Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2009

The Twyborn Affair (1979), by Patrick White

The Twyborn Affair I really enjoyed The Twyborn Affair.  I like Patrick White so much that I had planned to eke out the few remaining books I have yet to read by rationing myself to one per year, but I couldn’t resist including this one as one of my choices for the Classic Challenge.  It’s especially nice to read this copy, in its battered dust jacket, because it’s autographed – yes, the great man of Australian literature has literally held this book in his hands!Patrick white signature  (I bet he loathed book signings!)

Jane Gleeson-White – whose Classics, Books for Life inspired my choice of this book for the challenge (she selects Voss for inclusion in  Australian Classics) writes that The Twyborn Affair was a bestseller for White.  It was also shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize, but White withdrew it to ‘make way for younger writers’.  After all, once you’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature, (1973) ‘for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’ and you’ve already won the inaugural Miles Franklin (1957), you can perhaps afford to be ‘ever thoughtful of other writers and artists‘ (Gleeson-White, p301).  White went on to establish the Patrick White Award for writers  who have been ‘highly creative over a long period but have not necessarily received adequate recognition‘ with a generosity that is not much acknowledged today.

Beware: spoilers below

 Anyway, I’m not surprised that The Twyborn Affair was a bestseller.  It’s easier to read than the High Modernism of Voss  and it’s an intriguing read.  The curious life and identity of Eddie Twyborn is told in three parts:

  • in the south of France where Joanie Golson, in retreat from British scorn for ‘colonial’ Australians, discovers and becomes fascinated by ‘Eudoxia’ Vatatzes, and there are enigmatic hints of a relationship that don’t make sense;
  • the interlude on the Monaro where Eddie Twyborn has ambiguous relationships with the local squatter’s wife, Marcia Lushington and the manager Prowse ; and
  • the life of Eadith Trist, the madam of a high-class bordello in London. 

It is only in Part III that it becomes clear that Eudoxia, Eddie and Eadith are one and the same.  I don’t think it’s magic realism, I think that Twyborn is a transvestite searching for identity and trying to form relationships in an unsympathetic world.  Scholars can correct me if I’m wrong about this, but whatever the case, it seems to me that the achievement of this novel – and what makes it so interesting to read – is that the character’s gender identity becomes secondary to his humanity. 

En route, there is White’s wonderful, piercing writing style, beginning with the depiction of Mrs Golson, a colonial abroad, foolish and presumptuous and patronised by Europeans for her ‘almost undetectable’ Australian accent, her never-quite-right clothes and her lamentable French.  The Golsons are wealthy, (from trade), but alas, they do not have style or aristocratic connections.   To escape their awkward place in British society, they venture to an expensive hotel at St Mayeul in France.  By chance Joanie comes across Eudoxia and her older paramour, the exiled Byzantine Angelos Vatazes, and although spouse Boyd ‘Curly’ Golson would like to sail for home because of the impending war (WW1, it’s 1914), this friendship seems to offer a salve for Mrs G’s social, sexual and grammatical doubts, and she lingers there in St Mayeul in hope. 

As usual, White uses his characters to snipe at Australian anti-intellectualism, and there are some amusing bon mots:

If only Curly would back her up, but like most Australian husbands, he never did if one ventured into country considered in any way ‘artistic’ or ‘intellectual’. (p100)

The bathos of Angelo’s death, (p126) his last conversation bemoaning the forfeiture of his enema (left behind when the couple fled St Mayeul rent unpaid) is classic White.  He is also merciless about women and their clothing:

The monkey fur straggling down from a Venetian tricorne gave her head the look of a hanging basket in a fernery. (p171)

Part II shifts to an Australian setting with Eddie Twyborn’s awkward sea voyage back home, where he tries to exorcise his memories of war.  Decorated for an accidental act of valour in the war (he dropped the medal in a gutter in London, a detail sure to alienate any of White’s remaining readers from the RSL), he is pursued by two athletic young girls but manages to keep his distance.  There is an even more awkward reunion with his embarrassed parents because he had jilted a socially-approved young woman (who ended up better off with an accountant).  Eddie then departs for life on the land as a jackeroo.  (That’s a farm labourer, White reminds us, called a jackeroo only when the work is done by the moneyed.) 

At Bogong (named after the moths) Eddie is patronised by the sterile masculinity of the men and their manager Don Prowse  – but class and education usurp this relationship when Greg Lushington, the owner of the property, cracks jokes that exclude the others.  White’s is a devastating portrait of life on the land in outback Australia – the dry, red isolation drove away Prowse’s wife and child, and wealthy women like Marcia Lushington (a ‘foreigner’ because she comes from over Tilba way), have nothing to do but put their time in riding about the paddocks with Greg and Prowse.  ‘You can’t expect them to spend all their time readin’ libr’y books or shakin the mothballs out of their furs’ says Peggy Tyrrell, the housekeeper.   Reading is problematic (as it is for Sanderson in Voss) and while Prowse used to read books before he married the departed Kath who scorned novels for magazines, he now has to mask his education from the men – though he is ‘as liable to lapse into educated speech as Greg Lushington would talk uneducated to his men. (p201)   There’s only stale fruit to eat (p205) and the delights of nearby Woolambi offering shops, a pub and an occasional ‘root’ if a man wants it (p178) so there seems to be nothing much to do except drench sheep and quash rabbits.

Male rituals, bonding and alienation are rendered with grave humour.  Prowse and Twyborn have a ‘ritual male tussle’ over who’s to carry the trunk when the manager arrives to collect Eddie from the siding at Fossickers Flat (p176); they communicate with schoolboy scorn about the boss (p177); they resolve any angst about Prowse’s non-participation in the war by agreeing that farming is a necessary job (p177) and they laugh heartily when Prowse manages to send the Ford skidding over the rough track and they end up facing in the direction from which they came.  But Prowse’s attempts at friendliness (no doubt to ameliorate his intense loneliness, not to mention make bearable having to share not only the cottage but also the double ‘thunderbox’) make Twyborn feel even more of a misfit.  He has romantic ideas about forming a relationship ‘between himself, the huggermugger buildings, even a bitter landscape’ (p179) and he longs for permanence in the timelessness of the bush.  How different this must have seemed to White’s British readers reared on Thomas Hardy tales of country life in small communities bound together by tradition and geography! No one but White has ever rendered so well the arid isolation of Australian outback life yet shown at the same time how it suits a certain kind of sensibility, independence and self-reliance.  Eddie Twyborn soon recognises these qualities in Prowse too, feeling an affection for him that would earn him a fist if he expressed it. (p202)

Even the architecture conspires against a visitor.  Australian country architecture, with houses surrounded by verandas and porches on all sides so that you can’t work out where the correct entrance might be, ‘is in some sense a material extension of the contradictory beings who evolved its elaborate informality, as well as a warning to those who do not belong. (p212)  When Eddie visits the Lushingtons Marcia has heard all her husband’s dinner party stories before, and she says that Eddie has come to the wrong place if he wants ‘to think things out’ because the Monaro ‘numbs thought or pinches it out’ (p220).  The Lushingtons have a library – but hide their books ‘from neighbourhood eyes in some unfrequented attic‘ (p232) and Marcia is embarrassed by Greg’s disclosure that he’s written a poem about unrequited love. (p232)  Conversations amount to a ‘liturgy’ of ‘weather and wool, fluke and worms, lucerne and sorghum’. (p250) ( I have overheard this pub liturgy myself when on holiday in outback Queensland, making the expected pilgrimage into the red dust and endless paddocks only to discover the surprising hostility of locals who expressed their resentment of Victorian number plates by deliberately running us off the road.)

Some of the women in The Twyborn Affair are excruciating.  Eadie Twyburn’s spiteful letter to Marcia Lushington (p302) – ostensibly a sympathy letter – is a savage reprisal for being ‘cut’ in the dining room of the Hotel Australia.  White enjoyed depicting the petty snobberies of Australian society and his women of a certain type are always both victims and vanquishers at one time or another.  In England, the Ladies Maude and Kitty who twitter over the salacious ‘goings-on’ at number 84 are favourite types: theirs was the generation doomed to spinsterhood by the Great War and the emptiness of their lives shows them titillated by ‘imagined rituals of a sexual nature’ (p307) .  They find themselves unable to report the scandal to the authorities because their neglectful nephew is a patron of the bordello, buying their silence with cases of champagne and an occasional drive in the country. They play their part of ‘withering insomniac lives…settled down to the humdrum of living, hardly life, in which they no longer play a part, except as extras stationed at the window.’ (p309)

What is unexpected is White’s sympathetic treatment of Eadie Twyborn.  The search for identity in this gender-bending character reaches its climax when Eadie and Eadith/Eddie meet by chance by the Thames Embankment.  This is after a series of missed encounters: Eadie’s collapse in a shop when her failing eyesight prevents her recognising Eadith; passing each other on an escalator and so on, each time Eadith unable to take the initiative and reveal her/himself.  But by the river, as the clouds of World War II gather, they share the same seat:

To Eadith’s terror, this timeless figure seemed to be approaching the bench on which she was seated.  Should she make her getaway before her courage dwindled, her will left her?  Or should she remain and be exposed as never before? Nothing was decided for her.  She continued sitting, more passive than she had known herself in the moments of her worst despair.

The equally passive, outwardly unemotional figure of the elderly woman revealed no possible reason for her decision to sit on the already occupied bench.  She didn’t speak: she was not the traditional Australian looking for a stranger on whom to inflict a life story.  (p421)

They were looking into each other’s eyes, Eadith’s of fragmented blue and gold blazing in their tension, their determination not to melt, Eadie’s of a dull topaz, the eyes of an old, troubled dog.  The soft, white-kid face, the pale lips, began to tremble so violently she had to turn away at last. (p422)

Eddie’s revelation, when it comes, is unspoken, their exchange scrawled in the fly-leaf of Eadie’s Bible:

Are you my son Eddie?

No, but I am your daughter Eadith.

And one of the most tender moments in White’s oeuvre follows:

Presently Eadie said, ‘I am so glad.  I’ve always wanted a daughter.’  (p243)

Was this the acceptance White craved from his own mother?

A fabulous book!

 NB Page references above are to the 1979 Jonathan Cape First Edition.

PS For anyone interested, there are also some very interesting and thoughtful comments about some aspects of this post on the Opening Lines of Riders in the Chariot post.


  1. I only read the first two paras as I haven’t read this White yet…sounds like I should add it to the you know what!


  2. I found ‘Voss’ slightly more difficult than ‘The Twyborn Affair’ but equally rewarding. For me, Lisa, the key to ‘Voss’ is appreciating, firstly, an epiphany of Biblical proportions as the three ‘wise’ men, following a star in the east, encroach on the aboriginal camp-site and, secondly, the magnitude of Laura Trevalyan’s triumph just before her serene exchange with the drunk and insolent Englishman.

    Reading your summary of ‘The Twyborn Affair’, Lisa, refreshed happy memories. It is a fabulous book. Eadie’s lesbian relationship with Joanie Golson is crucial, as the latter inadvertently interacts with her friend’s son in France. White is ever sympathetic to Eddie Twyborn.

    But is White’s ‘treatment of Eadie Twyborn’ sympathetic? When the aged mother and son meet in London, Eddie exposes himself ‘as never before’. He trembles violently and with good reason, because Eadith is being annihilated! Far from a tender moment, Eadie’s ‘I am so glad. I’ve always wanted a daughter,’ is pregnant with dreadful irony for her son…her son!

    Nevertheless, White may retain shreds of sympathy for Eadie in that she seems almost pathetic back in Sydney. If White craved, in vain, acceptance from his own mother, Eddie Twyborn’s maternal ‘reunion’ would hardly console. Incidentally, the ending is similar in mood to ‘The Eye of the Storm’, six years earlier.


  3. I haven’t read The Eye of the Storm yet…that’s a treat in store.


  4. At 4 am, Lisa, it occurred to me that Eddie is dead to old Eadie the moment she reunites with her troubled son and finds Eadith. The bomb that kills Eddie, kills a corpse. Such is motherly love.


  5. […] The Twyborn Affair (1979) by Patrick White (Australia) […]


  6. what a wonderful, in-depth review! i really enjoyed reading this.


    • Thanks, Mark – I loved reading about your chance discovery of this book on Good Reads, and I hope you get a chance to read more of White some time!


  7. I am a research scholar from from southern part of India, doing doctoral degree research on Patrick white’s novels, and this website was very much usefull for me.I also invite suggestions and ideas and also usefull articles regarding Patrick whites novels.


    • Thank you Kabilan, that’s very encouraging of you to say so:)


  8. This is an appalling review: inaccurate, trite and uncomprehending. Stick to reading, please!


  9. Hard for me to get past the harm done Herbert Dyce Murphy by White’s arrogant and selfish lack of discretion. By citing some of his, Murphy’s experiences in the year or so that he worked for the British secret service, as an, if not the inspiration for his work. Due to so many of Murphy’s contemporaries, chiefly those who knew him slightly or not at all, interpreting the author’s attribution to mean the work drew FAR more upon Murphy’s actual experiences than it did, White thoughtlessness caused Murphy emotional pain and damage to his reputation that lasted the remainder, nearly seventy years, of Murphy life.
    (As to his reputation, a quick visit to Google is all one needs to find that that damage did not end with Murphy’s passing.)


    • Hello Mertz, thank you for your comment. I did not know anything about this. I will have a look in The David Marr biography to see if he has anything to say about it.


  10. […] it yet: I want to read The Twyborn Affair next. (Update: I’ve since read both of these, see here and […]


  11. […] was Patrick White’s mother, and — paired here with the pretentious Mrs Eadie Twyborn from The Twyborn Affair — she was extremely conscious of the White side of the family’s more impressive wealth.  […]


  12. Taking you back to 2009 when you wrote this review Lisa, I just found a hard cover edition (in perfect condition) of The Twyborn Affair for two dollars in a local Op Shop. It was in the “take for half price” section for rejects, along with a perfect hard cover edition of Ruth Park’s Missus.

    I’ve been wanting both.

    I’m now looking forward to a terrific read!


    • Ohhhh, what a find!
      I can just imagine the thrill as you stood there in the shop, holding the book in disbelief…
      Happy, happy reading!


      • I was looking for your review, as I hadn’t read this one. I can’t read Patrick White borrowed from the library as I feel rushed by the return date – I have to enjoy him at leisure. Reading a Patrick White is always quite an undertaking, and so aborbing! Just sad to see these books in the reject pile!

        So thanks for the review, it’s always great to know I can come by here and see what your thoughts were!


        • It’s good to hear that, Sue…
          #Hint: I loved it!


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