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Born in England in 1912, the son of wealthy New England (NSW) graziers, Patrick White became Australia's first Nobel Laureate in Literature (1973). White was educated in Australia and in England, where he studied French and German languages and literature at Cambridge in the early 1930s. White began his career as a serious writer in London in the 1930s, writing across all genres as he was to do for the rest of his life. By the late 1930s, he had published poems, plays, short stories, and his first novel, Happy Valley, which he was later to repudiate.

White continued to write during World War II, when he served as an RAF Intelligence Officer in the Middle East. His surviving wartime notebook makes clear that the key ideas and concepts of several of his great novels were conceived during this period of his life. His wartime service had another major and lasting impact: he met Manoly Lascaris in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941, and spent the rest of his life in this enduring partnership.

After moving between Australia and Europe in the immediate post-war years, White and Lascaris returned permanently to Australia in 1948. They lived first in Castle Hill (NSW) - breeding Schnauzers and trying various small pastoral enterprises while White continued to write and be published - before moving to 20 Martin Road, Centennial Park (Sydney, NSW) in 1964. White died at Martin Road in 1990; Lascaris survived him for 13 years, dying in 2003.

White was a prolific and constant writer. He published 12 novels (and wrote at least 2 further novels and a novella which remained unpublished) and nearly 30 short stories during his lifetime, together with a modest number of poems. His great novels - from The aunt's story (1948) to Memoirs of many in one (1986) - were written steadily over a period of almost 40 years. He had a dozen plays and screenplays produced and wrote several more which were never performed or published. These were written in two distinct periods of activity, from The ham funeral in 1947 to A cheery soul in 1962, and then again from Big toys in 1977 to Shepherd on the rocks in 1987. He published a number of essays during his lifetime, especially in his later years when he became an activist, making speeches and attending protests for the preservation of Centennial Park and other green spaces, for Indigenous rights, for an Australian Republic and against nuclear arms. He was a prolific correspondent: David Marr, his biographer and editor of the 1994 Patrick White: Letters, tracked down 3000 letters by White, despite White's exhortations to many of his friends that they burn his letters in their possession. He also published a searching self-portrait in his 1981 Flaws in the glass, drawing on notes and writings from his earliest notebooks.

White's genius was recognised by many during his lifetime. In addition to the 1973 Nobel Prize, White won the Miles Franklin Award twice (for Voss in 1957, and for Riders in the chariot in 1961), and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal three times (for Happy Valley in 1939, for The tree of man in 1955, and for The burnt ones in 1965). But he was also denigrated and suffered excoriating reviews of some of his novels and plays. Friend and supporter of many - as his considerable correspondence attests - he also severed long friendships with ferocity, and maintained old enmities, fuelling criticism of his work and contributing to a now somewhat hackneyed persona as a 'monster'.

White continues to be a controversial figure. In 2006, White was named by the Bulletin as one of Australia's 100 most influential people. In the same year, the Institute of Public Affairs included White's 1973 Nobel Prize as one of the 13 biggest 'mistakes' in Australian history. In any case, he is - by a wide margin - Australia's most written about writer, and new critical studies of his work are produced every year.

For further reading, David Marr's 1991 Patrick White: A life, a draft of which was read by White just a few months before his death, is the essential source.

 

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