A HOUSE WITH CHARACTERS:
A LITERARY CONNECTION TO LOCAL HISTORY
“All the houses I have lived in have been renovated and refurnished to accommodate fictions. The original structure is there for anybody who knows: ‘Lulworth’ for Voss; ‘Dogwoods’ for The Tree of Man and The Solid Mandala . . . In some cases it has not been so much architecture as atmosphere which has transferred the house to the page.”[i]
- From Patrick White’s autobiography, Flaws in the Glass.
Artist rendering of “Dogwoods” circa. 1994. Image reproduced courtesy of the Rowlandson family.
In the middle of the suburban landscape of Castle Hill, on one of its busiest roads, stands a house that is driven by (and probably admired) thousands of times each day; however, few residents of the Hills District know that this house, known as “Dogwoods”, was once owned and lived in by Nobel Prize-winning Australian author Patrick White.
Patrick White, Australia’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1973) for his novel Voss, and his life-long partner Manoly Lascaris, purchased the 6.4 acres of property in February of 1948. Then called “The Glen”, the couple changed the name within the year to “Dogwoods”, named so after the Dogwood trees they planted on the property. White had left Sydney for Cambridge in 1932 and “expected never to return.”[ii] (Marr, Letters, p.6)
But return he did.
Interestingly, though, Patrick White’s time at Castle Hill is relatively unknown when compared to his writing life in general and his time at his family home in Centennial Park, in which he and Manoly resided after leaving Castle Hill in 1964. (The couple would hold onto the property for three more years.)
“Dogwoods” has been privately owned and, therefore, not open to the public, since White sold the property in 1967. And in a way, the fact that the historical significance of the house, situated within a suburban area, is relatively unknown,only adds to its intrigue.
Anybody whose literary interests in Patrick White fuels a need for more, and is aware of the author’s connection to Castle Hill, cannot be dissatisfied when viewing first-hand the house in which many of White’s characters were not only created but lived and breathed.
“Dogwoods” as it exists today.
A heritage-listed building, it still maintains its original character.
“. . . before very long [the Brown family] were living really and truly on the land they bought . . . down Terminus Road. First, of course, there was the house to build, and they used to come out from Barranugli on Sundays to supervise the building . . . the classical façade of the brown weatherboard house . . . something about the Classical which Dad called ‘sacrosanct – in a manner of speaking.”[iii]
- From The Solid Mandala.
One can certainly perceive both the architecture and the atmosphere of “Dogwoods” within this brief description of the Brown family house in The Solid Mandala. A resident of Castle Hill need only pick up a copy of the novel to get a feeling of the place so engrained in it.
Of course, being able to physically locate such an important Australian literary figure (and characters) within an existing physical structure is exciting and posits a significant historical landmark within Castle Hill. However, what is just as interesting is what can be learnt about Patrick White’s Castle Hill – the sense of place, its residents, and its link to today’s social and political environment – when looked at through this literary perspective.
A “NOBEL” PLACE
Castle Hill and its surrounding areas (then considered the Baulkham Hills Shire), during White’s residence, was semi-rural, with only about 10,600 residents but was quickly growing. In just over ten years it grew to almost 17,000. Today it has over 133,000 with the suburb of Castle Hill alone boasting of approximately 28,000 residents.[iv] This “suburbanization” of Castle Hill became, arguably, an important factor to White’s writing and his life.
“Our acres are just beginning to come alive . . . I am sure I have been right in returning to the land."
- Patrick White, Aug 6, 1948
“I realize I have never liked Castle Hill, only this place [“Dogwoods”], which has been good to my work and necessary for it.”
- Patrick White, Sept 13, 1964
White’s relationship with Castle Hill was obviously somewhat ambivalent. The above two quotes from the year White arrived in Castle Hill and the year he left, respectively, show how, for White, Castle Hill was a place of isolation, necessity and inspiration.[v] Two of the place-names White affixes to his fictional rendering of Castle Hill, or “Sarsaparilla”, as seen in the above passage from the novel The Solid Mandala, are particularly illustrative of this relationship.
The Solid Mandala,
originally published in 1966, written
predominantly during the last year of
White’s residence at “Dogwoods” in Castle Hill.
White’s choice of the place-namesBarranugli (Bare and Ugly) and Terminus Road (as a final point, as far out as one can be) at least help us to understand the anxieties White held about the place that, ultimately, gave him so much. These descriptions were not an attack on Castle Hill; rather, they were a bemoaning over the encroachment of suburbia on the rural. As White wrote about having to leave “Dogwoods”: “it was impossible to continue living in what had become a suburb.”
Showground Road in Castle Hill as it looked 1951,
three years after White and Lascaris purchased “Dogwoods”.
However, there is no denying White’s appreciation of Castle Hill as a place of literary inspiration and peacefulness, away from the distractions of noisy city life. “The ideal Australia I visualized during any exile and which drew me back, was always, I realize, a landscape without figures . . . [the landscape is] more sensual, sympathetic to human flesh.”[vi]The ordinariness of life with which Castle Hill was able to provide White was crucial to his creativity, as Australian-ness and the Australian landscape became one of White’s most popular motifs.
Postcard sent from White and Lascaris to their neighbours, whose cow
spent some time in the couple’s backyard at “Dogwoods”.
Image reproduced courtesy of Enid Turbit.
The above image is wonderful to behold: Patrick White, internationally renowned author, possibly waxing nostalgic while traveling the world, about his little piece of Australia (on which he kept a neighbour’s cow) in the semi-rural outskirts of Sydney, his “landscape without figures”, to which he was eager to return.[vii] In fact, it was exactly the ordinariness of life at “Dogwoods” in Castle Hill, in which White received inspiration for one of the major themes that resonated throughout his work: the Immanent God.
“During what seemed like months of rain I was carrying a trayload of food to a wormy litter of pups . . . when I slipped and fell on my back. . . . I lay where I had fallen, half-blinded by rain, under a pale sky, cursing through watery lips a God in whom I did not believe. . . . It was the turning point. My disbelief appeared as farcical as my fall. At that moment I was truly humbled.”[viii]
This importance of place to White’s work cannot be understated. All that one can deduce from White’s time at “Dogwoods” – the duality of human nature, anxiety over suburbia, the presence of God, and the Australian landscape – all help toilluminate the history of the author’s connection to Castle Hill, the place where the Nobel Prize-winning novel Voss was written.
Cover of Voss (1957),
Patrick White’s Nobel Prize-winning novel
A CONTINUING LEGACY?
Castle Hill holds a significant place in White’s life and work. As the place that White embraced – and the place that embraced him – this literary connection is held with pride. Almost two decades after White and Lascaris left Castle Hill, White published his “self-portrait”, Flaws in the Glass. Published in 1981, the same year that the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras took to its first summer parade, it is a highly important work to consider alongside today’s struggle over full equality for the LGBT community.
White’s autobiography, Flaws in the Glass: a Self-Portrait,
originally published in 1981, the same year the
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras had its first summer parade.
White’s fearless account of his life with Lascaris was written at a time when anxieties over sexuality (at their height during the years at “Dogwoods”) were coming to a head with dramatic force. The openness of White and Lascaris’s relationship while living at “Dogwoods” is a testament to the acceptance and enlightenment of the people of Castle Hill during the not-so-progressive era of the 1950s. Allowing White to have the last word, Castle Hill’s place in the continuing legacy of the life and work of this fascinating man is clear:
“I am sure our ghosts will always haunt Showground Road, the dark little house with cracks in its walls and white ants in its foundations. Those who are psychic or unhappy may still catch a glimpse of us running out naked by moonlight amongst the regimented boxes which now stand where the trees were cut down. Perhaps my laughter will be heard on Nobel Avenue . . . where I fell on my back in the mud . . .”[ix]
with view along Patrick Street
The author would like to express sincere gratitude to Pam Trimmer and the Hills District Historical Society for providing the opportunity to research and write this history of the connection of Patrick White to Castle Hill; the current owners of “Dogwoods”, the Rowlandson family for granting access to this wonderful historical building and allowing photos to be taken and shared with the public to ensure the posterity of the site; Enid Turbit for sharing the postcards sent to her parents by Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris and agreeing for the images to be shared with the public. Your contribution to this public history project will help work toward a greater and more enthusiastic engagement with the local history of Castle Hill and the Hills District. It is the author’s hope that schools and the general public support and acknowledge the tremendous work conducted by the staff of the Hills District Historical Society to preserve our history.
[i] White, Patrick, Flaws in the Glass, Penguin, 1983, pp. 153-4.
[ii] Marr, David, ed. The Letters of Patrick White, Sydney : Random House, 1994, p.6.
[iii]White, Patrick, The Solid Mandala, Australia: Penguin, 1972, p. 223.
[iv] Australian Bureau of Statistics Historical Census Data
[v] Marr, Letters, pp. 72 &265.
[vi] White, Flaws, pp. 49 & 51.
[vii] A second postcard from Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris to the Crooks family reads: “Beginning to feel I could head for home. We have seen too much already, I think.”
[viii] White, Flaws, p.144,
[ix] ibid, p.148.