OUT of the WILDERNESS
Patrick White’s first novel, republished after 70 years, shows Australia’s only Nobel laureate in literature was almost fully formed at just 27, writes Delia Falconer
IN 1930 Patrick White’s father arranged for him to jackaroo at Bolaro, a family friend’s sheep station on the edge of the Snowy Mountains. At first the 18-yearold was impressed by the older stockmen’s look of philosophers and mystics. Then he came to the conclusion that it was the result of long years scanning the horizon for sheep.
This cuttingly funny observation in a letter made its way almost unaltered into White’s first novel, Happy Valley: ‘‘ Anyone who stares long enough into the distance is bound to be mistaken for a philosopher or mystic in the end.’’ So did the Anglo-Chinese Yens of Adaminaby, who owned the general store and movie hall, along with their wild brother, garage-owning Frank, famous for pissing into the keyhole of a Cooma shop while drunk.
In the novel, Anglo-Chinese Amy and Arthur Quong own Happy Valley’s general store and picture theatre, while their garage-owning, womanising brother Walter is notorious (a wickedly Whitean embellishment) for pissing drunkenly into the keyholes all along Moorang’s main street.
White wrote Happy Valley in England and published it in London in 1939, when he was 27. He hoped to have escaped Australia forever. But in 1946 he would find himself returning with his Greek-Egyptian life partner Manoly Lascaris. The couple would live in Sydney for the rest of their lives.
According to biographer David Marr, it was the Quongs’ closeness to the bone that caused White, back in Australia and afraid of libel action, to keep Happy Valley out of circulation. Though as Peter Craven writes in his excellent short introduction to this Text Classics edition, White might have been just as keen to withhold his book from a general readership because of its precocious moments of modernist striving (though it has always remained in library collections).
Now White’s long-time literary agent and friend Barbara Mobbs has authorised the novel’s republication for the first time in 70 years, along with his unfinished last novel, The Hanging Garden, which was released last year.
While it’s debatable whether publishing a book as incomplete as The Hanging Garden does White any favours — and I’m not sure it does — Happy Valley is a treat that can only enhance his oeuvre.
This big and sometimes wonderful novel swoops in and out of the lives of the Quongs (White has given Walter a daughter, stoic Margaret); the Moriartys, an asthmatic schoolteacher and his overripe wife; frustrated writer Doctor Halliday, his consumptive wife and bullied son; horny Clem, overseer for the rich Furlows; single piano teacher Alys; and simple cart driver Chuffy. Like Dylan Thomas’s Under