Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2014

Riders in the Chariot (1961), by Patrick White

Riders in the Chariot

If anybody ever asked Patrick White about Riders in the Chariot as he was working on it, I imagine his response:  he would have rolled his great patrician eyebrows and said, ‘I am going to make these pseudo-egalitarian Australians know about their underclass, and I am going to make them care about them’.

Because although Riders in the Chariot is a masterly exploration of faith in all its forms, rich in symbolism, powerful in its themes and written in Patrick White’s trademark piercing style, it also has four of the most engaging characters in modern literature, and I defy anyone to read to the end and not feel bereaved by it.

BEWARE SPOILERS (not many, but some are essential for what follows).

The book begins with Miss Hare, a tragi-comic figure of fun in the fictional town of Sarsparilla.  Heiress to a bizarre crumbling mansion called Xanadu, she is an eccentric in a society that values conformity. Too plain and too odd to have been married off by her equally odd parents she has lived on alone in Xanadu until finally she takes on a housekeeper called Mrs Jolley.   Mrs Jolley specialises in working for elderly spinsters in need of a friend to whom a fortune might be bequeathed, but she is taken aback by Xanadu with its fallen masonry, mould covered interiors and invading plant life.  Xanadu reminded me of Angkor Wat with its trees inextricably entwined through the walls, and of the gothic ruin in Karen Foxlee’s The Midnight Dress.

But simple as she is, Miss Hare has a rich spiritual connection with the earth, the plants and small creatures of her estate.  She is the first of four ‘Riders’ in Patrick White’s conception of Ezekiel’s chariot and her moments of spiritual ecstasy come upon her when she is at one with nature.   Her visions derive from her instincts, her patient observations of the minutiae of life, and the timelessness of her days.   The object of patronising gossip at the post office, grubby, foolish Miss Hare in her shabby hats and crumpled stockings is linked to prophecy, punishment, purification and redemption.

Exiled on the outskirts of town, Miss Hare believes she is alone with these visions until she meets with Mordecai Himmelfarb and instinctively recognises him as one of the Chosen because he sees the Chariot too.  Himmelfarb is a Jewish refugee and former professor who – wracked with guilt because he survived the Holocaust and his wife did not – is punishing himself with a menial job in a factory, Brighta Bicycle Lamps at Barrenugli.  (Yes, White does enjoy himself with the names he has used in this novel).

The only brightness in Himmelfarb’s life is the religious vision that sustains him. Denying himself all creature comforts, Himmelfarb lives the abstemious life of an ascetic.  His only possessions are the remnants of his religious life: the parchment Hebrew verses on his pitiful doorway (the mezuzah), and the prayer shawl (Tallith) and verses of the Torah (Tephillin) for his morning observances.  He carries these with him always, in a battered suitcase, because he could not bear to lose them and he knows that no home is ever safe.  His dignity is in sharp contrast to his employer, Harry Rosetree, who along with his shrill wife Shirl, has reinvented a non-Jewish self in Australia, suppressing his original identity as Haïm ben Ya’akov Rosenbaum.  It is when the men at the factory crucify Himmelfarb to ‘have a joke’ at Easter that we understand Shirl Rosetree’s panic…

Himmelfarb’s life would be one of unrelieved misery were it not for Ruth Godbold.  Like the others, she is an outsider in the town.  She scrapes a living for herself and her many children as a laundress, and bears her drunken husband’s brutality as a penance.  Her Catholic faith is almost irrelevant, because she symbolises a humanistic Rider.  She cares for Himmelfarb, sharing her pathetic lamb shank in embarrassment at Easter because the shops will be closed and ‘Everybody has got to eat.  Whatever the time of the year.’ (p. 442).  Miss Hare puts the town’s spectators to shame by entering Himmelfarb’s burning house to rescue him but Ruth Godbold was already nursing his battered body after the crucifixion  at her own shack.  She pre-empts Harry Rosetree’s belated restitution by burying him, like any Christian (p. 500), refuting the employer’s remonstrations that Himmelfarb was a Jew and should have been buried according to their rites:

‘It is the same’ she said, and when she had cleared her voice of hoarseness, continued as though she were compelled by much previous consideration: ‘Men are the same before they are born.  They are the same at birth, perhaps you will agree.  It is only the coat they are told to put on that makes them all that different.  There are some, of course, that feel they are not suited.  They think they will change their coat.  But remain the same, in themselves.  Only at the end, when everything is taken from them, it seems there was never any need. There are the poor souls, at rest, and all naked again, as they were at the beginning.  That is how it strikes me, sir.  Perhaps you will remember, on thinking it over, that is how Our Lord himself wished us to see it. (p. 500)

Alf Dubbo is the most enigmatic of White’s Riders.  He is indigenous, and wholly alone.  He was taken from his mother who lived on the banks of a river by a well-meaning but foolish rector- who found himself attracted to the boy as he grew older.  Alf fled, and lived an itinerant and sometimes drunken life, fetching up at the factory where Himmelfarb is astonished to find him reading Ezekiel.  The moment of connection is brief, for Alf’s creative life remains hidden from all:

The abo quickly took the book, and hid it amongst what was apparently a bundle of his private belongings.

Himmelfarb remained spellbound. He was smiling that slow, inward smile, which could exasperate those whom it excluded.

‘Interesting,’ he had to remark. ‘But I shall not ask any questions, as I see you do not wish me to.’

‘Where’ll it lead?’ The abo shrugged.  ‘I was reared by a parson bloke.  That’s all.  Sometimes I have a read of the Bible, but not for any of his reasons.  I read it because you can see it all. And it passes the time.’ (p. 350)

What Alf does not tell Himmelfarb is that Reverend Calderon and his widowed sister Mrs Pask had conjured an eccentric education for the boy, based on the premise that it’s ‘the useful boys who are sought after in later life’ (p. 352).  So (like most Aboriginal children taken into so-called care in those days) he was taught to do several little jobs but also the conjugation of Latin verbs to build character, reading the Bible (of course) and – crucially – sketching and painting in watercolours by Mrs Pask.  For her, after a lifetime of suppressing her own creative tendencies, art is first and foremost a moral force because truth is so beautiful but she prevents the boy painting in oils because they are too sensuous.  He persuades her to permit it with an impossible-to-fulfil promise to paint Jesus Christ, and she is horrified by his attempt to depict his own life in oils.

‘Dreams! But there is nothing to indicate that they are any such thing.  Just a shape.  I should have said mis-shapen kidneys!’

So that he was put to worse shame.

‘That is because they have not been dreamt yet,’ he uttered slowly.

And all the foetuses were palpitating on the porous paper.

‘I am afraid it is something unhealthy,’ Mrs Pask confided in her brother. ‘An untrained mind could not possibly conceive of anything so peculiar unless.’ (p. 357)

As an adult, with his meagre factory earnings, Alf saves up to buy paints, hiding them away in his room, where they are alas not safe from marauding art dealers and a greedy landlady.  What he paints is his vision of the Chariot, an act of praise…

White’s portraits of these four outsiders who are invested with instinctive, religious, humanistic and creative manifestations of faith, share a common humanity.  As Mrs Godbold says, they are all the same, they are one.  And because – in contrast to his incisive and often bitter portraits of the other characters – White tells the stories of his Riders with such compelling compassion, the reader becomes emotionally engaged.  I think this is why this novel is labelled the ‘most accessible’ of White’s novels: it’s impossible to read Riders in the Chariot without caring about these characters and to feel empathy for their fate.

Riders in the Chariot won the Miles Franklin Award in 1961.  I hope that whatever the judges choose this year lives up to this legacy.

There is much, much more to this novel than I can outline here.  Do visit Andrea Goldsmith’s website to see her essay The Passions of Patrick, based on her lecture at the Wheeler Centre, which I attended late last year…

Author: Patrick White
Title: Riders in the Chariot
Publisher: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961.
ISBN: none.  (Hardback first edition)
Source: Personal library, from my collection of Miles Franklin winners.


Fishpond: Riders in the Chariot (the New York Review of Books edition, with an introduction by David Malouf, which would be my choice of a modern edition).


  1. I remember ‘Riders of the Chariot’ is one of Patrick White’s best out of his many great novels. At some point I will want to go back and re-read Patrick White. I read nearly all his novels in the Eighties and Nineties.


    • I would love it if you did a re-read and then reviewed it!
      (I have two to go, and will then embark on re-reading myself).


  2. That was a great reply he used to give people Lisa


    • Hi Stu, thanks for dropping by, it must be the middle of the night where you are!


      • Half five in morning Lisa up for work early


        • I don’t know how you do it, it must be so cold and dark in the winter…


  3. It sounds good, Lisa. I’ve often meant to read some White; would this be a good one to start with?


    • Yes, I think it would be, Jonathan. I’m sorely tempted to drop everything and read it again for the sheer pleasure of it.


  4. Wow, better add him to my list, sounds essential reading!


  5. Great post, Lisa – the old curmudgeon would be very pleased. I DO think Riders is the best White to begin with (it’s also my favourite White). The characterisation is so rich and the themes – exile most of all – as relevant now as when PW wrote the novel. The lecture I gave at the Wheeler on Riders was pure pleasure – from the rereading of the novel to the passionate responses of those in the audience.


    • Hello Andrea, thank you for your kind remarks:)
      I think Fringe of Leaves will always be my favourite, probably because it was my first White and I still treasure that ecstatic feeling that I had found another author to excite me as much as James Joyce does.
      I wish the Wheeler Centre would run a whole series on White’s novels, I just love the rare feeling of being in a room full of people who like him as much as I do!


  6. […] […]


  7. […] second website is another useful website which outlines a lengthy opinion and interpretation of the novel by Lisa […]


  8. This appreciation ignores the role of Australia , it’s postwar change e.g growth of Sydney and immigration and decline of the colonial upper class. The book itself is excellent in it depiction of Germanic Jewry. PW was a perfect German speaker and probably knew much less about aboriginals.


    • Well, yes, Sonya, as I say in the review, there’s much more to the novel than I’ve had space (or inclination) to say.


  9. […] Riders 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). […]


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