Patrick White is the first Australian writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (1973). He was born into a wealthy Australian grazing family with strong ties to England, and received his school education partly in Australia, partly at Cheltenham College, England. He then lived a few years in Australia, working as a jackaroo and preparing for university. At King's College, Cambridge, he studied French and German languages and literatures (1932-1935) and spent considerable time in France and Germany (particularly Hannover, the fictional Heimat of Voss and of Himmelfarb in Riders in the Chariot). The experience of the Australian landscape on the one hand, and European literature and thought on the other were to become two major sources of influence on White's writing.
White had realised early in life that he was not cut out for a grazier's life but rather for that of an artist and writer. He wrote his first poems at Cheltenham (later privately printed in Sydney as Thirteen Poems), and soon started writing plays (some of them staged in Sydney and London), short stories and his first novel Happy Valley. After graduating from Cambridge he went to London where he moved in artists' circles, making friends with painters, musicians and writers. While on a visit to the USA he wrote his second novel The Living and the Dead (1941).
During what he used to call 'Hitler's war' White joined the RAF and worked as an intelligence officer in the Middle East. In Egypt, he met Manoly Lascaris, 'this small Greek of immense moral strength, who became the central mandala in my life's hitherto messy design' (Flaws in the Glass) and who was to become his life-long partner. Through Lascaris and his family White also developed his love for Greece.
After some years in dreary post-war London White and Lascaris moved to Australia. They first settled on a farm at Castle Hill (at the outskirts of Sydney) and in 1964 moved to Centennial Park, Sydney. White explained his reasons for returning to Australia - and his ambivalent response to this country - in his famous essay 'The Prodigal Son' (1958). The national and international success of his novels The Aunt's Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) mark the beginning of an extremely intense and productive writer's career. White's many novels, short stories and plays explore the nature of good and evil, love and hate, life and death, the material and the spiritual world, suffering and solitude. Among his many eccentric characters it is often the seemingly miserable 'outsider' figures who succeed in integrating life's ambivalences and in coming to terms with themselves, God and the universe.
After receiving the Nobel Prize, White became a celebrity in Australia, a role he did not cherish at all. With his Nobel Prize money he established the Patrick White Award for Australian writers who have been creative over an extended period, but who have been inadequately recognised. Plagued with asthma and ill health all his life, White admitted to a 'bitter nature'. With his sometimes harsh criticism of people and issues he made a number of enemies. In 1976 he returned his OA in protest against some of the Australian government's policies. But his social commitment in speaking out on public matters and his generous support of various charitable causes were remarkable, and he had many friends and admirers (see Patrick White: A Tribute, 1991).
White's self-portrait Flaws in the Glass (1981) is an indispensable guide for biographical facts; for understanding his personality, beliefs and views of human nature; for reading his novels; and for background information on the real-life models of many of his fictional characters. For more biographical detail see David Marr's award-winning book Patrick White - A Life (1991).
Patrick White was included in the Bulletin's '100 Most Influential Australians' list in 2006.
The National Library of Australia's guide to the papers of Patrick White is available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms9982. Many of White's notebooks have been digitised and are available via this page.