Patrick White. Happy Valley. Text Classics, 2012. ISBN: 9781921961175
I’ve expanded the borders again, this time to take in the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains district. We’ve been here before, of course. Erika passed through here all the time. And before there were borders and an Australian Capital Territory it was all known as the Monaroo or some other variation of the spelling.
This late in the Centenary year, the books left on the list are either becoming hard to acquire, or perhaps hard to contemplate. All of which combines to form my excuse for reading Patrick White’s Happy Valley, which contains no references to Canberra at all.
There are hints, though. Mrs Furlow muses with satisfaction on her connections with Government House, which much surely be the Canberra one, Sydney and Melbourne being so much further away? Later hints suggest it is Sydney after all, but when the conversation turns to “the European situation” and Mussolini, it’s clear that this is the late 1930s and likely to be well after Yarralumla became the full-time Government House. But would Australian-born Sir Isaac Isaacs have had an English ADC on hand, ready and willing to give his heart to the beautifully difficult Miss Sidney Furlow? I know, I’m grasping at straws.
Tharwa does get a mention. A drover met along the way, was “going down to Tharwa in the afternoon, he came from there, he would not come back for a year or two”. So Happy Valley is really quite apart from Canberra. Has nothing to do with it. But how might you read the book in the context of Canberra?
Happy Valley, White’s first novel, was originally published in 1939. It is a bleak landscape populated by White’s usual range of somewhat bleak and often unlovable figures. They are the usual ciphers of the isolated, dot-on-the-map town. The teacher at the one-room school, with no one to take over classes when he is sick. The bank manager and his wife, who might be called common except for their position in the town’s hierarchy. The doctor, finding connections with the community, his wife and son not. The youngish spinster sewing and giving music lessons to eke out her inheritance while saving to move to California. The local land owner and his rebellious daughter. The Chinese Australian girl, not quite ostracized but not quite accepted. They are the familiar props of the small town drama, although in White’s hands they are also something more than that.
Given these are such familiar outlines, the stuff of every town, why do I have so much trouble relating them to Canberra? My imagination is completely unable to move Happy Valley up the Monaro Highway and transplant it convincingly on the Limestone Plains, even at an earlier point in history when there must have been a school teacher and a doctor and a land owner.
Canberra’s history is overtaken by the national capital project. It seems from this distance to have leapt from scattered settler community to incipient city, without any moment of pause in between to be just a town. I’m unable to imagine the social hierarchy of Happy Valley transplanted to Canberra, and perhaps it was never there. Or, when it was, it was established according to a different set of rules of public service seniority, marked out by the construction and location of your house – tents at Westlake for construction workers, brick in Forrest for senior bureaucrats.
The capacity for scandal is still the same. Like Plaque with Laurel, written at around the same time, Happy Valley is centred on relationships, misunderstandings and infidelities. The sometimes awfulness of ordinary people, and their seemingly endless facility to do eachother harm without necessarily meaning any harm at all. These things I can imagine happening in Canberra.
If nothing else it has been something of a relief to read someone who masters the language after quite a lot of good storytelling but not much great writing. The foreword to the new edition by Peter Craven discusses how White is, in this first novel, experimenting with the styles of icons such as Joyce and Stein and “drunk with the technique of writing”. Even my unscholarly eye could detect these influences. Whether experimental, derivative or a clear, new and original voice, I do find White’s writing in Happy Valley wonderful. I want to give you a longish quote, the running of the local Cup, that I hope might show you what I mean.
They shuddered in a bunch against the barrier, then streamed out, that long trajectory of colour against an indifferent landscape, the muscle whipped by rain, by the sudden emotional compact of breath and wind. They urged into the wind and the flat, grey with trees. The colour broke fiercely on the grey. It whipped round the bend. The horses coiled back in a long elastic thread. You could hear their hoofs dulled by the mud. You could hear the approach of frantic breath. You could almost hear a flash of colour breaking through a clump of trees. And the crowd leant over the fence, drawing the horses on with their hands, so many puppets on so many strings, of which the jockeys, balled up on their saddles, had no ultimate control.
This moment of action is staccato and abrupt and quite different to much of the writing in the rest of the book, which is much a more fluid stream-of-consciousness, a following of the strange juxtapositions of his characters’ thoughts. Whether or not Happy Valley, separated from Canberra by a somewhat arbitrary boarder, is a mirror or a juxtaposition to the capital, I’m glad that I took the detour to visit.
Gold Medal 1941: Australian Literature Society