Patrick White’s Studies for Voss



One of Patrick White’s working notebooks, acquired by the National Library of Australia in 2006, is almost exclusively devoted to material related to his breakthrough novel Voss (1957), which marks a new departure in his career. It is a historical novel set in Australia’s colonial period, though with thematic connections to White’s earlier works. Close attention to Notebook 5 shows how extensively White researched its historical background and how he absorbed that research, sometimes transposing details verbatim into Voss. While certain material deals with Ludwig Leichhardt and his expeditions into the interior (for example Daniel Bunce’s Travels with Dr Leichhardt in Australia [1859] and Alec H. Chisholm’s Strange New World [1941]), it is apparent that White is more interested in details of Leichhardt’s various journeys than in debates about the man himself. He read other explorers, notably Edward John Eyre, and settlers of whom John Dunmore Lang is prominent, his notes revealing a particular interest in Aboriginal people. A second strand of White’s research informs those sections of Voss set in Sydney in the 1840s, and a third involves theological and philosophical speculations about the nature of faith that are reflected in the musings of Laura Trevelyan and others. In addition, there are fragments of draft of both Voss and Riders in the Chariot (1961), indicating that White was already incubating the later novel as he was completing Voss. It appears too that he undertook major restructuring of Voss at a late stage.

The Bestseller and the Notebook1

Patrick White’s fifth novel, Voss, was his breakthrough work. In the United States it was chosen as Book of the Month Club selection for August 1957 and in England as a Book Society selection for December. It was a best seller, with success both in the marketplace and in the critical arena when it was awarded the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award for a novel ‘of the highest literary merit [that] presents Australian life in any of its phases’. The Nobel Prize citation in 1973 echoed this insistence on ‘Australian life’, by proclaiming that the award to White was on the basis of ‘an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature’ (Marr, Life 535).

Voss came nearly twenty years after White’s first novel, Happy Valley (1939), which drew on his experience jackarooing in the Monaro intimating a…

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Published 30 September 2022 in Volume 37 No. 2. Subjects: Voss, Patrick White.

Cite as: Harris, Margaret and Elizabeth Webby. ‘Patrick White’s Studies for Voss.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.66b8e4a6d7.