The Scarlet-Clad Woman : Munch’s Influence in A Fringe of Leaves

Patrick White's novel A Fringe of Leaves (1976) is based on the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle north of Fraser Island in 1836, the subsequent capture of Eliza Fraser by an Aboriginal tribe, and her eventual return to European settlement assisted by an escaped convict. White borrows a surprising amount of detail from the historical accounts of these events (see Davidson, Schaffer, Stow and Ward). Likewise, he borrows a great deal from painting. He had first heard the story from Sidney Nolan in 1958, who painted three series of paintings on the subject (1948-9, 1956-7, 1964). During the early 60s an opera was mooted, libretto by White, sets by Nolan, composer Benjamin Britten; nothing came of it but in 1963 White wrote: 'One can no longer imagine Mrs Fraser apart from the Nolan paintings' (Marr 413). The second half of A Fringe of Leaves is profoundly influenced by these paintings, as has been frequently remarked. However, I would argue that the influence of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, particularly his Woman in Three Stages, is equally important in this novel.

In 1975 White saw Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse, a visiting exhibition from New York's Museum of Modem Art. He was working on the second draft of A Fringe of Leaves at the time. He wrote to the Melbourne artist Erica McGilchrist in May 1975:

'I was interested to see that Munch [The Voice]; it reminded me of Mrs Volkov in The Vivisector and an experience she had in her youth. Since the exhibition I've been looking at a book on Munch and feel I am closer to him than any other painter' [my italics].

Munch's vision of human life oppressed and shaped by death, sickness, infection, spiritual anxiety, social strictures, smothered sexual passion and constant unresolved tension between men and women, has its counterpart in A Fringe of Leaves. Like White, Munch was a Romantic drawn to exploration of profound emotional experience. The thread of Northern Romanticism which runs through most of White's work is picked up strongly in this novel.

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Published 1 May 1999 in Volume 19 No. 1. Subjects: Characterisation, Imagery, Literary influences, Symbolism, Writer's craft.

Cite as: Hewitt, Helen. ‘The Scarlet-Clad Woman : Munch’s Influence in A Fringe of Leaves.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1999, doi: 10.20314/als.bb7525ba61.