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Patrick White: The Living and the Dead

This was White’s first novel and was written while on a visit to the USA, apparently fairly quickly as he wanted to enlisted to fight in the War. It is the only one of White’s novels not set in Australia. It is set in the Pimlico district of London and concerns the brother and sister Elyot and Eden Standish. The story is fairly conventional, telling how their parents met and their growing up. Despite the attempts of various writers to say that this is the novel that showed the world who Patrick White was (the blurb even calls it an epic novel), there is little indication from this work that the writer is going on to write some of the greatest works of the twentieth century. We follow the Standish family through a fairly conventional set of problems, the absent father, the frumpish and domineering mother, the servant, Julia, and the impoverished daughter of family friends, Connie Tiarks. We follow Elyot and Eden up to the beginning of the war and the death of their mother. The blurb says an entire civilization crumbles and heads for war but it isn’t written like that. If the Standish family are meant to be symbolic of the well-to-do English middle classes whose lives were irrevocably changed by the War, it doesn’t show. This is a pleasant enough examination of this class but great Patrick White it ain’t.

Publishing history

First published 1941 by Eyre & Spottiswoode