Rediscovering the Hanging Garden

3 April 2012

Patrick White's lost novel 'The Hanging Garden' has recently been published, thanks to professors Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby.
Patrick White's lost novel 'The Hanging Garden' has recently been published, thanks to professors Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby.

English literature professor Margaret Harris was a key agent behind the publication this week of Patrick White's lost novel The Hanging Garden.

The handwritten manuscript - in blue ballpoint on foolscap pages with some corrections in red - was transcribed as part of a project called 'Patrick White in the 21st Century', and led by Professor Harris and her colleague Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Webby. The initial transcription was carried out by Jennifer Moore, research assistant on the project, with the help of Dr Olivia Murphy. White's biographer, University alumnus David Marr, and Professor Harris completed the edit, calling on White's friend and literary executor, Barbara Mobbs, to decipher some of the last recalcitrant phrases.

The 45,000 word 'finished' book, set in Sydney during WWII, represents about one third of what White intended to write.

"We can conjecture that he meant to bring it up to the 1980s due to some notes in the margins at the end of the manuscript, but there's nothing in the letters or anywhere else to suggest a final shape or trajectory for the completed book," Harris told ABC Radio National.

In explaining how she came to be editor of the unpublished manuscript, Harris says reading in the newspaper about the trove of White's papers, including 10 working notebooks sold to the National Library in 2006, piqued her professional interest.

"You don't often get literature on the front page of the newspaper," she says. "And I was very excited by this story. By the time I had got to work, I had thought of Elizabeth Webby, then Professor of Australian Literature, who is an expert on White, among other things, and we knew we had to get our hands on these papers.

"In particular I was excited by the 10 working notebooks, which are the centrepiece of this archive."

A transcription of these notebooks, together with explanatory annotation about such matters as the relation of the notebook material to White's published works, will be mounted in parallel to the images of the notebook pages already on the National Library website.

In order to carry out the project, Professor Harris applied to the Australian Research Council for funding to work on the archive.

"With the ARC funding we began work in 2008, principally on the notebooks, but David Marr had been so emphatic about the excellence of The Hanging Garden, I was curious. I read it in the library and I agreed with David that it was a great unpublished manuscript.

"The team was delighted when White's literary executor Barbara Mobbs read the transcript and decided The Hanging Garden should be published," she says.

Work on the unpublished manuscript involved deciphering White's sometimes difficult handwriting, with some "light editing" including tidying inconsistent character names and spellings.

Professor Harris - also Director of Research Development at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences - has built her academic career on research involving the unpublished work of great writers.

She has worked on the unpublished journals of the 19th-century novelist George Eliot, publishing The Journals of George Eliot in 1998, (with Judith Johnston, Cambridge University Press), and is the literary executor for the Australian novelist Christina Stead, publishing Dearest Munx (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2005) thus making available to readers nearly 300 previously unpublished letters, spanning 1929-68, between Stead and her life partner, the Marxist banker William J Blake.

Special movie screening

To celebrate the centenary of Patrick White's birth on 28 May 2012 there will be a special screening at Dendy Opera Quays of the movie The Eye of the Storm (2011), based on Patrick White's 1973 novel. The film will be introduced by producer, Antony Waddington and Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Webby.

The Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL) will host a cocktail reception before the film.

When: Monday 28 May

6 to 7pm reception, 7 to 7.20pm introduction, 7.20pm film screening

Where: Dendy Opera Quays, 2 Circular Quay, Sydney. See map 

Cost: $37.50 (includes film, refreshments and hors d'oeuvres)

Seating is strictly limited to 150 people. Register now.

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