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The First Chapter of A Fringe of Leaves

a student essay discussing the function and significance of social prologue in the first chapter of White's A Fringe of Leaves

The first chapter of Patrick White?s novel A Fringe of Leaves is not just the opening of his novel, but rather an introduction, a prologue. It is significant as it introduces us the main characters of the novel, as well as introducing us to the cultural identity of the time in which the novel is set. Though the protagonist Ellen Gluyas, or Ellen Roxburgh does not appear in the first chapter, she is mentioned and discussed, giving us insight to the type of person she is considered to be, by the social standards of this time, allowing us to see what society was like, setting a context for the rest of the novel. The opening chapter informs us of the ideologies or the dominant cultural identity, it introduces us to the main characters, and establishes the presence of the narrator. It is a demonstration of White?s skill, that the opening is written in a style reminiscent of 19th Century novels, which makes the novel seem as it was written in the time that it portrays, when it was in fact a post-colonial text about colonialism.

Perhaps the most important function of the opening chapter is that it does in fact, introduce us to the ideologies informing the dominant cultural identity. The characters in the first chapter, are however exaggerated and parodic in the actions and conversations creating a tone which is ironic and satirical, subtly criticising the values and attitudes of the identity. What is important to understand, is that even though we are in Sydney, the cultural identity is very much English. It is as if the residents of 19th Century Sydney are imitating the ideas of Victorian England in many ways. This brings us to one of the first ideologies. England is still considered home, rather than Sydney, as demonstrated when Miss Scrimshaw replies to Mrs Merivale?s question by saying ?Living at such a distance nobody can fail to be refreshed by visitors from Home.? The use of the capital H in ?Home? seems to say that while where she is currently living is her home, her true home will always be England. It seems that the Merivales agree with the sentiment of home being England. Their attitudes also resemble the English aristocracy. It is a ?cultivated? boredom. The conversations seem very conservative, moving along at a steady pace, people waiting for others to finish before they began, unlike the conversation of today, quick with people cutting in everywhere. Mr and Mrs Merivale and Miss Scrimshaw seem not to get excited, but to calmly, seemingly slowly discuss the Roxburghs ? particularly Mrs Roxburgh.

Another of ideologies that seem to represent ties to Victorian England is one of breeding and good manners, as well as social connections to people with ?connections? to the English aristocracy. When discussing Mrs Austin Roxburgh, as the refer to her politely, they find that they have never heard of her before anywhere around Winchester, and when Mrs Merivale reveals that she ?understood Mrs Roxburgh to be from Cornwall? Miss Scrimshaw comments ?A remote county! Of dark people. I cannot remember ever having been on intimate terms with any individual of Cornish blood.? The fact that Mrs Roxburgh is Cornish, and has never been heard of before, raises the question of breeding in the minds of the travelling companions, on their way back from meeting with the Roxburghs. The fact that ?Mrs Roxburgh holds her silence at moments when people in general would offer candour,? makes Miss Scrimshaw and Mrs Merivale distrust and probably dislike Mrs Roxburgh, as Miss Scrimshaw herself does say ?I would never trust a silent woman.?
Though Mrs Roxburgh is not the only one of questionable upbringing, Miss Scrimshaw, whose first name is Decima, is the youngest of a clergyman?s protracted family, her breed in doubt herself. However, she does seem to have the proper ?manners? befitting an English lady, and she has the connections in the English aristocracy and is treated well. Mrs Merivale makes reference in her mind to Miss Scrimshaw?s Connection, the titled lady of Saffron Walden. The important word there is titled. It is considered advantageous to have connections within the English aristocracy, as you can curry favour with these connections who more than likely have some connection or favour with the royalty. This brings us also to social duty. It seemed to be the duty of the Merivales to see the Roxburghs off, Mrs Merivale herself says ?No one can accuse me of neglecting duty? after Mr Merivale?s comment that they had done their duty sending off the Roxburgh?s. Miss Scrimshaw also keeps quiet later on not because she agrees, but because it was her duty to do so. Following your duty was responsible, and being responsible reflected your upbringing and and manners.

The most important of these ideologies is the separation of gender roles. There is a defined male world and a defined female world. Men work and consort with other men, while women only work as teachers/tutors/nurses or single women as companions to other women higher up on the social ladder, or as mothers. It is similar to the gender constructions in Conrad?s Heart of Darkness, with the idea of the British Gentleman who shows restraint, and that there are things that men can know, and women should not know. Mr Merivale himself remarks when his wife says that she doesn?t understand that ?Everything has always been against you. Can?t you accept it?? It is as if Mr Merivale understands and is comforting someone who has no chance to perceive what he does. It seems that the women?s world is one of conversation and entertaining their friends, while a man?s is to work and have fun with his friends, to be the real brains of the family among other things, and it is the man who seems to be in charge. When Miss Scrimshaw suggests that Mrs Roxburgh was the one who made the decision to return to England, Mrs Merivale remarks ?Why ever now should Mrs Rosburgh?? and ?She looked to Miss Scrimshaw for some revelation of a stunning nature.? It seems to Mrs Merivale that Mr Roxburgh would have been the one to make the decision and Mrs Roxburgh would have had nothing to do with it ? the man making the decision. Another example of this separation is during the conversation with the emancipist Delaney. ?The ladies sighed, and smoother themselves, and prepared for endless men?s talk.? There seems to be a separation between men?s conversation and women?s conversation, as if once again, they were two entirely separate things.

The opening chapter also introduces us to the three main characters, the protagonist Mrs Ellen Roxburgh or Miss Ellen Gluyas, Mr Austin Roxburgh, and Austin?s brother Garnet. We are introduced to them through the conversation, and essentially from the view of the dominant cultural identity, between the Merivales and Miss Scrimshaw, who are returning from seeing Mr and Mrs Roxburgh off on their return to England, though their conversation is centred on Ellen Roxburgh. We find that Austin and Garnet were devoted to each other, and Austin is a man of failing health. Mr Merivale, who was friends with Garnet as children describes Austin as delicate, ?Always had his nose in a book,? while he and Garnet were strong and healthy and used to ride ?together over half Hampshire.? It seems to be the classic case of two brothers, one the athlete, strong and healthy, while the other the academic, failing in health. Mrs Roxburgh however, is mistrusted by the two ladies, who find her of questionable breed, and because she ?holds her silence at moments when people in general would offer candour.? Miss Scrimshaw describes her as ?something of a mystery.? She is obviously a little fascinated with Mrs Roxburgh, describing her further to Mrs Merivale saying ?I only had the impression that Mrs Roxburgh could feel life cheated her out of some ultimate in experience. For which she would be prepared to suffer, if need be.? It is perhaps that Miss Scrimshaw herself is like Mrs Roxburgh that she is fascinated, as the narrator says ?Perhaps it occurred to the sibyl that she was unveiling herself along with Mrs Roxburgh, for she hesistated then hurried on.? Mrs Merivale?s mistrust of Mrs Roxburgh however, is probably more simply one of jealousy, as Mr Merivale describes Mrs Roxburgh as pretty and elegant, ?Mrs Merivale was pretty certain that her husband?s vision was un-draped.?

The chapter also makes us aware of the presence of the narrator. Though the text is in third person, the narrator shifts between the characters presenting to us a complex set of values and attitudes that seem to be the thoughts of characters themselves, but are in reality, the ideas of the narrator. For example ?In all the large circle of her acquaintance it was Miss Scrimshaw?s duty to agree, which was why her voice sounded only on some occasions her own? may seem to be the thoughts of Miss Scrimshaw herself, but is in fact a comment by the narrator. Or when the comment ?Perhaps it occurred to the sibyl that she was unveiling herself along with Mrs Roxburgh? is made, is also a narrative comment, the narrator seems to know all about the characters already. The narrator is always present and knows everything that happens within the novel, an omniscient, omnipresent figure, as is shown to us in the first chapter.

Another significant cultural identity in 19th Century Sydney was the emancipated Irish culture, though the dominant culture was the English one. These two cultures were oft at odds with each, and the opening chapter does demonstrate this. ??Miss Scrimshaw is for the Old Country? Good luck to her then!? He laughed softly, and let them interpret it how they pleased,? was what the emancipist Delaney said and thought, as if he didn?t care what the English thought, giving them a hard time interpreting his words. When Delaney starts to talk about other Irishmen, Mr Merivale has to resist the urge of asking the coachman to start to leave, showing how he politely tolerates Delaney. Delaney very deliberately talks of something bound to disgust the women in the carriage, and most likely Mr Merivale himself, to seemingly coerce them to leave. ?Delaney cleared his throat; in other company he would have spat.? He remembers to keep some proprieties around the English-based culture, but it clearly shows that the two cultures are at odds with each other. Even before they leave Mrs Merivale comments ?Loathsome savages!? which could be interpreted two ways, one describing the natives and what they did to the men in Delaney?s story, the other referring to the Irish for speaking of such things in the presence of ladies. It seems however that many of the races of Celtic descent were regarded as below the English (by the English of course), once again if we make reference to Miss Scrimshaw?s comment about the Cornish they seem to be regarded with disdain by the English aswell.

The first chapter of A Fringe of Leaves is carefully constructed by White to represent a well-structured 19th Century novel. It over-exaggerates the mannerisms of the 19th Century English attitudes, criticising the values it portrays. The first chapter is important as it lays down the ideologies which are commented on and referred to throughout the rest of the novel, while informing us of the presence of the narrator and introducing us to the main characters, that of Ellen, Austin and Garnet, without their actual physical presence. This works to comment on the trio from an ideological point of view. The first chapter is significant as it establishes what we need to know to be able to fully read and understand the rest of the novel. The way White has constructed the first chapter shows us his impeccable skill, in the way he can deceive us into thinking that it is a 19th Century novel, while it is really post-19th Century about that very time.

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