Voss: An Australian Geographical and Literary Exploration

History and Travelling in the Fiction of Patrick White

by Elena Ungari (Author)
©2019 Monographs 356 Pages


This study of Voss by the Anglo-Australian Patrick White analyses the historical novel, set in the 1850s and concerning Voss’s exploration of the interior of Australia, as a parable of the writer’s exploration of the Australian historical, social and cultural context of the 1950s. The study employs a variety of critical apparatus including a post-structuralist and postcolonial approach, which also encompasses linguistics, sociolinguistics and comparative studies. This multi-level critical aid allows the examination of four levels of exploration utilised by the author.
Following an analysis of the protagonist’s geographical movement into the desert and his personal transformation, the study moves on to an exploration of the narrative itself. It explores how the novel becomes subject to change, absorbing and contesting a variety of literary genres ranging from the ‘chronicle’ to the parable. Through this multi-level approach, the study demonstrates the variety of readings the novel stimulates and displays its rich intertextual and subtextual elements and links.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: From “chronicle” to novel
  • 1.1 Fictionalizing/ Fictionalized History: The Europeanization of Australia
  • 1.2 The “pastoral comedy” in the southern hemisphere
  • 1.3 Historical explorers and fictional heroes: romanticizing modern “subjectivity”
  • Chapter 2: Maps/Mapping. Historicizing geography
  • 2.1 The “geographical problem”: the safety of “recorded names”, the dread of blank spaces
  • 2.2 The “geographical problem”. Seeing and observing: the challenge of recording names and the fascination with blank spaces
  • Chapter 3: Towards le récit de voyage: the transit of the historical “chronicle”?
  • 3.1 The “Eldorado” and the “flag”. Mercantilism and nationalism: the dream of an exotic hortus conclusus
  • 3.2 The “spiritual” droit de seigneur: romanticizing “geography militant”
  • Chapter 4: From the European imperial romance to the “hybridised” text
  • 4.1 The anti-pastoral and the “democracy of the land”
  • Chapter 5: From the imperial romance to the quixotic tragedy – the “chronicle” of the anti-epic in the southern hemisphere
  • 5.1 Departure: the “epic” of the “wandering few”
  • 5.2 Transit: the “toiling” of the epic
  • 5.3 Return and arrival: the final plunge of the epic into the anterior/interior
  • Chapter 6: Genre and gender: from the masculine European epic to the feminine native epic
  • 6.1 Departure: the wandering masculine word; the floating feminine words
  • 6.2 Transit: the “toiling” European “Word” and words, and poetic Verfluchte Sprachen 221
  • 6.3 Return/arrival: the plummeting of Europeanisation, the redeeming power of nativization
  • Chapter 7: From “chronicle” to legend
  • 7.1 Seeing and telling: the witness of history and the récitant of the legend
  • Conclusions

← 8 | 9 →


I.  History and travelling: explorations and explorers

Travelling has a long history. Ever since antiquity, men have travelled, have left their native land and have ventured into known or unknown countries driven by the most diverse reasons and aims. Men have set out on journeys to escape poverty, famine, disease, and war in the hope that they would find better lives for themselves.

Often basic needs have then given way to more ambitious purposes. In the Middle Ages, the age of chivalry, knights left their country and embarked on adventures which could exalt their heroic nature and deeds. People have travelled for religious reasons, and besides knights, pilgrims too could be met on the roads of Europe and of the Middle East; religion itself has often triggered struggles and wars throughout the world.

Mercantilism and economic interests have also played their part in determining movement. The exchange of goods has sometimes turned into exploitation or the appropriation of goods. Throughout history, men have journeyed out of curiosity, that is, in order to come into contact with what was beyond the known world: journeys and voyages of exploration, which increased during the Renaissance and whose aims were to improve scientific knowledge, also met the need to trade, but could very soon degenerate into aggressive behaviour towards the civilisations of the newly discovered lands.

The Enlightenment somewhat changed the nature of journeys. The need to broaden geographic knowledge combined with the wish to know new and foreign cultures, and, at the same time, to nourish the mind and the intellect. After the world had been crossed by noblemen, sailors, merchants, adventurers and pilgrims, philosophers, intellectuals and scholars started to become travellers too. ← 9 | 10 →

The diversity in the reasons for travel and journeys also produced a variety of travellers. Knights, pilgrims, merchants, adventurers, young and older intellectuals met on the European roads and seas and exchanged experiences; thus social, economic and religious differences have resulted in a whole human variety of travellers. Men have travelled alone and in groups depending on their circumstances, personal needs and purposes.

Travelling has played such a decisive role in the history of mankind that it has become a literary and cultural motif. Apart from giving rise to a specific branch of literature, travelling has informed a variety of literary genres, which has examined travelling in all its forms and meanings.

A pervading experience in man’s life and history, travelling has also become a symbol. Life itself has often been regarded as a journey, and every change has always been associated with the idea of movement. Writing too can be compared to a journey as evidenced in the flow of words. Writing is metaphorically a journey which shows and describes events, characters and situations registering personal and literary changes.

II.  History and travelling: the case of Australia

Explorations represented an important facet of the history of travelling. Besides bringing a variety of goods and material riches to the Old Continent, they increased European curiosity and knowledge of the world, and of new and distant civilisations.

After Asia, America and Africa, Australia too became a destination for European travelling, while travelling itself has always been part of the Australian experience and history. To be more precise, travelling has characterised the history of the country ever since it was discovered: actually, when the first Europeans set foot on the eastern shores of the land of the southern hemisphere in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they limited themselves to the discovery of the coast since “Terra Australis Incognita”, as the land was then named, did not rouse any interest in them.

Later, however, the apparently inhospitable island lured the Europeans. The land of the southern hemisphere turned out to be a mine of ← 10 | 11 → scientific novelty with its weird landscapes and animals. Desire to know whether there actually was a continent beyond the coast1 spread nearly a century after the Europeans had first landed and settled there so that in the nineteenth century, movement into the interior began. Explorations started and continued throughout the nineteenth century. Science, but also aspirations of profit, were the aim of these expeditions, which relied on public subscriptions granted by both public institutions and by wealthy Anglo-Australian settlers and landowners.

The historical protagonists of such enterprises were explorers, a “middling lot”, as they were often disparagingly called. The “lot”, or groups of explorers, usually comprised geographers and scientists, but also adventurers in search of fortune, wealthy men and desperate individuals who had left Europe in the hope of starting a new and better life in the Antipodes.

Enterprises turned explorers into very popular figures. Since the men had dared to face and challenge the unknown interior, they were cast as heroes. Whether they returned to civilisation or not (many got lost or died in the outback), their deeds were celebrated with cairns, public monuments and statues often erected to commemorate them. The courage and arduous spirit of these men constituted a legacy for future generations2 while their historic explorations became legend.

As journeys into the interior spread, the history of recording them also started. Explorers jotted down or completed journals and diaries where they wrote important information about the nature of the Australian landscape, the setbacks, the geographical complexities they were confronted with. Very often they also mentioned the reasons which had prompted them to embark on their adventurous journeys: besides science, profit, and the hope of finding new pastures and fertile land, travelling into the interior seemed to become an imperative for the Europeans.3 ← 11 | 12 →

As their presence increased during the course of the nineteenth century, exploring the country soon meant occupying and colonising it. The figure of the explorer too became somewhat ideologised: the intrepid man was also the bearer of the political and economic interests of the Anglo-Saxon population who had settled on the coasts of the southern hemisphere.

Regardless of any political manipulation or interpretation of the personal and collective reasons which had encouraged explorers to embark on their journeys into the interior, the men and their feats became a significant symbol in Australian history. Historical facts and the legendary aura surrounding them and their protagonists provided not only material to be precisely documented, but also became an appropriate subject for fictionalised works.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the explorer became the central character of the imperial romance, the literary manifesto of the late-Victorian Imperial age. In the course of the twentieth century, the celebratory tone which had characterised the romance died out; however, the explorer continued to be the subject of fictional production.4

III.  Patrick White, history and travelling

History and travelling played an integral part in Australian experience. Besides the explorer, the pioneer too was a major figure of Australian history: the explorer and the pioneer, or “immigrant”, “share the experience of leaving home for a new place, but the premises with which they ← 12 | 13 → set out are different and, structurally, their stories have an opposite trajectory. The explorer’s pattern is to keep moving […]; the immigrant is to stay in the new place, at least for a time, and to put down roots […]”.5

History and travelling played a major role in Patrick White’s life both as a man and as a writer. After having spent his school and university years in Europe, and having served in the RAF during World War II, White returned to Australia in February 1948. Twenty-three years had passed ever since he had left his country in 1925 at the age of thirteen, heading for Cheltenham Grammar School, where his parents wanted him to study.

In the early post-war years, Australia and its history were a vast and practically unknown terrain for the young writer. He decided to explore them, and fiction was for him the most suitable instrument. It is not surprising then that the first great novels that White wrote once he permanently settled in Australia deal with Australia’s past history.

In The Tree of Man (1955),6 a sort of historical work or saga, White revives the figure of the pioneer. The pioneer too was to some degree connected with travelling: historically, pioneers were free immigrants of British or Irish origin who settled in Australia. Just as explorers were a “middling lot”, pioneers often formed the “loose general category of early settlers”;7 likewise, they too became popular and legendary representatives of Australian life and were often cast as heroes on account of the dangers and setbacks that they had had to face in the process of settlement.

Pioneers too became the protagonists of a vast literary production in the course of the twentieth century. The pioneer became even more popular than the explorer: writers of both fiction and of works of criticism decided to focus on a man who had made the history of a country and had contributed much to the construction of its cultural image and its democratic nationalistic spirit.8 ← 13 | 14 →

Two years after The Tree of Man, Voss was published. The two great travellers and icons of Australia’s past history, then, marked White’s breakthrough onto the national and international literary scene; they also indicated the new turn that writing and, above all, fiction writing was about to take.

IV.  Patrick White and Voss, the “chronicle” of nineteenth-century Australia

White had been thinking of writing a book about an explorer since the early Forties. In the days of the Blitz, while he was in London, White read the journal compiled by the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848), and the one left by the English explorer, Edward John Eyre (1815–1901).9

Circumstances or personal reasons made him put aside the idea. Nevertheless, the explorer and the novel, continued to haunt White, who, in 1955, took up the idea more seriously, and began to write again. The work flowed swiftly, and Voss was completed by the end of 1956.

In a letter White addressed to his editor, Ben Huebsch, some time before his book was published, the writer explained the reasons which had prompted him to write about an expedition and an explorer: “As Australia is the only country I really know in my bones, it had to be set ← 14 | 15 → in Australia, and as there is nothing left to explore, I had to go back to the middle of the last century”.10

Movement and travelling in time is a clear underlying element of White’s project as is attested by his wish to go back in time and into Australia’s past history. After all, the present left him quite dissatisfied. A sense of nothingness pervaded him: despite all his expectations, when he returned to Australia after the war, he found that Australia had nothing to offer but what he called the “Great Australian Emptiness”,11 a state and condition of cultural and moral void.

The space in Australia also appealed to the writer. Among the reasons which prompted him to settle in Australia permanently, we read in the above-mentioned essay, he experienced “a longing to return to the scenes of childhood, […]”. The desert especially fascinated him: the wish to rediscover the Australian landscape was “aggravated further by the terrible nostalgia of the desert landscapes, […]” (White, PS, p. 22). “Traipseing backwards and forwards across the Egyptian and Cyrenaican deserts, […]”12 during the war made his desire even more acute.

Two years after the publication of Voss, White had not forgotten about the explorer and his book. They were still lingering in the author’s mind. In a letter to his friends, the Moores, in 1958, White commented on the literary form he had chosen for his work. In his plans, the book was to suggest “the mid-19th Century Australian chronicle”. He wrote: “Actually the prose of Voss at its most turgid is supposed to suggest the mid-19th Century chronicle from which, it struck me while going through one after another, is descended the Australian official prose of today”.13 ← 15 | 16 →

White’s words express well the literary project he had in mind. History was to be presented in the guise of a “chronicle”. In choosing a “chronicle”, White seems to go back to one of the primitive forms of narrating historic events. He also seems to inform his readers about the way in which he is going to expose facts, that is, merely in chronological order and in an unpretentious style, as befits a “chronicle”. White himself speaks about a “dryness of style” and admits that “To a certain extent the style is based on that of records of the day”.14

Actually, White’s work is not exactly a chronicle. It is not a “historic reconstruction” either or, by the writer’s own admission, a biography: “I only based my explorer on Leichhard”, he said in the above-mentioned letter to Huebsch.15

Voss is a historical novel, both superb and complex, in its structure and motifs, and in its cultural and literary influences and implications. In adopting the historical novel as the literary form for his book, White was drawing upon a fictional genre distinctive to Europe’s literary and fictional tradition; he was himself writing under the influence of great European writers of the nineteenth century.16 Nevertheless, in choosing the theme of exploration, White adapts a European genre to a local topos. While Europe provided the form, Australia, the country which was in White’s bones, provided the substance.

In spite of White’s declarations, the form and substance combined do not reveal either a “chronicle” or a realist historical novel. In The Prodigal Son, the writer himself had clearly stated what his real intentions were: “Above all, I was determined to prove that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism”.17

The Tree of Man too had been a historical reconstruction of a special kind. Through describing the saga of a family over two generations and highlighting their hard struggle in the new setting, the book psychologises, privatises and poeticises the pioneer’s experience. The ← 16 | 17 → novel is in the end an attempt to discover “the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and poetry that make life bearable”.

The project started with The Tree of Man continued with Voss. White starts his exploration18 into Australia’s past history and into the vastness of his country’s space and, above all, into the symbolic value that they both acquire. Notably, White’s art transforms the concepts of time and space into extraordinary entities.

Voss is also meant to be a literary exploration, which having set off with realistic writing and style moves on to explore the resources of a variety of genres and linguistic potentialities and narrative techniques. Consequently, the alleged “chronicle” turns into a most articulate and ambitious work. With The Tree of Man and, above all, with Voss, White did actually go beyond the “journalistic realism” which had so far characterised the Australian novel.

V.  Aims of the present study

The present study is meant to be an exploration of White’s work. The analysis follows two main lines: on the one hand, it plans to explore the text and textuality in its internal relationships. On the other, the analysis aims to study the relationships existing between the text, other literary texts, and context.

Narratology and narrative theories, especially notions concerning literary genres, will provide a useful framework for studying the nature of White’s text as a literary discourse and text. Linguistics and sociolinguistics, structuralist, post-structuralist, postcolonial and feminist theories will also contribute to forming the critical and methodological support in the study of White’s text and its symbolic resources.

Intertextuality, that is, the relationships existing within White’s text is also of central interest and importance. A comparative approach will ← 17 | 18 → reveal the ways in which White’s text aligns itself with and distances itself from other texts, especially with historical and non-historical novels and works of the European tradition (ranging from Walter Scott’s historical novel Waverley, the romantic tradition represented by Shelley, and Joseph Conrad’s modernist novella Heart of Darkness). The analysis will reveal the miscellany of literary texts which form the intertext and subtext of White’s work.

The critical apparatus will support the exploration of White’s text, in particular the way in which the exploration the writer embarks upon takes place on four levels. The first is the geographical exploration, that is the exploration of the geographical setting, and of the contrast which emerges between the coast and the desert, and of the implied notions of “place”, that is both the space which has been subsumed into the category of history, and space as the vast and unknown extent lying beyond the coast. The geographical contrast will show the moral dichotomy between the two settings, with “place” figuring as the locale of ridicule and conformity, and “space” as a setting of symbolic potentialities.

The exploration of the country, then, metamorphoses into an exploration of the human heart and personality. Because of White’s basically humanistic approach and interest, characters experience a personal, psychological and moral evolution due to the effect that the desert and the context produce. In the three phases which connote it, that is, departure, transit and return or arrival, the geographical expedition (charged with hopeful expectations of material and economic gain and of nationalistic intents) turns into a physical and moral trial. Thus, the expedition abandons the geographical context and becomes the occasion for an analysis of the mental, psychological and moral evolution of the protagonist and of the other agents implied in the narration.

The third level is of a literary kind since the text too, as a literary genre, is subject to transformation. As the plot develops, White’s prose progresses from the realist tradition to absorb modernist and surrealistic techniques. Besides exploring techniques, the novel explores a variety of literary genres: while keeping the framework of the historical novel, Voss accommodates a miscellany of literary genres and modes. The text ranges from “chronicle” to realist novel, from epic to tragedy; it combines the imperial romance of the British tradition with the picaresque novel, the Bildungsroman with modernist mood and trends. In the end, ← 18 | 19 → White’s novel enters the realm of myth and legend, with the Western written tradition giving way to the local oral one. Ultimately, White writes a “roman polyphonique”, that is a novel which accommodates a wide range of literary discourses.

In this sense, White’s text enacts intertextuality on a further level. Besides the dialogue between White’s text and those forming its subtext, White’s novel establishes a dialogue between the variety of literary genres as “classes of texts”, historically and aesthetically demarcated and ruled by the so-called conventions régulatrices, those principles presiding over literary discourses and texts. White carries his project yet further, in that he often subverts and contests, or re-interprets, literary genres.

While combining European and local tradition, texts and subtexts, White not only “produced a sturdy hybrid composed of the inherited text and that which is intrinsically Australian”.19 Rather, as R. F. Brissenden points out, White brought to Australia “a sensibility […] more complex and more cosmopolitan than that possessed by most Australian writers”.20


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (November)
Voss Patrick White exploration travelling historical novel Australia narrative geography postcolonial Australian literature fiction
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 356 S., 11 s/w Abb.

Biographical notes

Elena Ungari (Author)

Elena Ungari became a lecturer in English Language at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Brescia in 1994. She attained a PhD from Lampeter University (Wales) on «Australian National Identity/ies in Transition in the fiction of Patrick White». In 2008 she received a scholarship from King’s College, London in 2008. She currently lectures and is researching Comparative Literature.


Title: Voss: An Australian Geographical and Literary Exploration
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358 pages