I didn’t think that I would ever get to read Patrick White’s debut novel Happy Valley. White suppressed it for fear of litigation and perhaps also because he thought it flawed, so copies were rare and (of course) well out of my price-range. But now in a bumper year for ‘new’ books by this author, along with White’s unfinished The Hanging Garden published posthumously byKnopf/Random House, Happy Valley has been reissued by Text Classics. And what a treat it is…
People with not much better to do with their time and opinions argue, sometimes, about Patrick White. It’s a no-win situation because readers of popular fiction and the occasional academic who would rather read a phone book than Voss soon clutter up the Comments space complaining that Nobel Prizewinners are generally not worth reading, that White’s Modernism is too highbrow or that his prose is ‘stultifying’. (Turgid is also a favourite pejorative). I can only feel pity for these people. I can understand why they may not enjoy White, because reading after all is a matter of personal taste. What I don’t understand is why they want to spend their time attacking a dead author who has brought prestige to Australian writing and who ‘is widely regarded as one of the most important English-language novelists of the 20th century.’
Anyway, it’s their loss. Don’t let them put you off reading Happy Valley. It’s a delicious portrait of small town life, and an engaging, accessible story that reminds me of Thea Astley at her acerbic best. (Note to self, must read another Astley before long.)
White’s parents apparently despatched him to outback Bolaroo in NSW in the hope that life as a jackaroo would make young Patrick abandon his ambitions of being a writer. Hah! Instead, his two years on the land provided him with the material for his first novel which (as we can see from Graham Greene’s blurb on the dust jacket), was well received in the UK and encouraged him to write more. (Not so in Australia, but the cultural cringe probably had something to do with that.)
Country folks may not like some of White’s observations, but I bet they’ll recognise themselves all the same.
Happy Valley flickers up into excitement when the autumn race meeting comes around, kindled by a sort of self-importance and craving for display that you feel a week or two before the arrival of those two days, the Friday and the Saturday, not to mention Friday night when they hold the dance at the School of Arts, or as the bills have it, the Grand Race Week Ball. The posters are yellow, done by the local press, you see them cracked on a paling fence, or the smaller ones at Quongs’ and in the Hills’ Tea Shop window, a rendezvous for flies, and washed paler by a yellow autumn sun. It makes you feel good to stand and look at the posters and think of the excitement of which they are the advance publicity. You can feel a hum blowing up in the wires between Moorang and Kambala, and Happy Valley and Glen Marsh, but centring in Happy Valley, you can also feel that. Stung to activity by the tingling of the wires, this is no longer so detached, as the press stutters at the office of the Happy Valley Star, as the girls sew the buttons on their gloves or a different flower on last year’s dress, as the horses arrive in floats from Moorang in their yellow bandages and rugs, and the tempo is brisker in the main street. (p. 276)
There’s a wonderful cast of characters in Happy Valley, but the title is ironic since almost all of them are longing for escape. Oliver Halliday is the doctor who ran away to enlist in 1918 only to have the war end before he could experience adventure. In Paris he had found that everyone was old while in the countryside everything was young, but back in Australia the situation was reversed: here were ‘young, adolescent, almost embryonic‘ people in a land that was ‘old, older than the forest at Fontainebleau’ (p.15). Now Halliday is trapped in a dull marriage with Hilda and the two boys, but there is a young piano teacher called Alys who piques his interest. Alys has a vague ambition to go to California, but she lacks the initiative to get herself there. She’s got the money, because her father left her plenty, but alas – this novel is set in the late 1920s – she has invested it in shares instead. (Her adviser at the bank is Mr Belper, and I featured his wife – she of the pups and the pools – in a Sensational Snippet).
Hilda wants to get away too. Happy Valley is bitterly cold in winter and she needs to be somewhere warmer, though that’s not the only source of her discontent. Her son Rodney longs to escape from school, and although I need to read David Marr’s biography Patrick White: A life to be sure, there is an authenticity about the bullies who torment him that suggests an autobiographical element to this writing. It’s quite heartbreaking, and so is the scene where lonely little Margaret Quong becomes a surrogate for her teacher’s rage. Mr Moriarty is a weedy schoolteacher whose wheezing and snoring repels his wife Vic. She’s looking for some fun, and Clem Hagan, a blow-in overseer at the Furlow Station is just the fellow to provide it, she thinks, though Hagan, the sort of bloke who always has his eye on the main chance, fancies Sidney Furlow – mainly because she’s a challenge.
Sidney- the most interesting character in the book IMO, is the wilfully discontented daughter of the local squatter, the nearest Happy Valley has to an aristocracy. (White is brilliant at rendering social snobberies). Her mother is desperate to marry her off to a pale and inadequate Englishman called Roger. He wants the unattainable though for different reasons to Hagan, and unlike Hagan whose scorn for all women is palpable, Roger is prepared to humiliate himself. Sidney on the other hand doesn’t know what she wants, but she knows she doesn’t want Roger. Mrs F’s face thus becomes‘a quaking mass of afternoon despair‘ (p.178) but Sidney ends up surprising us all.
All these discontents lead to adulteries and betrayals. There’s a grotesque murder, and there’s an unexpected death which gives the idle policeman something to do. Although it’s not a mystery, Happy Valley has a plot which kept me interested right to the very end, with White’s sharp observations as a bonus.
I’d like to see this book make its way on to the reading lists of senior secondary students, I really would. Congratulations to Text for reissuing it!
See Jane Sullivan’s delighted discovery of White courtesy of Happy Valley, which proves my point that it’s a jolly good read. See also the backstory about why White suppressed this novel in his lifetime, and the surprising redemption he feared he would never have.
Author: Patrick White
Title: Happy Valley
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012, first published 1939
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Fishpond: Happy Valley (Text Classics)
Or direct from Text including as an eBook.