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Patrick White: The Aunt’s Story

Theodora Goodman is a lonely spinster. The books starts with the death of her mother and the arrival for the funeral of her sister, Fanny, Fanny’s husband and their three children. We then see the early part of her life on the family property of Meroë. White’s superb description of the property sets the tone of a hard, bitter life, with most of the feelings buried deep inside. Theo is close to Meroë and its land, far more than she is close to most human beings. Her father and her niece, Lou, are virtually the only people she really feels for and who, in her opinion, really feel for her. Only occasionally, such as with the Greek cello player Moraïtis, is there any connection. Her sister, her mother (whom she sees as a destroyer), the man who later becomes Fanny’s husband, her school friend and her suitor, all fail to understand her and White brilliantly portrays this isolation from them that Theodora has.

The second part of the novel, called Jardin Exotique, takes us to a dreary European hotel where Theodora is staying, along with an assortment of other people drifting through life. These people form a sort of loose group, to which Theodora belongs and to which she feels an attachment but the hotel is destroyed by the fire and, we assume (though this is left fairly vague), that at least some of the group are killed in the fire. This section ends with Katina Pavlou, a young woman travelling around Europe with a companion, indicating to Theodora that it is time to move on.

The last section is called Holstius and sees Theodora on a train in the American Mid-West. The train stops and, for no apparent reason, Theodora gets out, finally making her way to a farmhouse belonging to the Johnson family. The next day, she meets Holstius, clearly a figment of her imagination who tells her that she has to accept the two irreconcilable halves… You cannot reconcile joy and sorrow…or illusion and reality or life and death. And now? Now, Theodora has to reconcile her past life and her present life.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Eyre & Spottiswoode