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Patrick White: The Vivisector

This novel is the story of the painter Hurtle Duffield, based in part on Roy de Maistre and Sidney Nolan but, as White said, I wanted at the same time to paint a portrait of my city: wet, boiling, superficial, brash, beautiful, ugly Sydney.

Duffield is the son of a rag-and-bone man and a washerwoman. Early on, he realizes that he is different from his parents. His mother takes him to her employers, the wealthy Courtneys and, eventually, the Courtneys buy him, not least as compensation for their own hunchbacked daughter, Rhoda. He grows closer to the Courtneys but the unwanted intentions of Mrs. Courtney drive him away to the First World War. He stays on in France, studying art and returns to Sydney as an artist.

Duffield is a man committed to his art at all costs. The prostitute, Nance Lightfoot, realizes this and commits suicide when she understands that, for him, she is merely useful for his art. We see him as his success increases and as he has more relationships which all too often are useful without being passionate. White gives us a brilliant portrait of an artist who is struggling to convey his vision through his art but he also shows us the artist and the people who touch him.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Jonathan Cape