Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2019

‘Dead Roses’ in The Burnt Ones (1964), by Patrick White

Time for some Patrick White: I was looking for something else on my Collections shelf, and it dawned on me that it’s been too long!

Alas, this battered Penguin paperback looks badly out of place among my carefully protected first editions, but I’m yet to find a copy of a first edition of White’s first  short story collection The Burnt Ones,  so we must make do.  And I must say, that I am quite taken with the cover design by Jack Larkin.  You can tell that he’s read the book, by his image of a laconic Aussie male and the discontented faces of the women.

Along with a dedication to the literary couple Nan and Geoffrey Dutton (which is significant, because it predates White’s notable falling out with the Duttons), the title The Burnt Ones is explained at the beginning of the book.  It comes from the Greek οι καυμενοι [oi kaymenoi], meaning ‘the burnt ones’.  It has connotations of more than just ‘unfortunate’ – it conveys the savagery and scar tissue of burning, whether literal or metaphorical.

‘Dead Roses’ at 66 pages is quite long, for a short story, allowing for greater character development.  This story makes me wonder if White—who I’ve never thought of as having any feminist credentials—was beginning to realise that there were structural reasons why the women of his class were so painful.  It was the 60s, after all, and maybe he was paying attention to the emerging feminist movement…

(I know, I know, I really must read David Marr’s biography.) Update 12/12/20: I have. See my review here.)

The central character is Anthea Scudamore, who’s a bit brought-up and not brought out.  That makes her suitable as one of Val’s patronising projects and she is therefore included as a house-guest at the Tulloch Christmas house-party on the Island.  Val Tulloch knows what is the only obvious and only possible direction in life, and she is convinced that all others must accept the one way to happiness.  For women of that era and that class, this means marriage and children, and so she has also invited Barry Flegg to the house-party.  For Anthea.

Anthea, packing for the trip, is advised by her mother to put in her blue although she knows that summer on the Island is what people call informal now, but one should go prepared for all eventualities.  She is collected from the airport by Ossie Ryan in one of those loosely-connected bombs which rattle between fixed points in the remoter parts of Australia.  She dusts the seat, and Ossie marvels at this spotless girl from the city. Dust turns out to be the least of Anthea’s discomfitures: from the veranda Mollie Aspinall mocks that ‘Mummy hasn’t let her come without a hat’ and Val Tulloch can’t resist: ‘She’s probably left the gloves on the plane.’ She felt a beast, however.  As well she might.

Pale, Juno-esque Anthea and her mother’s middle-class pretensions do not fit in at all.

…Anthea was perspiring by now, after the couple of gins, and the washing-up, and conversation with Doctor Flegg.  They had discussed in such unusual detail dish-washing machines and God, that Anthea had plunged her arms almost up to the elbows in the sink, and the yellow water had risen up, and over on to her raw silk.  What a disaster, Mollie Aspinall shrieked, from beside her droopy cigarette.  Anthea laughed, and looked at herself, and said it didn’t really matter.  Nor did it, except that Mummy.  All the other women were wearing haggish, spotty slacks.  Doug Furfield, drawing a tea-towel out of a tumbler as he discussed trolling techniques which Gil [Tulloch], thought perhaps this girl wasn’t such a bad sort.  But as a solicitor in real life he would know how to keep his distance.  (p.21)

I notice White’s characteristic truncated sentence: Nor did it, except that Mummy.  White does this all the time, forcing us to complete the sentence ourselves.  It’s such a clever technique because it often lures the reader into a spiteful response, equal to White himself.

This story, of course, predates #MeToo by more than half a century, but in the sand dunes with Barry Flegg Anthea turns out to be more assertive that might have been expected.

‘Lie still! I want you.’ He had changed key to give an order.

But the hoarser voice and the weight and extent of his body growing on hers, undermined her daring.

Then the one great gull swooped, intense of beak, intent of eye, as though about to strike.

‘No-ooh!’ she screamed.

Beating her head against the sand.

At least he respected her distress.  He raised himself, and lay along the ridge of shells which were becoming sand, but close beside her, and without any attempt to disguise the true state of his affairs. (p.29)

Pleased with the prudence which had enabled her to handle the most difficult situation of her life, Anthea heads off to weep into her pillow.  And what form did that prudence take?  Her smile, (despite her bruised thighs) restoring him to a position where they could meet socially.  White, more than half a century ago, has discerned that in these situations, it was the woman who had to smooth over embarrassment, although she was not responsible for it.  And he leaves us to wonder if his character would have told Mummy about it, at least, had not Mummy’s nightly phone call been taken within the hearing of everyone in the sitting-room.

How interesting that White could write this episode with such realism, in an era when women maintained a stoic silence about this sort of behaviour.

Anyway, there being nothing else for Anthea to do, she marries a colleague of her father’s.  He’s much older than her, and he tests her forbearance.  It could all have ended very badly for Anthea, but luck is on her side.  Up to a point…

I was not so enamoured of the rest of the collection.  I’ve enjoyed all White’s novels, and one of his plays that I’ve seen performed, but #DuckingForCover I don’t think short stories were his strength.

However, ‘Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight’ also shows insight into how women shoe-horned themselves into what was expected.  Eileen thinks it was so fortunate for them to have discovered each other.

Nora Leadbeatter and Arch Mackenzie.  Two such bores.  And with bird-watching in common.  Though Eileen Wheeler had never believed Nora did not make herself learn to like watching birds. (p.79)

Then there is Marj, in ‘Clay’, who soon learns what marriage is:

So Marj stuck to the carpet-sweeper, she was glad of the fluff under the bed, she was glad of the pattern on the lino, the cartons of crispies that she bought — so square.  Even light is solid when the paths lead inward.  So she listened to the carpet sweeper.  (p, 125)

And Meg— who is ugly, and clever, and a girl—soon learns that it isn’t true that if you want to enough, you can do what you want.’  Lummy is doubtful about pomes and things because he never knew a clever person before. 

But clever isn’t any different, ‘ she begged, afraid he might not accept her peculiarity and power.

She would go with a desperate wariness from now.  She sensed that, if not in years, she was older than Lum, but this was the secret he must never guess: that for all his strength, all his beauty, she was, and must remain the stronger. (‘Down at the Dump’, p306)

White’s observations about class and snobbery are never far away.

What was the betting Nora would drop the crêpes Suzette? It was those long, trembly hands, on which the turquoise ring looked too small and innocent. The Mackenzies were still in the semi-precious bracket in the days when they became engaged. (‘Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight’, p.83)

And he is master of the devastating metaphor:

Georgina Last withheld her reply.  Formally of interest, her shape suggested she had been made out of several scones joined together in the baking. (‘Down at the Dump’, p 293)

Miaowww! Patrick White… nobody does it better.

The other stories in this collection are:

  • A Glass of Tea
  • The Evening at Sissy Kamara’s
  • A Cheery Soul, my favourite among the shorter short stories
  • Being Kind to Titina
  • Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover
  • The Letters
  • The Woman who wasn’t Allowed to Keep Cats
  • Down at the Dump.

The Burnt Ones (First UK edition) 1964

Update 22/8/19: Thanks to the Grisly Wife bookshop which specialises in rare and modern Australian Literature I now have a superb first UK edition of The Burnt Ones, safely protected by Mylar plastic.  It was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1964, and it features four paintings by Sidney Nolan, which predate White falling out with Nolan in 1976.  It’s worth quoting the last paragraph of the dust-cover blurb:

In individual stories and in the collection as a whole there is that meeting of opposites which distinguishes all Patrick White’s work, and it is beautifully exemplified in the last piece in the book, ‘Down at the Dump’.  Here the old and the young, the respectable and the raffish, the lyrical and the grotesque all meet and fuse to produce a memorable story with all the strength and clarity of a true work of art.  It is an apt conclusion to an outstanding collection.

The Grisly Wife doesn’t have its own website, but you can find their listings at Abebooks and at Books and Collectibles or contact them directly by email.

Author: Patrick White
Title: The Burnt Ones
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia, 1968, first published 1964
ISBN: 0140027769
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind $2.00


  1. Burnt ones was my second Patrick White after Voss, back in high school. I loved Voss so much, but with school work found it easier to read short stories. I’d love to read them again. I so remember that pb cover! I like your discussion of the meaning of the title at the beginning. I’d forgotten all that.

    White is such an interesting writer isn’t he? As well as an interesting man.


    • Yes, I love Voss best too, though I also like A Fringe of Leaves The Aunt’s Story very much as well. if you’ve lost your copy I’m happy to send this one to you, I’m in the process of getting a first edition, I hope, I’m just confirming whether it’s the first UK or US before I part with my money.


      • Oh thanks Lisa, if you get the first edition and would pass it on, that would be lovely. I don’t have it – I’m pretty sure I read a library copy (given I was a poor student at the time).

        Oh, and I also love The tree of man, and The solid mandala (which is the only one, besides Voss, that I’ve read more than once.) I haven’t read The aunt’s story or A fringe of leaves, in fact. I’d love to read Flaws in the glass, which I have here and keep dipping into.


        • I’ll post it up ASAP:)


          • Oh, thanks Lisa! I’d really love it.


            • I ventured down to the post office today, a beautiful day for walking, so it’s on its way:)


              • And the post office was open? A beautiful day here today too. Thanks so much.

                (I’ll let uni know when it arrives. Last time I sent a book to Melbourne to my daughter, it took from Tuesday to Monday! Ridiculous.)


                • Our PO is open on Saturday mornings:)


                • Very good – I don’t think ours is, though I think some of the agencies are, but they keep closing!


                • Maybe you Canberrans don’t post enough letters and parcels!


                • Ha ha, good point Lisa. Perhaps we are just the ones who order online and have parcels delivered! There’s a regular track of parcel couriers in our street!

                  That said I try to keep up my end re snail-mailing!


  2. My only experience of PW was so long ago I don’t remember even which novel it was; it must be in a dusty old reading journal somewhere. This is something that seems to happen with me more often as the years accumulate on me … interesting post, Lisa. I like that use of curtailed sentences- it’s how we talk to each other or to ourselves


    • AH, I must rekindle your interest – I would love to read your thoughts about PW:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That is a great penguin cover I’ve not read enough white only read a couple by him


    • Absolutely, Stu, and when you follow the link (in the 2nd paragraph) and look at those other covers designed by Jack Larkin, it’s clear that it wasn’t a one-off.


  4. I really dislike The Tree of Man, but to the subject at hand, White understands class, especially the upper middle, because that is how he was brought up. And he seems to have a very good understanding of how women feel (or how I think women might feel, which is not at all the same thing), and of course he is a wonderful writer. I even trust him to write about the Bush, because he worked on family properties at Walgett and in the Southern Highlands, and soldiered in the desert. What I think about his little hobby farm in the outer suburbs of Sydney is something else entirely.


    • Well, I admit that I didn’t like The Tree of Man the first time I read it either. PW is, like fine red wine, a taste acquired over time IMO.
      I agree, he does seem to have an understanding of the compromised lives his women characters lead, and that is why I really should read Marr’s bio, to find out how that happened. After all, a boarding school education (in Oz and in the UK) and then Cambridge and then the RAAF, these are not conducive to developing perceptive relationships with women, even if he hadn’t been gay. He must have had close female friends at some stage, maybe his sister?


      • I hope there are not too many people reading this, but I had always ascribed it (his sympathetic portrayal of women) to his being gay.

        And I like White’s writing, I just think people see stuff in ToM that’s not there.


        • Well, it might be pandering to stereotypes, but some of my best friends have been gay men, because we could have a friendly relationship without always having to be ‘on guard’ as it were. I could relax and accept a lift home or be alone with a gay friend any time, but that was not necessarily the case with other men. And I found that I could have quite intimate conversations with gay blokes, and know that they would not gossip, which was not necessarily the case with other women.
          Maybe White had that kind of friendship too?


  5. I need to reread these short stories. I fell in love with ‘Voss’ almost 50 years ago, and then went on a White reading rampage over the following ten years. And yes, the David Marr biography is definitely worth reading.


  6. I love cover art that makes you do more than just glance at it and then move quickly on to the words….
    Those little snippets from Dead Roses are quite delicious, especially Antheat puzzling about what to wear for her weekend.


    • Delicious, yes, that is the perfect word to describe Patrick White!


  7. Gorgeous cover – I admit – nearly as nice at the 1968 pb!! (And I thank Grisly Wife since their having this first ed resulted in my getting your poor little cast off! Fortunately, someone loves it!)


    • *broad smile* #WagsFinger Not a “poor little cast off” at all, I would not have parted with it if I hadn’t known it was going to a good home.
      We are both happy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • We are.

        Just teasing of course – couldn’t resist – but I really shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth should I!


  8. […] I had been reading a collection of short stories by Patrick White (The Burnt Ones) after reading a review by Lisa Hill on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. It was a book that I’d had for a long time, but had only read one of […]


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