not clear where she is…I can’t type it all out, but from the top of the third last page… ‘Mrs Twyborn had been waiting in her hotel room for the daughter she was expecting. There had been an unusually fine sunset, if to the east rather than the west it accorded with these times of illogic and apocalypse, so she had not bothered to question it. Though a maid had drawn the black-out curtains…. She was barely shaken when the building moved in time with the crump, followed by an explosion outside…. Down the corridor a woman was hopping screaming… Now the kindly maid …shouted, ‘you must come down, I’ll take you to the shelter….the East End’s on fire …please come – I can’t wait forever. Two men were killed at the corner’. (And one of them was Eddie though she doesn’t know that because she doesn’t know that he has reverted to his male identity). … ‘I’ll wait, I’ll watch, Eadith will come.’ Frustrated by this stubborn old thing, the maid stormed off in pursuit of her own safety…overhead the silver plane…now that night had fallen, all London could have been burning… What was real was the garden in which she was sitting. She had come out to dry her hair, and was sitting on the discoloured steps among the lizards and bulbuls and hibiscus trumpets, waiting for Eadith… She had lost sight of the beautiful aluminium insect and would never know whether it had evaded those sticky feelers of light, or plunged into the destruction it had caused below. You could never be certain, either sitting in the garden, or on the bench beside the river, or waiting for the tram in the blaze of Sydney. Eadie said I must not fail Eadith now that I have found her Eadith Eddie no matter which this fragment of my self which I lost is now returned where it belongs. Sitting in the garden drying our hair together among the bulbuls and drizzle of taps we shall experience harmony at last. She loved the birds. As she dried her hair and waited, a bulbul was perched on the rim of the stone bird-bath, dipping its beak. Ruffling his feathers, he cocked his head at her, shook his little velvet jester’s cap, and raised his beak towards the sun.

      Interestingly in Eadie’s last sentence White, who was a huge fan of Joyce, abandons punctuation, rather like Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness in Ulysses. I interpreted this scene as Eadie sitting outside in the dark of night is thinking about her reconciliation with Eddie/Eadith and what it will be like in Sydney when they return together. Which is not going to happen, but she doesn’t know that, which is maybe why the bulbul with his jester’s cap cocks his head at her – querying her dreams. Lisa


  10. I don’t have the book, Lisa, so thanks for the excerpt. I’ve started to read your lengthy post on the novel.

    It matters little whether old Eadie is in London or Sydney, her ecstatic state of mind is the same. For the rest of her life, what matters is that mother has found her DAUGHTER!

    Hence the bulbul, a highly vocal bird with a nasal, gravelly call – arguably the most unattractive noise made by any bird.


    • Yes, true, and that’s why I thought that White had been kinder to a mother in this book than in others I’ve read.


  11. ‘Kinder to a mother’?

    On the contrary, Patrick White treats Eadie Twyborn with contemptuous savagery. In reality, she has no daughter and is – and always was – oblivious to her son, who has just died motherless! It’s an appalling ending – hence the discordant bulbul.

    By the way, I now think old Eadie is still in London, daydreaming of a rosy future ahead of her. And with Eddie dead, she won’t be seriously disappointed.


  12. I can see that I need to think about this again because I interpreted that obliviousness as acceptance that whatever gender Eadie/Eddie chose to be, it was it was ok with her.
    Ah well, that’s what’s fun about reading PW!


  13. Gladys — I think White gives her a great deal of vindication, yes. Her spirit is correct, she inspires art — when she speaks, Topp is attuned to the melody of country, her friend Willie Pringle turns out to be a genius — and in the wind she feels the future, she feels eternity, she sees an embryo legend in a disaster (which is to take the long view of it) and so on. Looking back on The Aunt’s Story again, I think it’s interesting that White has brought back the characters of the two sisters/cousins (one social, pretty, popular, married, the other forbidding, unpopular, intelligent, single) and this time united them, where, in AS, he pulled them apart. If Laura feeds on the future and the spiritual then Belle feeds on the past and the material. Paired, they’re Janus, they look both ways.

    This is why I like Voss’ sympathetic approach, not because it makes the book nice, but because it makes it more multi-sided, therefore more exciting. The hostility of Fanny for Theodora in AS shuts ideas down — the connection between Theo and Belle opens them up.

    (I’m relying on memory here, so for all I know this sounds like gobbledegook.)


  14. Thanks, Lisa, for a pleasant place to discuss Patrick White. By the way, what did you make of the rapturous ending of ‘Riders in the Chariot’?

    To say, Deanne, that Laura Trevalyan ‘sees an embryo legend in a disaster’ seems to sell her short. Judd’s account of the generous humanity of Voss, the visionary, in the depths of nightmare and death, gives rise to euphoria in Laura at the very instant she confirms her bereavement. A glorious paradox so characteristic of White.

    Instantly transformed from fearful to serene, Laura effortlessly fends off an arrogant Colonel Hebden and the drunk Ludlow, with truth on her side. Having long jettisoned material security, Laura and Voss seek and ultimately seem to find a deeper humanity – a soporific and spiritual catharsis that White is seeking for himself.


    • Ah, Gladys, I’m enjoying your discussion with Deanne and discovering more about the books each time you comment! I haven’t read Riders in the Chariot (or The Eye of the Storm, or Flaws in the Glass yet). So far I’ve read The Tree of Man, (1980 and 2006); A Fringe of Leaves & The Vivisector (both in 2006); The Solid Mandala in 2007 and The Aunt’s Story in 2005 and as an audio book last year (all pre blog, so my ramblings about these are not online, though I did journal them at the time); and then Voss and The Twyborn Affair this year. But even though I’m not an academic, just a general reader, I think that all these books repay reflection, discussion and wider reading, and particularly with those I read early on, I think re-reading would be worthwhile and enjoyable. I admit to hesitating when it came to blogging about Voss and The Twyborn Affair, because (like everything White wrote) they’re complex books and I was worried about making a fool of myself – but if there’s one thing I’d like to achieve with my little ANZ LitLovers blog, it would be to bring Patrick White to the attention of those who read literary fiction for pleasure. I want to show that you don’t have to be an expert in modernism or anything else to get a buzz out of reading our PW so that maybe the generation that missed out on reading him at school or university might discover him too. That’s a bit ambitious for a minor blog like mine, but you never know, eh? Lisa


  15. Silly me, Lisa, re-reading at the head of this blog the opening lines of “Riders in the Chariot”, I had forgotten that novel still awaits you. Have you a blog on ‘Voss’?

    Although English at high school is my crowning achievement in the humanities, I have resisted the temptation to read lit. crit. on Patrick White novels, preferring just to ponder them for pleasure. And from time to time, I am blessed with revelations even years later.

    As for making a fool of oneself, I learned recently that ‘Voss’ – once a high school text – is deemed beyond first year students studying modernist literature at Melbourne University and not prescribed. Like ‘Riders in the Chariot’, ‘Voss’ seems to demand more than a little Biblical background.


    • Hello again Gladys, your comment has reminded me that I really ought to have the Bible on the TBR, and I shall definitely have a go at it before I read Riders. Yes I did blog Voss, but I did it more for myself to make sense of the book as I read it. (I did this with Moby Dick and Don Quixote too, a bit like taking notes as you go, but doing it online instead of on paper.) So it’s more of a blunder around than a coherent essay or review LOL. This is the URL but this one about modernism goes with it and should be read first (unless you already know all about modernism, that is.) *chuckle* I had had a mental picture of me blogging the Bible – and getting into a great deal of trouble over it with the Religious Right! I may have to keep my thoughts about it to myself. BTW You can find most things on the blog by typing the book title, author or phrase into the search box with inverted commas e.g. “Patrick White”, but if I’ve written more than one post about something it will show up in the tags (RHS menu.) The topics most written about show up bigger than the others. Lisa


  16. […] also some very interesting and thoughtful comments about some aspects of this post on the Opening Lines of Riders in the Chariot post. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)I’m not a saint, just a parentFinding […]


  17. Gladys –I was thinking (I’ve dug out my copy of the book now, so I can quote) of something she says just at the end: “His legend will be written down, eventually, by those who have been troubled by it.” So, no, it might seem that I’m selling her short, but I’m not. The idea that Voss will become a legend to spiritually attuned people in the future, is part of her acceptance. She is not alone, she has her fellows in the spirit, they just ain’t all present in the flesh yet.


  18. I never doubted, Deanne, that Laura Trevalyan ’sees an embryo legend in a disaster’. But the nascent legend of ‘Voss’ plays almost no role in her switch from fearful to serene.

    With his wits fading, honest Judd says to her something like: Voss gained the humility of Christ in the end. Laura’s fearful burden disintegrates because Voss, her friend, is vindicated: he has prevailed in the battle with HIMSELF!

    White is always paradoxical.


  19. I bought a second-hand edition of Riders in the Chariot today… goodness knows when I’ll get around to read it but the blurb makes it sound quite exciting.


    • Some time next year, Kim…we could buddy read it on opposite ends of the earth!


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