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Patrick White: Voss

This novel is based on the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, a Prussian-born explorer who led an expedition to cross Australia from East to West. The expedition disappeared virtually without trace and, despite many searches, it is still not known what happened to it.

White has recreated Leichhardt as Voss – a stubborn and intense Prussian who is determined to cross the desert as a test of will. His intensity is also illustrated in his relationship with Laura Trevelyan, the niece of one of his patrons and a young woman who shares his intensity. The pair matches wits and Laura manages to exert some control over Voss long after he has set off, symbolized by her control of her agitated horse. Indeed, their relationship continues by letter and telepathy and she shares telepathically his subsequent problems and even death in the desert.

The expedition is ill-fated. None of the other participants can match wills with Voss. Palfreyman, the ornithologist and humble Christian, who dies like Saint Sebastian, a spear through his side, is perhaps best equipped to do so but the others – the young poet, Le Mesurier, who finally kills himself, the embittered Turner, two others who join after the expedition sails from Sydney to Newcastle, the emancipated convict Judd and the wealthy young pastoralist, Ralph Angus and the two aborigines, Dugald and Jackie (who finally decapitates Voss), who join at an outpost – are no match for Voss. The expedition fails, of course, as some die and others turn back. Laura, however, survives and thrives and helps to promote the legend of Voss.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Eyre & Spottiswoode