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Wednesday 19 August 2020

Guest Post: Toni Brisland on Patrick White

Someone whose opinion I value asked me why I wrote a book for primary school children about Patrick White when they’re too young to read his work. 

The answer to this is complicated but the idea for the book came from a conversation I had with a friend who taught English at tertiary level. 

She was bemoaning the fact that most of her students, fresh out of high school, had never heard of Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature and that those few who had heard of him had a cavalier disregard of his work because of their postmodern, postcolonial, feminist criticisms.

Now, back in the day when I was teaching Advanced English to Years 11 and 12 for the HSC, Patrick White’s work was on the curriculum. I had been introduced to him as a High School student and then studied his work at University.  I am saddened that Patrick White is slipping into the past of authors regarded as 'another dead white male of settler origins' when I believe so strongly that Patrick White, the man, is misunderstood by many and that he is a master novelist from whom all writers and would-be writers can learn.

Being an ex-high school teacher, I believe that the views of youth are formulated early in their lives and by the teenage years they are not listening as receptively as they did as impressionable primary schoolers. So, I decided to introduce children, 8 to 12 years of age, to this icon of a writer by writing about his fascinating life in a way that children could understand.

The book commences with Patrick White’s heritage and his birth in England to wealthy Australians, follows him through his schooling and bullying here in Australia and in England, his friendships and interests overseas, his hobbies and lifestyle, his involvement in World War II and his return to Australia with his life-long partner, Manoly Lascaris. Once he returned home to Sydney, Patrick White focused on his writing. In those days, without all the advantages computers give us, Patrick White would hand-write his first and second drafts and type up the last draft on a typewriter to send off to his publisher.

So much has already been written about Patrick White, but something I found very interesting through my research is that one of Patrick White’s beliefs was that life in Australia is too easy. He believed that the Australian way of life with its love of leisure and sport detracts, sometimes prevents, Australians from reaching their potential: to be fulfilled requires discipline and self-sacrifice he believed.

Patrick White saw possessions as valueless and never held on to heirlooms. It could be said that he was reclusive. In fact, he wanted his publisher to burn all his notes and letters upon his death and we only have them today (stored at the National Library) because Barbara Mobbs didn’t comply. She knew how important Patrick White would be to the historical landscape of Australia.

I wanted my book to demonstrate to children that Patrick White is a master novelist and dramatist. His Nobel Prize 1973, Miles Franklin Literary Awards 1957 and 1961, his Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal 1941 and being short-listed posthumously in 2010 for the 1970 Lost Man Booker Award recognises this. I wanted children to see how Patrick White went about the writing process and where his ideas came from. Also, that he didn’t like pomp and ceremony and wasn’t interested in promoting the sales of his books ­– he believed his books should stand alone as works of merit.

Patrick White didn’t want recognition and he was a cynic; he wanted to follow his passion in solitude. In 1974 when he was named Australian of the Year he said, 'Something terrible happened to me last week. There is an organisation which chooses an Australian of the Year, who has to appear at an official lunch in Melbourne Town Hall on Australia Day. This year I was picked on as they had run through all the swimmers, tennis players, yachtsmen'.

I believe that whatever Australia’s current-time cultural beliefs about how the world ought to be viewed are, this should not prevent children knowing about this great man nor should it prevent adults from reading some of the greatest fiction ever written. So, I hope that some children, maybe only those few children who want to be writers themselves, will become familiar with his name and the man himself through my book and will want to read him later in their lives.

And, when those same children maybe attend a concert or other large scale public event on the lawns called 'The Patrick White Lawns' at the National Library of Australia in Canberra where the two level lawn extends from the library north to Lake Burley Griffin; or, if they see a painting called 'Patrick White' by Brett Whiteley at the National Portrait Gallery; or, come across a plaque at Circular Quay Sydney that bears his name; or, attend a lecture in the Patrick White Room at Writing NSW at Rozelle, they might remember his name and that they read about him as a child. Then, they might be tempted to pick up one of his books and have their life transformed. Reading Patrick White’s work can change the way a person looks upon their world in a positive way and can be an inspiration on how to lead a productive life.

Toni Brisland (nee Antonette Diorio) was born in Wollongong, NSW and currently lives in Sydney. Toni loves to read and believes it’s a natural progression from reading to writing. During her career as a teacher, HR manager and corporate lawyer, Toni’s hobby was to write fiction and poetry. After winning a number of awards for unpublished authors, her first print book for children was published in 2010. Her poetry for adults has appeared in Anthologies since 2012. 

Visit her at www.tonibrisland.com 


Twitter: @toni_brisland