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Delicious descriptions from Down under: Mary Durack on Patrick White

August 9, 2012

I am slowly – very slowly – reading True North, Brenda Niall‘s biography of Mary and Elizabeth Durack. Life is rather getting in the way of reading at present so, contrary to my normal practice, I am going to post a Delicious Description from it before, rather than after, my review. For those of you who don’t know, Mary and Elizabeth Durack belonged to the Durack pastoral dynasty which made its name in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Mary wrote the best-selling Kings in grass castles which tells her family’s story starting with her ancestors’ migration from Ireland in mid-19th century and following them through New South Wales and Queensland to their pioneering life in the Kimberleys.

But, Mary also wrote novels – including children’s books which were illustrated by her sister Elizabeth – and worked as a journalist writing articles, columns and reviews. I loved coming across, in Niall’s book, a discussion of her review of Patrick White‘s The tree of man in Westerly, in 1957. I’m always interested to hear what writers, who are contemporaries, think of each other. I was thrilled to discover that Durack liked and appreciated White, because some literary luminaries of the time, like AD Hope and Florence James, were not impressed with his modernist style. According to Niall, Durack said that “the critic who dismisses [White’s] often broken and unfinished sentences” would also have to dismiss much of Joyce and Faulkner.

Niall also quotes this excerpt from Durack’s review:

I have little doubt that this is a book destined to become an important part of our literary tradition. It probes deep below the surface to the inner lives of men and women, the emotions, the sensations and dreams they cannot express, either through diffidence, or because they lack words in which to embody them … It is full of the beauty and poetry of nature, the turn of the seasons and the passing for the years expressed in words that ring as clear and true as the stockman’s Condamine bell.

And she was right! Not only has White entered our pantheon of writers, but he is the only Australian to date to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The more I read this book, the more I’m liking this woman…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2012 1:13 am

    Sounds like a good book. I love an excellent literary biography, it helps one bring so much more understanding and appreciation to an author’s work.

    • August 10, 2012 5:40 pm

      I do too, Stefanie. This one is interesting, though I’m not sure it’s as “exciting” as some bios, such as Hazel Rowley’s of Franklin and Eleanor.

  2. August 10, 2012 7:24 am

    Amazing how perceptive Durack was regarding Patrick White. Thanks for the review of what sounds like an interesting and worthy book.

    • August 10, 2012 5:41 pm

      I loved her comment, Karen Lee, which is obvious I suppose. I’m not sure it’s Niall’s best bio, but it’s interesting and worth reading given the significance of the Duracks to our literary and pastoral history.

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