Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2020

A Fringe of Leaves (1976), 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.

A Fringe of Leaves, by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973

A Fringe of Leaves (1976) is the first novel published after Patrick White had won the Nobel Prize.  My 2006 journal notes about it are very detailed because I was reading it for the first time, for discussion in a book group to which I belonged.  It is more of a retelling than a review.

These thoughts, moreover, pre-date my reading of Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza, Power and Colonial Storytellingwhich interrogates the novel from an Indigenous point-of-view.  I have left my journal jottings as they are, despite the flaws, so FWIW here it is…

NB Page numbers BTW are only approximate.  They refer to a paperback edition that I no longer have, not the first edition that I have now.

Indigenous readers are advised that some aspects of this review refer to offensive events in the novel which, as you can see, I knew to be contested even at the time I read the book.

4th July, 2006

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

A Fringe of Leaves is about Mrs Roxborough a.k.a. Ellen Gluyas who is shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland in the 1840s.  She is a woman of many selves (p.205) and the omniscient narrator names her according to her current context.  Most of the time she is Mrs Roxborough, when she and everyone defines her as Austin Roxborough’s wife, solicitous of his invalid state, entitled to respect as the wife of a rich man, and respectable.  But when she reverts to her childhood state, she is Ellen Gluyas, a farm girl from Cornwall who snared a rich husband when her mother took in boarders.  After her alcoholic father died, Ellen could not take Austin in as a boarder again because the farm was about to be sold.  Austin fancied himself in need of a wife to look after him and thought he could make a lady of her.  A Fringe of Leaves is another Pygmalion story, but as is the case in so many of PW’s novels, the central character refuses to be moulded into any path chosen by others.

The book begins with two narrow-minded and spiteful women, Miss Scrimshaw and Mrs Merivale of Hobart Tasmania, gossiping about Mrs Roxborough.  There are hints of a Dark Past in Cornwall — such a remote country they concur from Hobart, without a trace of irony.  They gossip about a possible dispute with Austin’s brother, Garnet Roxborough, whom they had come from England to visit.  Miss Scrimshaw prefigures the arc of the story by wondering how Mrs Roxborough would act if she were tested.

Indeed she is.  She is tested by her marriage and the disparity in their age, social class and education.  She is tested by her husband’s obsessive devotion to Virgil, and his attempts to get her to read it in the original Latin.  She can’t even manage it in English.  She has to learn to speak ‘proper’ but never manages small talk and spends much of her time in silence.  She is a young, healthy woman and Austin is old and infirm, and although she is devoted to his needs, they do not love each other.

Her marriage vows are tested when Garnet seduces her.  She recognises the sensual passion she feels for what it is, and tries to behave by avoiding him, but then impulsively goes out riding, has a fall, and succumbs when he turns up to rescue her.  Guilt-stricken, as Miss Scrimshaw intuits, Ellen engineers a departure from Tasmania, and she and Austin set off for England on the Bristol Maid.  Where she will be tested again.

Austin is a most unsympathetic character.  Frail, fussy, selfish, demanding and indescribably dull.  He’s a snob, despite his patronising marriage, and he often hurts Ellen’s feelings through his insensitivity.  He always calls her Ellen: he doesn’t forget where she’s from.

He redeems himself a little when he realises Ellen is pregnant and tries to protect her a bit when they are shipwrecked.  (He doesn’t know the child might not be his.  Even Ellen isn’t sure.) The scenes in the lifeboat are graphic: Ellen’s matted hair and her squelching shoes in the leaking boat; Austin’s soaked Virgil in his waistcoat and the crumbs of mouldy bread on his lips; the lassitude and exhaustion of the survivors — all quite fearsome to read about.  I have always known that shipwreck was commonplace in those early days, but these vivid scenes force awareness of just how awful such an experience was.

Interestingly, White explores faith early on.  Austin’s is based on family expectations and is mainly lip service; Ellen’s is weaker still.  Faith doesn’t mean anything to him, but of course he attends Sunday service to maintain marital solidarity.  (p. 107) When she was a girl on the farm, Ellen’s fears had been dispersed by ‘myths of place’ (p.111) but the ‘presentiment of evil’ she felt in the presence of Garnet could not be exorcised. Nor could she be comforted by the Christian faith her mother-in-law had trained her to have.  She had thought, like a naïve child, that her Christian faith insured her against evil, but in Hobart there was no one to care for or protect her.

What is the significance of the risks she takes?  As a girl in Cornwall she had plunged into a deep pool and had breath frightened out of her by the icy water (p.111) In Hobart she sets off to ride on a frisky horse (p.112) which brings her to grief.  Is this indicative of her suppressed sensual nature, in contrast with Austin’s pseudo-intellectual one?

When she comes off the horse she is accosted by a stranger, one of the convicts, smelling of rum (p135), liked her father used to.  He assaults her, blackened nails were tearing at her bosom, and he accused her of leading him on, showing herself through windows at night.  Garnet rescues her, but she does not tell Austin about it at all, confining her reflections to oblique references in her journal.

Sunday morning 9th July 2006

White depicts the Aborigines as aggressive savages, and cannibals too.  The writer Eric Rolls made claims of Aboriginal cannibalism in one of his books.  I don’t remember now whether it was A Million Wild Acres: 200 years of man and an Australian forest (1981) or Sojourners (1992).  Whichever one it was, I was so taken aback by this claim that I wrote to Rolls to ask him what his evidence was, but never received a reply. [Although often described as an historian, Rolls had no tertiary qualifications in history].  This issue is certainly not something widely discussed these days and I don’t know what PW’s source was.  All I know is that there are some horrific scenes in the novel.

When the Bristol Maid ends up on the coral reef, the passengers and crew take to the longboat and the pinnacle.  They row together at first, but are eventually abandoned by the pinnacle which is being hindered by the ineptitude of Captain Purdew.  They drift for a long time, Ellen’s hair and clothes becoming more bedraggled.  They are maddened by hunger and thirst, and worst of all, Ellen gives birth to a stillborn child, an appalling indignity which PW scampers over in a paragraph or two, giving no indication of how long labour usually is.  They eat mouldy bits of bread with an occasional tot of rum to sustain them, and when they finally land they eat a putrefying kangaroo.

Disaster strikes when the Aborigines arrive and take offence.  Austin is killed by a spear.  In an uncharacteristic act of bravery he had gone to the defence of Captain Purdew.  White depicts the violence as initiated by the Aborigines, who send a spear to the head of the procession of survivors (p.238), and a second spear to graze Purdew.  He, crazy though he is, entreats the crew not to retaliate, but they do, and he then gets a spear in the ribs and Austin gets one in the neck.  The rest of the crew are captured, stripped, led off and later found dismembered.  Ellen herself is stripped, beaten, dragged off and forced to nurse an infant covered in sores.  She is given only scraps to eat, beaten into shimmying up a tree to beat out a possum, and eventually raped.  These scenes are loathsome and horrible, and her utter defencelessness so ghastly that I could hardly bear to read it.  She acquiesces to it all because she has no choice if she is to survive, but she finds the Aboriginal way of life disgusting.

Finally, she encounters an escaped convict called Chance, with whom she makes her escape.  They become lovers, but it’s not clear if this is just the necessity of having him guide her back to Moreton Bay.  He is terrified of the lash and the death penalty as punishment for his escape, but she promises him mercy — the irony of her reclaiming her status as Mrs Roxborough and proclaiming the power to give him this, is quite tragic, when she is naked, shorn of her hair and wearing only a fringe of leaves.  She loses even her wedding ring as they flee through the bush, though she had managed to conceal it in the fringe of leaves for so long.  It is the last vestige of ‘civilisation’ when she surrenders to Chance: she has absolutely nothing left except a false dignity and compassion for another, even when she learns that he had killed his own wife.

The scene where she finally reaches a farm is unforgettable.  She lies prostrate in the furrows of the plough, and Mrs Lovell, good soul that she is, covers her with a blanket.  She lends her some clothes — black widow’s weeds and a smart garnet gown, and eventually Ellen’s hair grows back.  But they are all afraid of her and what she has been through.  She seems not fully in command of herself, given to outbursts and odd remarks.

Miss Scrimshaw, governess to the governor’s children, is to escort Ellen back to England, and they form an unlikely friendship.

So, how did Ellen Gluyas fare when tested?  She showed courage, determination and acceptance, initiative, an ability to learn, and compassion.  And yet she is not a likeable character.

I finished reading the book and journalled it on the 4th-9th of July, 2006.

As readers will know from my previous ‘review from the archive’ I am reading David Marr’s Patrick White, a Life (1991). There is an analysis of A Fringe of Leaves — but he too, was reading the novel and writing about it before Larissa Behrendt’s ground-breaking book.  I have no doubt that both he and Patrick White would consider this novel from a different perspective had they had that opportunity in the 20th century.

Do read my summary of Behrendt’s analysis of the Eliza Fraser story.  It’s essential reading, whether you’ve read A Fringe of Leaves or not.


  • A Fringe of Leaves by Patrick White, Jonathan Cape, First Edition, 1976, ISBN 0224009028
  • Cover art: Sidney NolanMrs Fraser and Convict (1962–64) in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery.

Postscript, later the same day 9th December 2020

Following on from a conversation with Carol Jones, see below, I’ve trawled through the index of the Marr bio to see what he has to say about A Fringe of Leaves.  Marr covers many pages in each chapter without referring to dates, so even with the help of notes at the back of the book, it’s not easy to identify a clear chronology.

  • p. 377-8:  PW sets off for Brisbane by steamer to research the book he’s keen to begin.  This was to be based on the ordeal of Eliza Fraser after the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle in 1936.  White wanted to sail along the Australia[n] coast and explore Fraser Island off Queensland, where all the survivors of the wreck were killed by blacks, except for the captain’s wife who was kept by them as a slave. She was stripped of everything until she was reduced to wearing a vine around her waist — in which she hid her wedding ring.  At a corroboree she found an escaped convict who took her back to civilisation.  Marr goes on to say that White first heard this story from in Florida, from Sidney Nolan who had done a series of paintings on the theme, and the bio moves on to discussion about the ugly public feud with Nolan after Cynthia Nolan committed suicide.
  • p 401: a reference to the MS of A Fringe of Leaves lying untouched in a drawer, ?about 1962.
  • p.413: (?1963) Talk of an opera based on Nolan’s paintings of the Naked Lady, prompts PW to rough out a brief synopsis from the abandoned manuscript…  
  • p.425: Early 1960s, in London where his mother was in her dying days, a visit to the Nolans and Cynthia’s beautiful garden in Putney, which makes an appearance as the garden of Jack Chance in AFOL.
  • p.436: the opera, and collaboration with Sculthorpe falls apart. Exactly what the creative differences were isn’t clear to me  except that PW thought that Sculthorpe had failed to grasp what Mrs Fraser was all about.  Some years later after collaboration with historian Alan Moorehead and the critic Roger Covell, Sculthorpe produced a theatre piece called Mrs Fraser Sings and an orchestral suite called Mangrove.  
  • p.529: AFOL has been lying dormant in a drawer for ten years.  This trip to the Barrier Reef to be immersed in the seascapes and light before embarking on the Mrs Fraser novel is the one referred to on p. 377-8 above.  PW and Lascaris fly north and take a cruise ship through the Whitsundays.  They had planned to stop at Gladstone on the way back but the plane wouldn’t land for just two passengers.  When they got back to Sydney, the news of the Nobel broke…
  • p.538: PW and Lascaris escape the fuss in Tasmania, where his research for AFOL focussed on its colonial history, the rattle of chains and execrable roads.
  • p.542-4: PW wanted to turn the Eliza Fraser story from something which would otherwise have been a mere adventure story into a novel of psychological interest.  He changed the real Eliza’s birthplace into Cornwall because he knew Cornwall but not the Orkneys, and besides, he was not writing an historical novel.  He wanted to turn to his own purposes the story of the wreck of the Stirling Castle and the ordeal of one survivor, Eliza Fraser.  ‘I feel historical reconstructions are too limiting, he told Alan Williams, ‘so I did not stick to the original facts.’ He marries Eliza to an infirm gentleman and drew on the Cheltenham landscape where he had suffered as a boy in boarding school.  He boned up on sailing ships and the sea, and his portrait of Roxborough fussing over nautical details is self-mockery.  PW writes to his American publisher Huebsch with a summary of the trajectory of the novel:

‘Half the crew attempted to reach Morton Bay (Brisbane) in one of the boats,’ White explained to Huebsch.  ‘The other finally landed on a large island off the coast, where the men were gradually killed off by the blacks, and the captain’s wife kept as a slave.  This Victorian lady was stripped of everything, until she was reduced to wearing a vine round her waist — hence the “fringe of leaves” — to hide her wedding ring and anything else she had.  In the course of her duties she was made to shin up trees to fetch possums and wild honey, and when she objected a fire stick was simply held under her behind.  She became quite skilled at climbing.  Then at a big aboriginal corroboree she happened to meet an escaped convict who had been living for years with the blacks as one of themselves.  In fact it took him some time to remember his English after coming across a white woman.  However, he decided to rescue her, and they set out to walk the 160 miles or so to Moreton Bay both stark naked, in return for which she was to get him a pardon.’ (pp.543-4)

Marr says that while the story of the wreck and ordeal was as outlined, he was now interested in the relationship between the convict and the woman.  He attributes this as a new freedom that appears in White’s  writing after the Nobel.

  • p.546 and p550: Writing AFOL coincides with the Dismissal in 1975 and the campaign to save Fraser Island.
  • p. 551: PW donated $1000  to FIDO (the Fraser Island Defence Organisation) for the campaign against sand mining:

FIDO used the money to solve in one way a problem White himself was facing as he worked on A Fringe of Leaves.  Little was known about Aboriginal life on Fraser Island, for the tribes were now scattered and their culture extinguished.  The Queensland government was reluctant to send archaeologists over the island, apparently fearing that discoveries might hamper mining.  Sinclair found an independent archaeologist to collect evidence for FIDO, and White’s $1000 paid his expenses.  White, meanwhile, had to recreate the life of the tribes for his novel, and he turned to his old friend David Moore, who was now an anthropologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney.  Moore confirmed what Sinclair already knew: there was almost nothing in libraries and museums.  So the ceremonies and speech of the Aborigines in A Fringe of Leaves were a feat of White’s imagination, while the cash he gave FIDO helped to reveal one of the most important Aboriginal sites yet to be uncovered in Australia.

  • p.553: Discussion about White’s late relaxed sensuality and how that is expressed in the loving relationship between Eliza and the convict Chance, and the rest of the references in the index are about the completion of the novel and its publication.

So.  The index confirms that there is no discussion in Marr’s biography about the source of the details of the Eliza Fraser story other than Sidney Nolan’s paintings as a catalyst, but it also confirms that the representation of the Aboriginal way of life came from PW’s imagination.  The issue of cannibalism isn’t specifically addressed at all.  Did the idea of it originate with the Nolan paintings, or from PW’s imagination?  Perhaps a scholar can enlighten us.

For further reading, see Living with the Locals, Early Europeans’ Experience of Indigenous Life, by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins which, as I say in my review is a combination of tales of shipwreck and escape, a glimpse into indigenous life and culture at First Contact, and an analysis of the ways in which these survival stories were told and misappropriated afterwards.

Update 10th December 2020

This is turning into a *very* long post…

Handicapped by the lack of an index, I’ve re-read Behrendt’s Finding Eliza to see what specifically what she says about A Fringe of Leaves.

  • p. 43: In discussing ‘captivity narratives’, Behrendt makes the point that the demonising of Aboriginal men is generally done without any irony or reflection on the subordinate and subservient place of women in European society at the time.

Patrick White’s novel A Fringe of Leaves was inspired by Eliza Fraser’s story but in several ways digresses from the classic captivity narrative.  White can always be relied on to explore the complexities and hypocrisy inherent in a society’s class system.  In the case of this novel he investigates these themes through a working-class heroine elevated in social status by marriage.  This allows him to cleverly compare the drudgery faced by women from England’s working and poorer classes with the labour required of women in a hunter-gatherer society.

  • p. 108 Arguing that beliefs about cannibalism were hard to shake in Europeans.  Even accounts sympathetic to Aboriginal people were quick to try to place the practice in a context rather than to question whether it ever existed at all.  

In Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves, an act of cannibalism is used to symbolise spiritual communion as Ellen (the character based on Eliza Fraser) reconnects with and embraces her sensual, primitive self.  When Ellen, uninvited, comes across the performance of funeral rites for an Aboriginal child, she can see from the ‘greasy smears on lips and cheeks how the flesh had disappeared’ from the body of the child.  In response to this discovery, Ellen feels a range of emotions including fear, amazement, disgust and pity.  She looks down and catches sight of a thigh bones, and although her initial reaction is to kick the bone out of sight,  uncontrollably, she partakes of the practice.

  • Behrendt then quotes the relevant passage from A Fringe of Leaves (though, alas, not the page number) in which White describes the scene and Ellen’s queasiness, self-disgust and determination never to think of it again.  On p.109 Behrendt then continues:

The tasting of human flesh is described as feeding her spirit.  Cannibalism connects Ellen to the primordial and savage part of the self that Western culture has repressed.

Academic Veronica Brady observes that A Fringe of Leaves is not about the Aboriginal people, but rather about being non-Aboriginal in Australia and the unease that Australians need to settle as they build a nation.  For Patrick White, Aboriginal people are representations of the repressed parts of the European self, symbols for the repressed white psyche.

Patrick White, was, of course, writing fiction, and not writing Australian realism either, so he was at liberty to write whatever he liked without regard for the historical truth.  But by reviving elements of a legendary story for his own purposes, he perpetuated aspects of it that contribute to a negative portrayal of traditional Aboriginal life.  Whatever his intentions were — and the biographical record is clear that he supported land rights and other aspects of Indigenous self-determination — A Fringe of Leaves is, in the light of what we know today, a flawed novel.

And with that, I think I’ll call it a day and leave it to the scholars!

Author: Patrick White
Title: A Fringe of Leaves
Jacket painting by Sydney Nolan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 1976, (First edition)
ISBN: 0224012908
Source: personal copy, purchased second-hand $10.00


  1. I found the depiction of indigenous people in this novel horrifying. It put me off White forever. Behrendt’s book shows how little research he must have done.


    • Carol, I hear what you say. I felt uncomfortable re-reading what I wrote in 2006, even though I was just reporting what was in the novel so that I could discuss it with my friends.
      But, I’m not so sure that it’s entirely fair to PW to say he did little research. He was writing forty years before Behrendt. To suggest that in the 1970s he could have known what Indigenous scholars have been researching and sharing with us over forty years is a bit hard, I think, and it denies the enormous value of what has been done since then and of which we now are the beneficiaries.
      Marr tells me that PW made an arduous journey to Qld, to research the novel. But we know now, even only as readers not as academics or researchers, that it’s a long process to gain the trust of Indigenous people whose stories have been appropriated and manipulated over time, and as Behrendt shows, the Eliza story had been marketed by a real expert in what we now call Fake News. It’s highly unlikely that White would have been given the real story of Eliza to set him straight. Why would they want to tell it to a complete stranger? The protocols for writing Indigenous stories which has just been released this year shows that many have blundered in this area and we all have a lot to learn, even now.
      Re-reading my thoughts today, nearly 15 years after reading A Fringe of Leaves, I realise how far my own understanding has come. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2006) was a revelation to me — it shifted my thinking altogether about First Contact and its conflicts altogether. I had by then read a number of Indigenous memoirs which came my way but none of them discussed the cultural features that Behrendt raises in her book and that were made explicit in Dancing with Strangers. I may be wrong, but I think Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dancing was the first book about First Contact by an Indigenous author and that didn’t come until 2010.
      But notwithstanding any of that, I implore you not to give up on White!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re probably right. But even so, where did he get the cannibalism idea? That wasn’t a widely held idea in the 70s. And I’ve read some of the historical news reports of the day and even they’re not that bad.


        • That I don’t know… and what’s interesting is that unless I missed it, Marr doesn’t raise this specific problem in the bio … which suggests to me that it was not something he wanted to address. (He says that White didn’t ask for any alterations to the final draft, so the bio is what it is without PW’s intervention.)
          Marr can’t possibly not have noticed it. I mean, it jumped out and startled me in 2006 because the prevailing narrative that I knew at that time was that the Aborigines had lived in harmony with the environment and each other for millennia, and that they did not resist the invasion. Well, now we know that’s not true either. We know they had border conflicts and there was fierce resistance over many decades. Marr’s publishers, OTOH, were in the UK and US and so his editors may not have challenged him on it, as an Australian publisher probably would have.
          I’ve checked the index of the Marr bio, to see what he has to say, and I’m going to add it now as a postscript to what I’ve written above, so bear with me…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to read this a thousand years ago, when I studied in Year 12. I was an avid reader, but this was the first book I came across that was completely beyond me. I read it without really making head nor tail of it (and hated it as a result). Subsequent in-class study made it only a little less incomprehensible. I’m not tempted to go back!


    • I hear you! Apart from wanting to be a completist and read The Living and the Dead and Flaws in the Glass, this is not one that I really want to revisit, though I am mildly curious to see how the reader I am now would react to the problematic bits…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I started my Patrick White journey with ‘Voss’ (in 1971 from memory) and have since worked my way through the others. I’m tempted to revisit, to see it I’d like them all as much as as I did when I read (most of) them in the 1970s.
    He made me work hard as a reader to try to understand his novels and I loved them more as a consequence. Would I now? I wonder,


    • Absolutely, he is hard work. But interesting, so very, very interesting. And we have the advantage now that if we are flummoxed, there’s heaps of commentary online now, plus Marr’s bio and somebody (who?) has just done PW in the Writers on Writers series…


  4. Fascinating, Lisa. Whilst my favourite writer is David Malouf, whom I know admired him, I have never been a great fan of White. I think he is such an important writer and quite brilliant, but certainly not enjoyable. But most importantly, a writer of his times and of course it shows now. For the glittering brilliance and perception of much of his prose, I salute him but the themes, then, are treated in ways we now find repugnant. This is the same quandary we encounter with so many writers of the past: H V Morton is a good example. Personal lives and views expressed so long ago will often be shocking to contemporary sensibilities as we have so much more research to go on. But I have enjoyed re-thinking Patrick White. As you say, so very interesting. Thank you.
    I hope you have a happy time over this summer & festive season we all so badly need, and that 2021 will bring relief in so many ways. All the best. Jan


    • Thank you, Jan, I hope your festive season is enjoyable too:)
      LOL You will be pleased to hear that I have only one PW left in my archive… alas I wrote 20+ pages about it and am going to have to find a way to prune it!


  5. […] in the course of sharing my ‘reviews from the archive’ and discussions about A Fringe of Leaves in particular, I’ve realised that there are omissions in this biography.  This is […]


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