A member of a wealthy pastoral family, Patrick Victor Martindale White (1912-1990) was born in London and grew up in Sydney. He was educated at Tudor House at Moss Vale and Cheltenham College, England. He worked as a jackeroo in the Monaro and at Walgett, in northern New South Wales, before returning to England in 1932. After graduating from King’s College, Cambridge, he lived in London, travelled widely in Europe, and mixed in literary and artistic circles. His first novel, Happy Valley, was published in 1939. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1940 and served in the Middle East, North Africa and Greece. In Alexandria he met Manoly Lascaris, who was to be his partner for the rest of his life. In 1948 he returned to Australia permanently and he and Lascaris bought a small farm at Castle Hill, on the edge of Sydney. In 1964 they moved to a house at Centennial Park, in inner Sydney.
White was the author of 12 novels, several plays, two books of short stories and an autobiography, Flaws in the glass (1981). All his books were published in Britain and the United States and the early novels received a more enthusiastic critical response in those countries than in Australia. Nevertheless, Happy Valley won the gold medal of the Australian Literature Society in 1941. The Aunt’s Story (1948), The Tree of Man (1955), Voss (1957) and Riders in the Chariot (1961) established White’s reputation as Australia’s most famous novelist. Both Voss and Riders in the Chariot won the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Harry Heseltine expressed a common view when he wrote in 1964 that ‘White is the first indisputably great novelist that Australia has produced, the first whose work can properly be judged in an international rather than a national forum’. White was often compared to many of the greatest novelists in the English language, such as Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner. Some of his later books, such as The Vivisector, (1970), The Eye of the Storm (1973) and the Twyborn Affair (1979), were equally well received, but his plays had limited success. In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a distinction that no other Australian has achieved.
Happy Valley (1939)
The Aunt’s Story (1948)
The Tree of Man (1955)
Riders in the Chariot (1961)
The Vivisector (1970)
The Eye of the Storm (1973)
Twyborn Affair (1979)
The purchase of the Patrick White Papers in 2006 was one of the most important and unexpected acquisitions in the National Library’s history. Almost thirty years earlier, White had told the Library ‘I can’t let you have my ‘papers’ because I don’t keep any’. He made similar statements on a number of occasions. In 1991 it was revealed that he had made an exception with the manuscript of his novel Memoirs of many in one, which was sold by Sotheby’s in London. It was bought jointly by the National Library and the State Library of New South Wales. It was only in 2006 that Barbara Mobbs, White’s literary agent, informed the Library that many more manuscripts and papers had survived and were offered for private sale.
Letters of White have often been acquired as part of the papers of Australian writers. The largest single group was received with the papers of Geoffrey Dutton in 1986. Between 1988 and 1993 David Marr referred the Library to several friends and relatives of White who had significant collections of letters. Marr’s own papers were purchased in 1999. In 2006 the Library bought the papers of the artist and theatre designer Desmond Digby documenting his long friendship with White.
(i) Manuscripts and personal papers of White
The Library holds handwritten drafts of two of White’s books: his last novel, Memoirs of many in one (jointly owned with the State Library of New South Wales) and his autobiography, Flaws in the glass. It also has typescript drafts and page proofs of The Vivisector, A fringe of leaves and Memoirs of many in one and the manuscripts of an unpublished novel and a novella. White’s plays are well represented in the archive, with manuscript or typescript drafts of The ham funeral, The season at Sarsaparilla, A cheery soul, Night on bald mountain, The night prowler, Big toys and several other plays written between 1947 and 1987. There are also manuscripts of poems, four short stories, various prose works and speeches.
The ten literary notebooks, covering a period of about fifty years, are one of the highlights of White’s archive. They contain material for all of his novels, with the exception of The tree of man, and include dialogues, character studies and literary references. The correspondence mostly dates from the last decade of White’s life, but there are a few earlier letters going back to the 1930s. Other papers include two pocket diaries, a few personal documents, reference files, some watercolours, a large number of photographs, programs, exhibition catalogues and published works referring to White.
The archive also contains some papers of Manoly Lascaris and in particular a large number of condolence letters on the death of White in 1990.
(ii) Letters of White
Throughout his adult life, White maintained a very wide correspondence. His letters were mostly written by hand and he did not keep copies, but the originals were often retained by his correspondents. In some instances, they form a long series. For instance, the letters to his English friend Jean Scott Rogers cover a period of 57 years. More often, perhaps, a regular correspondence ended abruptly on account of a stormy argument or dispute. There are, for example, over 200 letters from White to Geoffrey Dutton, but none after 1982. The National Library holds by far the largest collection of White letters. The following list covers the principal collections containing letters written by White, although it is not exhaustive:
MS 1840 Papers of Maie Casey, wife of Lord Casey
MS 1945 Papers of Frank Dalby Davison, novelist
MS 4629 Letters (1972) to John Beston, student
MS 4713 Papers of Dal Stivens, novelist and short story writer
MS 4955 Papers of Rosemary Dobson, poet
MS 5028 Papers of David Campbell, poet
MS 5836 Papers of A.D. Hope, poet and academic
MS 6184 Papers of Dorothy Hewett, poet and playwright
MS 6327 Papers of Laurence Collinson, poet
MS 6814 Papers of Jill Hellyer, poet and novelist
MS 7017 Papers of Brian Kiernan, academic and literary critic
MS 7070 Papers of Marcel Aurousseau, geographer
MS 7285 Papers of Geoffrey Dutton, poet, novelist, biographer, editor
MS 7440 Papers of James Gleeson, artist
MS 7550 Papers of Manning Clark, historian
MS 7712 Papers of the Duke de Baena, a Spanish diplomat
MS 7713 Letters (1961-73) to Alice Halmagyi, doctor and a friend of White
MS 8053 Papers of Robin Wallace-Crabbe, painter and printmaker
MS 8084 Records of Currency Press, publisher of plays
MS 8130 Papers of Tom Inglis Moore, poet and academic
MS 8162 Papers of Robert Brissenden, poet and academic
MS 8169 Letters (1960-89) to Ronald Waters, actor and theatrical agent and a schoolfriend of White
MS 8234 Letters (1976-90) to Elizabeth Falkenberg, an admirer of White
MS 8237 Papers of Elizabeth Harrower, novelist
MS 8275 Papers of Ruth Dobson, diplomat
MS 8300 Letters (1931-88) to Jean Scott Rogers, screenwriter
MS 8301 Letters (1945-73) to Molly McKie, a teacher and friend of White
MS 8434 Letters (1944-88) to Betty Withycombe and Peggy Garland, cousins of White
MS 8482 Letters (1975-90) to Juliet O’Hea, literary agent
MS 8553 Letters (1980-87) to Hu Wenzhong, Chinese academic
MS 8573 Letters (1986-90) to Coral Browne, actress
MS 8601 Letters (1955-83) to David Moore, bookseller
MS 9225 Papers of Geoffrey Blainey, historian
MS 9676 Papers of Peter Sculthorpe, composer
MS 9897 Papers of Peter Ryan, publisher
MS 9985 Letters (1975-83) to Paul Cox, film director
MS 9992 Letters (1960-61) to Max Harris, poet, critic and bookseller
MS 10004 Letters (1978-81) to James Waites, drama critic
MS 10043 Papers of Kylie Tennant, novelist
MS 10056 Papers of Desmond Digby, artist and designer
Acc 04/121 Papers of Barbara Mobbs, literary agent
Acc 09/028 Papers of Jim Sharman, opera and theatre director
The papers of Desmond Digby deserve special mention, as they include not only a long series of letters from White (1962-88), but also Digby’s aides memoire of the numerous telephone conversations that he had with White.
(iii) Papers of biographer
The Library holds the papers of the journalist and writer David Marr (MS 9356), the bulk of which relate to his books Patrick White: a life (1991) and Patrick White: letters (1994). The collection, which occupies 71 boxes, includes a huge correspondence, dating from 1985 to 1998, mainly with friends and acquaintances of White, but also with publishers, literary agents, libraries and archives. There are also subject files, notes, photocopies of documents, newspaper cuttings, photographs, drafts of the two books, reviews and publicity material. Of particular importance are photocopies of over 3000 letters written by White between 1920 and 1990, of which about 600 were selected by Marr for his book Patrick White: letters.
The Library holds an oral history interview between Patrick White and Veronica Brady recorded in 1983.
The Library holds a portrait of White by Louis Kahan, drawn in 1962, together with two preliminary sketches. There are five photographic portraits by Axel Poignant, three of which also feature Sidney Nolan, and also portraits by Alec Bolton and Brendan Hennessy.
The papers of Patrick White (MS 9982) contain many photographs, including portraits by Cecil Beaton, Axel Poignant, William Yang and David Moore. There are also family photographs, wartime photographs, photographs of White’s homes, and photographs of White with various writers, artists, actors and politicians. Some of the other collections of personal papers contain photographs. For instance, the papers of Peggy Garland include ten photographs of White. The papers of the publisher Paul Brennan (MS 8116) contain a large number of photographs collected when he was compiling his book Patrick White speaks (1989). Many of them are of street marches and other public demonstrations in which White took part in the later years of his life.
Hubber, Brian and Smith, Vivian, Patrick White: a bibliography, 2004
Marr, David, ed., Patrick White: letters, 1994
(iii) Biographical and critical studies
Many books in several languages have been written about White and his novels, ranging from large theoretical studies to student guides. As well as Australian, British and American publications, the Library holds studies of White published in China, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. The following are some of the major English language works that deal with his life and writings:
Beatson, Peter, The eye in the mandala: Patrick White, a vision of man and God, 1976
Beston, John, Patrick White within the western literary tradition, 2010
Bliss, Carolyn, Patrick White’s fiction: the paradox of fortunate failure, 1986
Brissenden, R.F., Patrick White, 1966
Bulman-May, James, Patrick White and alchemy, 2001
Colmer, John, Patrick White, 1984
During, Simon, Patrick White, 1996
Dutton, Geoffrey, Patrick White, 1961
Dyce, J.R., Patrick White as playwright, 1974
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning, Vision and style in Patrick White: a study of five novels, c. 1989
Giffin, Michael, Arthur’s dream: the religious imagination in the fiction of Patrick White, 1996
Giffin, Michael, Patrick White and God, 2017
Hewitt, Helen Verity, Patrick White, painter manqué: paintings, painters and their influence on his writing, 2002
Kiernan, Brian, Patrick White, 1980
Lawson, Alan, Patrick White, 1974
McCulloch, A.M., A tragic vision: the novels of Patrick White, 1983
McLaren, John, ed., Prophet from the desert: critical essays on Patrick White, 1995
McMahon, Elizabeth and Olubas, Brigitta, eds. Remembering Patrick White: contemporary critical essays, 2010
Marr, David, Patrick White: a life, 1991
Morley, Patricia A., The mystery of unity: theme and technique in the novels of Patrick White, 1972
Myers, David A., The peacocks and the bourgeoisie: ironic vision in Patrick White’s shorter prose fiction, 1978
Tacey, David A., Patrick White, fiction and the unconscious, 1988
Tsiolkas, Christos, Patrick White, 2018
Walsh, William, Patrick White’s fiction, 1977
Williams, Mark, Patrick White, 1993
Wolfe, Peter, Laden choirs: the fiction of Patrick White, 1983
Wolfe, Peter, ed., Critical essays on Patrick White, c1990
Yang, William, Patrick White: the late years, 1995
(iv) Printed ephemera
The Library’s newspaper cutting files include substantial files of biographical articles (including references to articles in periodicals) and book reviews of the writings of Patrick White.
The Patrick White Papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 9982. A detailed finding-aid is available on-line at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-224191956/findingaid. The manuscript of Memoirs of many in one (MS 8293) is held either in the Manuscript Collection or in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales, depending on the needs of researchers.
The papers of David Marr are also held in the Manuscript Collection at MS 9356. A finding-aid is available on-line at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-337269085/findingaid. Some papers are held under restricted access. The papers of Desmond Digby are held at MS 10056. An on-line finding-aid is available at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-727902175/findingaid.
The drawings of Louis Kahan and the photographic portraits of White taken by Alec Bolton, Axel Poignant and Brendan Hennessy are held in the Pictures Collection. They have been catalogued individually and digitised. The interview with White recorded by Veronica Brady is held in the Oral History Collection at TRC 3978/2. The books and other publications are held at various locations in the Australian Collection.
The books from Patrick White’s library, together with his desk, are held in the Mitchell Library in the State Library of New South Wales.
Ayres, Marie-Louise, My MSS are destroyed…’ the Patrick White Collection, National Library of Australia News, vol. 17 (6), March 2007, pp. 3-6
Fraser, William, Patrick White’s last laugh – did the author set a snare for unwary academics? Sydney Morning Herald. Good Weekend, 16 May 1992, pp. 18-24
Marr, David, Patrick White, the final chapter, The Monthly, April 2008, pp. 28-42
Thompson, John, Faces of Australian writing, National Library of Australia News, vol. 3 (6), March 1993, pp. 8-11
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)