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A Fringe of Leaves by Patrick White
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A Fringe of Leaves

by Patrick White

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bought today 1 of 12 books for $10 the lot.
have this edition also-----Paperback, 368 pages
Published 1983 by Penguin Books (first published 1976) for daughter - today 5/12/2012 ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
I have long been an admirer of Patrick White's novels and this has some of his finest mature writing style. Set in the 19th century it tells the story of Ellen; a woman who survives poverty, an unfulfilled marriage, a shipwreck, extreme conditions amongst an aboriginal tribe and finally a re-introduction to civilization. White uses a stream of conscious technique to great advantage to reveal the inner turmoils of characters facing extraordinary situations. This is particularly true of Ellen whose consciousness lurches from dream state to events from her past to her present ordeals.

The story takes a little time to get going as Ellen's backstory needs to be told in a lengthy flashback and as the author says:
"It seemed to Mrs Roxburgh that the whole of her uneventful life had been spent listening to men telling stories and smiling to encourage them"
How ironic this is as Ellens story becomes famous throughout Australia. The shipwreck and fight for survival amongst the aborigines is vividly told as the writing changes gear and propels the story forward.

Patrick White explores major themes in this story such as: womens place in society and in the real world, a civilization that permits slavery and criminal colonies, cannibalism, sexual desire and native communities amongst others.

A book to keep and to reread. ( )
1 vote baswood | Dec 13, 2010 |
Complex retelling of actual story of shipwrecked 19th cent. woman who lived with Australian aborigines, escaped, and found her way back to England. Engrossing. ( )
  xine2009 | Sep 25, 2009 |
Background Why I chose the book?

I read David Marr’s excellent biography of White when it came out. Having only read Voss and The Aunt's Story, both of which I enjoyed, I have intended to re-visit White for some time. Then recently in conversation with a friend and colleague who is writing a book about White, we got to discussing White and why Australia’s greatest writer and the only one to win a Nobel prize, has fallen out of favour. My friend recommended A Fringe of Leaves as White’s most accessible and satisfying novel. Is White being re-discovered? Just recently there has been a few articles about White in the press. The ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club recently chose The Solid Mandala. Some claim this to be his finest work and this was White’s own favourite. I thought it was interesting in the First Tuesday Book Club that opinions were evenly divided between the younger and older panelists, with the 2 younger having no patience with the wordiness of White.

Author’s biography
I think there is plenty on the web about this and David Marr’s biography is the one to read.

A Fringe of Leaves
As in Voss, Patrick White has taken a well known Australian historical story as the basis for his narrative. But this is not an historical novel and he has changed the original story significantly. The real Eliza Fraser was on board a ship that was wrecked of Queensland in 1836. She survived and lived among the aborigines and was eventually brought back to civilization of Moreton Bay. So this is a “first contact” story. In the early 1960s, Sidney Nolan, a friend of Patrick White’s, produced a series of paintings based on the Eliza Fraser story. In turn White was influenced by the Nolan paintings, but it took him several years to complete the story.

White’s language and style
White’s style, according to a recent article by David Malouf, published in The Age is described as high modernism. As such it can be hard to get into. White’s wordiness is something no longer familiar in most contemporary literature. But if we look back not too far, to great writers such as Faulkner and Conrad we realise that styles have changed, and even Dickens can be “difficult” for modern readers. The glory of the language of White is something to savour, but it does require some effort on the reader’s part.

Themes of the book

Humanity
This has been called White’s most humane novel. The Ellen character is not idealised she just is. She doesn’t aspire to soar among the birds as Miss Scrimshaw does, but stays firmly planted on the earth. According to Veronica Brady, A Fringe of Leaves represents in White a return to humanity.

Civilisation
Ellen survives the shipwreck and is taken hostage by local Aborigines. She comes to leave the Aborigines and she eventually returns to "civilisation” with the aid of an escaped convict. The title of the novel A Fringe of Leaves, comes from the clothing Ellen takes on when among the Aborigines. This symbolises the civilisation she clings to. Clothing assumes significance in other scenes in the novel: the widow’s clothing she dons after re-entering European society in Moreton Bay, the garnet coloured gown as she assumes a confident new position in European society.

Landscape
Like many Australian writers and artists, White explores Landscape in A Fringe of Leaves Is this the big theme in Australian art? What are we doing here in this “alien” Landscape. In 1973 Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature for bringing this continent to international attention.

Class
Class in 19th century European/Australian society was obviously strong. Ellen moves between classes and adapts as she goes along.

Character of Ellen
Atypical for White the character of Ellen is a sympathetic female character with active sexuality. While in the action she in some sense more above it and is able to adapt to surrounding. She is very practical and the chief carer of her invalid husband.

Aborigines
There is no sentimentality or idealism in White’s portrayal of the Aborigines. He avoids the “noble savage” cliché and they are not seen as victims. This seems to be more of a realistic and historically accurate portrayal.

Plot and Narrative:
The novel has a strong narrative line. The importance of the opening chapter comes later. We can then see it as prophetic. It introduced the characters as it were “off-stage” and later the Miss Scrimshaw character reappears in Moreton Bay. There are forewarnings of the impending doom and challenges the Ellen character will face.

Summing up. Overall impression
The plan and layout of the novel is masterful and the writer is in full control. This is not a melodrama, but the story has elements of the melodramatic. He handles some scenes with humour, eg the early scenes with getting to know Austin R. In some ways the novel’s style reminded me of Jane Austen. There was irony, some humour suhc as the scene towards the end where Ellen’s future partner, Mr Jevons, spills tea all over her dress. This could be straight from a Mr Collins scene in Austen.

References: Veronica Brady’s article in Southerly A Fringe of Leaves Civilisation by the Skin of Our Own Teeth
5 vote jmcgross | Dec 8, 2007 |
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In the experiences that follow, she discovers human savagery and her own sensuality. It has some basis in the true story of Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked off Queensland in 1836.
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White woman enslaved by Aborigines; Mentions cannibalism.

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