Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves: History and Fiction
It is a rare event for a White novel to have what may be termed a source; that is, some basis in some fact, or external stimulus, separable from the writer's own consciousness. By far the most common structural device in White's longer fiction is that of the life-span of the protagonist, or protagonists. A Fringe of Leaves, like Voss, breaks with this custom. Ellen Roxburgh, around whose life the book is written, has a historical counterpart in Eliza Fraser, an unfortunate Scotswoman whose shipwreck amongst the aborigines of what is now Queensland, and ultimate rescue by a convict, has been the subject of much biographical reconstruction. Further than this, the novel is remarkable for the fidelity with which it clings to the minutiae of Eliza's daily existence. The fascination for a reader of White is to follow the way in which such fidelity is transmuted into material which bears the unmistakable hallmark of its author's primary concerns. Where there is a divergence from the Fraser story it can be seen as clarifying this underlying symbolism. A comparison between Eliza and Ellen should, therefore, prove helpful in deepening our understanding of this most recent work by White, a work where an apparently greater simplicity of style in fact cloaks a novel as complex as any in the canon.
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