Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2020

The Aunt’s Story, by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels, and retrieving some from my journals.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

The Aunt’s Story, by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973

It was inevitable that I would have to ‘fess up to my early reviews of Patrick White’s novels.  I don’t have all of them, but my journal holds my thoughts about The Aunt’s Story; A Fringe of Leaves, The Tree of Man, and The Vivisector, and I read them all round about the same time when I started collecting his books in 2005-6.  Alas, whatever I had learned about Patrick White at university was lost in the mists of memory, and this reading all took place before my epiphany about PW.  I can date this epiphany to June 2009 when, reading Voss for the first time, I discovered a Wikipedia page about Modernism, and used it to explain to myself what PW was doing with his writing and why he was awarded the Nobel Prize.  No such insights inform my 2005 thoughts about The Aunt’s Story, and to make matters worse, I listened to it as an audio book which is not the ideal way to come to grips with a complex novel.  Anyway, FWIW, here it is.


7th September, 2005

Cover by Sidney Nolan

I first read The Aunt’s Story years ago, perhaps when I was at university, and my recollection was that it was more accessible than The Tree of Man.  Perhaps so, but not as an audio book?  I really liked Part I, which retraces Theodora’s childhood and girlhood, but Part II in the Hotel Jardin d’Exotique, and Part III in America was very hard to follow.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (though anybody reading PW for the plot is going to be disappointed).

It begins when Theodora Goodman, unmarried aunt to Lou, which is a role she likes, is finally liberated by the death of her tyrannical mother.  White is savage in his portrait of this domineering woman, who openly preferred her daughter Fanny, who is pretty and vacuous but marriageable to Frank Porritt, a dull but comfortable farmer. Theodora’s father likes his older daughter, and others, such as the travelling salesman, see her interesting personality too, but she is too stubborn to play flirting games with Huntly, and her teacher fears for her future.

Released from her mother, Theodora travels and meets an oddball cast of characters in France.  There’s Katrina Pavlou, an American divorcée, a Russian military type, a disagreeable Englishwoman.  Are these characters real?  They reinvent Theodora to suit themselves, e.g. the Russian gent calls her Ludmilla, after his sister, but the conversations are bizarre.

The hotel burns down, and somehow Theodora ends up roaming around in the backblocks of America, where she is taken in by a poverty-stricken family until finally she taken away to an asylum.

What is White on about?? Is it spinsterhood that leads to madness, or eccentricity?  Or is Theodora’s determination to be herself that alienates her from the shallowness of ‘normal’ life?  I don’t know, and from what I’ve seen of website reviews, I am not alone. [BTW Goodreads didn’t launch till Dec 2006, and Library Thing not until August 2005, so I think that this reference is to a now defunct ABC website titled ‘Why Bother with Patrick White?’]

But I loved Part I.  Scathingly funny and brilliant imagery.  I shall try to read it again one day.

I finished reading the book and journalled it on the 7th of September, 2005.


It so happens that working my way through the Nobel reviews that I have in my journals and reaching The Aunt’s Story coincides with my reading of David Marr’s Patrick White, a Life. It’s a brilliant biography, and like all good literary bios, it analyses the influences on the novels and delves into the experiences from which they derive.  Marr tells me that PW was in Britain when he decided to cut himself free from his mother’s ambitions… he had allowed her to think that he concurred with her plan for him to work in the diplomatic service so that he could go to Cambridge, but he wanted to be a writer.  This internal drama is explored repeatedly in his writing: heroes are escapees who abandon lives laid down for them.  As Theodora does.

Another gem from Marr is that PW was bored by a single PoV, he liked to lose himself by writing the PoVs of a number of characters, and ‘acted them’ at the typewriter.  (Hence the bizarre cast of characters in the Jardin d’Exotique.) But also…

…one of the fundamental assumptions in White’s work is that all we value — society, relationships, even fortunes — are sliding into decay.  The familiar situation of most of his novels is the lone figure seeking fulfilment in a world drifting towards ugliness and violence, loneliness and poverty.’ (p.151)

Marr also explains that the catalyst for The Aunt’s Story was a painting he’d bought from his then lover Roy de Maistre.  It was called ‘The Aunt’ and was painted after Roy had visited the site where one of his relatives had been killed by a buzz-bomb late in the war. 

On a heap of rubble he found a photograph of the dead woman’s mother and from this grim souvenir he painted the portrait of a woman in full Edwardian dress but with a face entirely blank, as if her clothes were on a tailor’s dummy.

The image of ‘The Aunt’ fused in White’s mind with a long-planned novel about a wandering spinster going mad in a world on the brink of violence. (p.237)

Theodora was based on PW’s godmother: they were both women who thought a great deal but said very little; each was a distinguished creature in spite of her dowdiness and ugliness.  Theodora’s horrible mother is based on Elizabeth Morrice, the first person to fire his literary imagination. That seems an unkind reward for introducing him to Hamlet, but there you are, that was PW. And Elizabeth Morrice had condemned her daughters to spinsterhood with her snobbery.)

As for Part II of the novel which I found so strange, this is what Marr has to say about Theodora already a little mad in the Jardin d’Exotique:

In this odd garden, Theodora becomes the people she encounters.  The writing shifts from the present to the past, from lives lived to lives imagined by the exiles in the hotel.  Theodora Goodman discovers, invents and enters their lives, drawing on her small store of experience and a deep well of imagination. These are the hallucinations of a lonely traveller, but also a picture of White’s technique  as a writer.  A name, a glance, a snatch of conversation overheard leads her into these vividly imagined existences.  So it was with White, his imagination stimulated by a face in the street, tiny details of gossip, odd names discovered in a newspaper.  ‘How many of us,’ she asks, ‘lead more than one of our several lives?’

White drew into the jardin exotique the cross-currents of pre-war Europe. The German Lieselotte was a ‘figment or facet’ of himself born out of his experience in a world falling apart.  ‘I had lived in London through the ‘Thirties, through the Spanish Civil War (certainly only at a distance), I discovered Spengler, and became fairly intimately involved in Hitler’s War.  All those experiences contributed to Lieslelotte’s remark, ‘We must destroy everything, everything, even ourselves.  Then at last when there is nothing, perhaps we shall live.’ (p.240)


You can see in my review that I had glimpsed that characters in Part II were inventing themselves, but it hadn’t dawned on me that Theodora was inventing them…

Credits:

  • The Aunts Story, by Patrick White, read by Deirdre Rubenstein, ABC Audio, 9781489488220, source Kingston Library
  • The Aunt’s Story, by Patrick White, Penguin Books, 1962, ISBN 9780670001064, personal copy
  • Patrick White, a life, by David Marr, Random House Australia, 1991, ISBN0091825857, personal copy, purchased second-hand from Diversity Books $25

Responses

  1. Funny, ‘The Aunt’s Story’ was also my first-read Patrick White novel which I must have read during the late 1980s, and I was not totally enthused with it at that point either giving it only 3 and 1/2 stars. The next one I read was ‘The Solid Mandala’, and that is the one that turned me into a complete Patrick White enthusiast and caused me to read nearly everything he wrote.

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    • Yes, once we’re hooked, he’s that kind of writer, we just *have to* read everything else.

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  2. Thank you for this post, Lisa. Reading it was a real gift. I return to The Aunt’s Story again and again. It is probably my favourite Patrick White. The Solid Mandala was the first one I read, and that is also dear to my heart. A note about audio book – they are a wonderful thing, but more often than not – I think – the reading is so poor – so often it is over-dramatised – I like to listen to stories being read more gently, I think – like, well, just reading in one’s head.

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    • Hi Carmel, yes so true about audio books. I listened to a lot of them in the days when my daily commute took 45 minutes each way. I started working at that school when Radio National was excellent brain food to enjoy on the journey, but the arrival of Fran Kelly put paid to that. (I couldn’t believe it when our only serious current affairs program was taken over by gushing interviews with celebrities and her awful taste in music.)
      So off I went to the library, with mixed results. I found that audio books were usually fine for popular fiction, interesting without breaking my concentration on the road, but hopeless for anything more complex than that. Deirdre Rubenstein is a very good narrator IMO, but the structure of this book didn’t lend itself to listening at all.
      The trouble with reading the David Marr bio is, of course, that it makes me want to drop everything and re-read the PW novels!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I started with ‘Voss’ (a set text for high school) and then moved through Patrick White’s other novels. Patrick White, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and William Faulkner: mainstays of my high school English literature. And the David Marr biography of Patrick White is so good! I just can’t listen to audio books. Sad, but true.

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    • I foresee a time when I will be reliant on audio books, and it doesn’t appeal to me at all.

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  4. Feeling guilty about never finishing a number of PW novels. And among you scholars of his work am ready to try again. I have enjoyed his plays both reading and acted especially The Ham Funeral. I know he is a master of literature and your essay has prodded me to revisit so summer reading taken care of.

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    • LOL Fay, I’m no scholar, I’m just someone who likes his stuff!
      I’d love to see more of his plays, I’ve only seen Night on Bald Mountain which I really enjoyed… I wonder when and how the smaller theatres are going to be able to open up again?

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  5. You have inspired me to try Patrick White again. I loved David Marr’s biography so much,that I tried reading White again, to no avail. Third time lucky. I can’t listen to audio books either. I lose concentration.

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    • It’s *such* a good bio, I agree.
      But I know where you’re coming from, because I loved Jill Roe’s bio of Miles Franklin and I admire MF as a person despite her flaws, but TBH I find find most of MF’s work completely unreadable.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the only book of his I’ve read, but I remember thinking it was going to be a long haul (based on other things I’d heard) and I loved it. Since then, I’ve gathered up a couple of others and would like to explore some more. It’s interesting to read that others consider this a favourite, even having read more of his work!

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    • LOL For me, it’s often the last one that I read that is my favourite…

      Liked by 1 person


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