Friday, October 09, 2009

the last book I read

A Fringe Of Leaves by Patrick White.

It's 1836, and Ellen Roxburgh and her husband Austin have travelled from England to Tasmania to visit Austin's brother Garnet. It turns out the reason that Garnet is in Australia in the first place is after being banished for some unspecified "indiscretion" back in England. The likely nature of this "indiscretion" becomes clear when Garnet and Ellen have a brief but sexually charged encounter in a woody glade after Ellen falls off her horse.

Unsettled by the incident, Ellen arranges their departure from Garnet's house and eventually the Roxburghs board the ship Bristol Maid for their passage back to England. Some further back-story is provided: Austin is an sickly chap with a heart condition and is also quite a bit older than his young wife (I would guess fifteen, maybe twenty years); Ellen was not born into high society but started life as Ellen Gluyas, a Cornish farm-girl.

A few days into the voyage disaster strikes - the ship hits some submerged rocks and starts taking on water. The crew and passengers abandon ship for the longboats and set off for shore, which they reach after a journey of several days and some loss of life; a handful of crew members and also the baby Ellen Roxburgh was carrying.

On reaching dry land the survivors soon discover their troubles aren't over - most of them (including Austin Roxburgh) are immediately speared to death by the native Aborigines; Ellen herself is stripped naked and taken prisoner. Over the days that follow she is gradually accepted by the tribe and allowed to participate in some of the tribal rituals, including a spot of cannibalism. At a corroboree with some other tribal groups Ellen meets another white person, escaped convict Jack Chance, and the pair slip away into the sand dunes and escape. The pair flee across country in a bid to return to civilisation. Before they can do this they have to survive, though, and alone, naked, hungry, in unfamiliar territory, inevitably - hey - one thing leads to another. Well, you've got to keep warm, haven't you?

Eventually a white settlement is sighted - but just as redemption seems in sight for both of them, Jack panics (presumably fearing being re-imprisoned or executed) and flees back into the forest, leaving Ellen to return to civilisation alone. Which she does, and is sympathetically provided for by the locals, but finds it hard to re-adjust, and to decide which of the many Ellens she should be - the simple farm-girl, the gracious lady, or the sensual forest nymph with the gathering of the roots and the carefree rutting on the riverbank and so on. As the novel ends Ellen is on another (hopefully more seaworthy) ship bound for England with these questions still seemingly unresolved, though maybe a few weeks at sea with that nice Mr Jevons the wealthy merchant who also seems to be on board will help....

Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973; this is one of his later books (published in 1976). It's based on a true story, that of Eliza Fraser, after whom Fraser Island is named. It's also reminiscent of several other books, including Strandloper which was also based on a true story (that of William Buckley), but also Matthew Kneale's English Passengers with its 19th-century Tasmanian setting and lengthy periods spent at sea, and Rodney Hall's The Second Bridegroom for the theme of the white man "going native" among the Aborigines. Other novels I'd recommend (just to be clear, I'd recommend A Fringe Of Leaves as well) by Australian authors where the Australian landscape itself features as a major character include:

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