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Patrick White: A Fringe of Leaves

This is another of White’s narratives based on a true story. The original story concerns Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked and captured by aborigines but eventually returned to Sydney. Sidney Nolan painted a series of historically inaccurate pictures about the event and it is these paintings, rather than the “true” story that White uses as the basis of his novel.

Ellen Roxburgh and her invalid husband Austin set out on a ship for England, after a visit to Austin’s brother, Garnet in Van Diemen’s Land, with whom she had a brief fling. We get the background of their lives and marriage. The ship hits a reef and the passengers are forced to escape in lifeboats. They spend a long time in the boats and the characters of the passengers are revealed, particularly Austin, who shows a strong instinct for survival. When they land, they are attacked by Aborigines and many of them including Austin, are killed. Ellen is stripped and enslaved. (The fringe of leaves of the title is the fringe she makes to cover herself.) She is eventually rescued by a convict, Jack Chance (who returns to the wilderness) and returns to the Moreton Bay prison colony. Once back, she becomes an advocate for the downtrodden.

This plot summary might give the impression that the Aborigines are the bad guys and, to a certain extent, they are, but Ellen is not unsympathetic to their situation and their proximity to nature. Similarly, Jack Chance is portrayed sympathetically and the comparison with the sometimes stultifying life of “civilisation” is clearly given. The universe, as White clearly tells us at the end, is not ordered the way we think.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by Jonathan Cape