Kay Schaffer


When I first read Patrick White's novel A Fringe of Leaves (1976) some years ago I was interested in the incredible story of hardship and survival of a woman in the Australian bush. This so-called historical novel tells the story of the 1836 shipwreck off what is now the Queensland coast, the captivity and death of its crew members among the Aborigines and the story of the heroine's, Mrs Ellen Roxburgh, sole survival and eventual escape with Jack Chance, an escaped convict with whom she shares a final bush idyll before returning to Sydney and, eventually, London society. The novel has received widespread critical acclaim by critics in Australia and abroad. Apart from, or in addition to, the socalled historical dimensions of the novel, it has been interpreted as one of many in the White canon which presents the solitary individual in search of an ultimate insight through his or her confrontation with the terrifying metaphysical geography of the mind, soul and spirit. In the case of A Fringe of Leaves, that individual is the simple, sensual Cornish girl, Ellen Gluyas, who marries Austin Roxburgh, a sickly but mannered gentleman, and is seemingly transformed into a genteel lady by his efforts and those of his mother. Her captivity among the Aborigines, which culminates in an act of cannibalism in which she participates and views as sacramental, leads her back to the dark, instinctual side of her nature.



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