Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2020

Patrick White, a Life (1991), by David Marr

It was exhilarating reading this David Marr’s biography of Australia’s Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White (1912-1990).  I have had it on the TBR for a good while, but I’m glad now that I left reading it until I’d read all but one of the novels, and one of his plays.  (I have just one left to source: I want a first edition of his second novel, The Living and the Dead from 1941).

Part of the great pleasure in reading this literary biography is Marr’s sly juxtaposition of quotations from the novels with his portraits of the real people in White’s life.

The table was set with the Georgian family silver Ruth and her fellow collector Mrs Eadie Twyborn ‘lovingly acquired at auction’.  The Whites’ china, stored in tall cupboards in the pantry, was white with a broad green rim and a big gold W in the centre of each plate. (p.34)

Ruth (neé Withycombe) was Patrick White’s mother, and — paired here with the pretentious Mrs Eadie Twyborn from The Twyborn Affair — she was extremely conscious of the White side of the family’s more impressive wealth.  Yet Marr’s portrait of her includes fine qualities as well as her faults:

Ruth’s problem was simple.  She was a woman of drive, ideas, taste, courage of a kind and eccentric generosity.  For all these remarkable qualities, she lacked intuition.  Ruth was very funny, especially about the foibles and vulgarity of those beyond her circle; her acid descriptions were remembered and quoted for years; but she never really understood people, and had little grasp of why they were as they were, or perhaps more to the point, why they were not as she was.  What she could not grasp she mocked.  Without an easy understanding of people she was uncertain of how to win their trust, so she set out instead to dominate.  Ruth grew into one of those generous but overbearing women who can hardly help enslaving people.  She gathered a coterie of stylish young men to keep her amused and one or two poor relations as attendants.  (p.41)

Anyone who’s ever read White’s novels recognises highly quotable acid descriptions in his prose as well.  (Not to mention Marr’s, though the source of his style is not under discussion.)

The biography tells the story of White’s antecedents and family, his privileged childhood in the Hunter Valley and Sydney, his awful experience at boarding school in England, his emergence into adulthood at Cambridge where he failed to make an impression, and his war in British Intelligence.  We learn about his early love affairs, and his enduring relationship with Manoly Lascaris. (Though Manoly, who played a crucial role in supporting White’s career, does not emerge in as much detail as one might expect.)  We also learn about his love-hate relationship with Australia, and his extraordinary capacity for quarrels and grudges coupled with an intransigent refusal to reconcile.  We discover his awkwardness about the Nobel Prize, his generosity towards various causes including other authors, and also his political activities in his latter years.

There are also wonderful photographs, revealing a different White to the one commonly portrayed.

But what makes this biography so interesting is the way it traces the trajectory of White’s novels, from his first conception of a theme and its gestation over long periods of time, to the biographical sources of characters, events and landscapes, through to publication and critical reception. If you love reading White’s novels, as I do, then this biography is a treasure trove.  I know that I will be referring to it again and again each time I think about one of the novels.

However, 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 inevitable, I suppose, even in a biography as extensive as this one.  (Marr subsequently published an edited collection of the surviving letters of PW, a book I am yet to acquire.) Though White was writing fiction, and not writing Australian realism with any veneer of historical authenticity, It would have been interesting to know whether White accepted at face value the tabloid version of Eliza Fraser’s ordeal and its claims of Aboriginal cannibalism, or if he attempted to verify it before repeating it in the novel.  In the course of discussing White’s involvement in the campaign to save Fraser Island from sand mining, Marr writes that White’s substantial donation of $1000 was used to fund an independent archaeological survey on Fraser Island, which revealed one of the most important Aboriginal sites yet to be uncovered in Australia.  However, he also notes that to recreate the life of the tribes for his novel…

…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. (p.551)

Well, perhaps not quite, because elements of the tribal life depicted resemble elements of the Eliza Fraser story that White appears to have encountered via Sidney Nolan’s series of paintings about it.  As you can see from the postscript to my review of A Fringe of Leaves I have trawled through the index of the bio to find all references to it, and Marr writes a great deal about White’s research for this and other novels, but as to whether he did any research specifically on Eliza Fraser, Marr is silent.  But both he and PW were writing without the benefit of Larissa Behrendt’s analysis of colonial storytelling in Finding Eliza which was not published until 2016.

Still, the bio is a remarkable achievement and I’m not surprised it won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction (1992), the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-Fiction (1992), and The Age Book of the Year (1991).

Author: David Marr
Title: Patrick White, a Life
Cover art: detail from a portrait of Patrick White by Brett Whitely
Jacket design by Deborah Brash/Brash Design
Publisher: Random House Australia 1991, First edition
ISBN: 9780091825850, hbk., 727 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $25.00

A paperback edition (2018) is available: Readings has it, and so does Fishpond: Patrick White: A Life


  1. Well after David Malouf, David Marr is one of the great lives of my literary life!!!!

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    • I heard him talk about PW at the Wheeler Centre and he was excellent, totally unlike his sarcastic persona on TV.


  2. It’s wonderful read isn’t it? I read it twice!


    • Twice?! Wow!
      LOL Who needs to go to the gym when you can read a weighty chunkster like this one!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was working in the Myer Melbourne Bookstore when this was published and I remember it flying off the shelves. I suspect this is what prompted me to read my first White novel, The Tree of Man, which took me three goes to get into. But I remember becoming wholly subsumed by it!


    • What a memory! Was that a holiday job?
      (I worked in the menswear office when I first started full-time work, nearly the worst job I ever had.)


      • No, it was the job I did part time after I finished uni and couldn’t find a FT job in my field of study. It was the “recession we had to have” so there wasn’t much work around for graduates. I did it until 1994 when I won a scholarship to do my Masters at UQ in Brisbane. I’ve never forgotten what it was like to scrape a living out of a poor-paying job with no prospect of going full time or being promoted.


        • Yup. I lasted three months at Myer, tried something else which lasted one and a half days (I left at lunchtime) and then found my dream job at the State Film Centre. The pay was still low, but I loved it.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. My first job – school holidays – was Grace Brothers Budget Shoes department. Books would have been far more fun!

    Anyhow, well done Lisa. As well have having enjoyed this book, you must feel a great weight off your TBR as well!


    • *wry smile* Actually it hasn’t made any space because it lived on the Collections shelf alongside my first edition PWs…


      • I didn’t mean “physical” space, but a load off your mind because I know you’ve been wanting to read it for a long time.


        • Oh no, it wasn’t a ‘load’ — it was something I’d been looking forward to. I’ve got a lot of books like this, that I bought really wanting to read them, and somehow they’ve got swamped by other things.
          That, of course, is why I get so peeved when my time is wasted by something that turns out to be a dud. You read on, hoping that there’s something worthwhile just waiting in the wings and you get to the end and … nothing.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I love it when they use artwork as a book cover for a project like this. What a striking image. I’m reading a collection of non-fiction writing by one of the Canadian greats just now, too, a new collection of Margaret Laurence’s book, but not even 400 pages. Practically a magazine compared to this one!


    • Yes, I do like a piece of art on the cover too. I love the OUP Zolas that all have detail from a French painting on the cover.
      This one is especially relevant because White had a long and meaningful relationship with the artist, Sidney Nolan, and then, as with so many other friends, there was a row, and that was it. End of friendship. And this artist has captured that finality in White’s personality in the portrait.


  6. […] is a no-brainer: it’s Patrick White, A Life, by David Marr.  I’ll be re-reading it when I read White’s autobiography Flaws in the […]


  7. […] Patrick White, a Life (1991) by David Marr […]


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