Patrick White’s Happy Valley sits somewhere between Moorang and Kambala. The novel is a fascinating glimpse of a master writer’s first forays into his craft. The prose slides into stream of consciousness and out again, flitting from one character’s perspective to another, building the cacophony of Happy Valley to a maddening din of intersecting dreams and desires.
Written in London in 1938, Happy Valley draws from White’s experience as a jackeroo on the Monaro. It was here that White became acquainted with a different landscape from his family home in the Hunter and lived amongst the human detritus that tended to collect around the remnants of goldmines and sheep stations. The vitality of White’s writing stems from the balancing act between hope and despair in each character.
Happy Valley is White’s best plot. The private longings of couples intersect and eventually combust in a tragedy that highlights the open wound of loneliness that seems to be the lifeblood of the Australian landscape. If these people could escape, then they would be happy, but it is the reasons they stay that draws White’s compassion or judgement.
The wasted potential of Dr. Halliday and the listless virility of wayfarer Clem Hagan stand out amongst the cast of characters, and to my mind, they are the closest to White’s experience in the Monaro. The book provides the first glimpses of other White mainstays – the lonely spinster and the overbearing socialite mother.
Whilst the assured contradictions of his later novels are more deliberate here, the raw ambition is breathtaking. White’s determination pours out of the novel, and this sometimes threatens to overcome our interest in the characters.
Happy Valley serves as an opening act to White’s cannon. It gives light to the origins of the motifs that were to weave their way through his work for the rest of his life. White knows these characters intimately. You can almost see the thin lipped writer acting out Sidney Furlow in his mind, as she lolls around her bedroom, applying lipstick ‘like a whore’.
Met with mixed reviews when first published in Australia, White refused to have Happy Valley reprinted in his lifetime. It is a harsh book, but this frames its moments of compassion, humour and acerbic self knowledge. As White’s first novel it is a marvel for what it signals and the ground it prepares. It represents the young writer’s desire for a maturity in the Australian character, and the start of a journey that would make him one of the country’s finest writers.
This review first appeared on artshub.com.au