Literary sources of Patrick White’s Voss: A House is Built and Think of Stephen


Many literary sources have been suggested for Patrick White’s fifth novel, Voss, ranging from the surreal symbolism of Rimbaud’s poetry, to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. White himself explicitly acknowledged the influence of two works by Australian women writers in his depiction of colonial society: Ruth Bedford’s family history, Think of Stephen: A Family Chronicle (1954), and M. Barnard Eldershaw’s prizewinning novel A House is Built (1929). Bedford, a granddaughter of Sir Alfred Stephen, Chief Justice of New South Wales from 1844 to 1873, drew on family papers to give a detailed account of the social life of the elite of Sydney from the 1840s to 1880s, commenting on the demands of household management on the women as well as describing picnics, balls, and dinners. Barnard Eldershaw absorbed references to historical events such as the gold rushes and Sydney landmarks like the convict-built Barracks and St Andrew’s Cathedral into their novel. They provide ample detail of architecture, furniture, and clothing in descriptions of the social and domestic life of the Hyde family and associates: sewing, paying formal calls, hosting dinners, concert- and theatregoing. There are resemblances with Voss’s Bonner family, including structural similarities in the contrast of the two principal female characters and their fates. This discussion traces the influence of these works of Bedford and Barnard Eldershaw in Voss.

There has been no shortage of suggested literary sources for Patrick White’s fifth novel, Voss (1957). David Marr in his biography of White succinctly surveys literary influences on Voss, rejecting some conjectures, such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) and the anthropologist J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), on the basis that White had not yet read these works when he was working on the novel. More positively, he points out that Voss is suffused with the surreal symbolism of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91) (Marr 317) White’s interest in French poetry can be documented by reference to one of his working notebooks, the earliest of which dates from his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. This notebook contains French poems, some complete, others fragmentary, with poems of Rimbaud included (Patrick White Papers, NLA MS9982, NB1).1 John Beston draws attention to another possible French source that provides an…

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Published 2 May 2023 in Volume 38 No. 1. Subjects: Australian novels & novelists, Voss, Patrick White, M. Barnard Eldershaw.

Cite as: Harris, Margaret. ‘Literary sources of Patrick White’s Voss: A House is Built and Think of Stephen.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.1e21ed7471.