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As the ferry goes on, past Double Bay, I think of Patrick White’s The Vivisector, and of its main character, Hurtle Duffield, meeting Nance Lightfoot at the seawall on Rushcutters Bay. The Vivisectoris a story of Sydney, of a world of people who are cut off from their roots and collected into Sydney – a city that doesn’t appear to nourish them, but does at least provide shelter. Hurtle is an artist, who moves from his birthplace in ‘Cox Street’, in the slums of Surry Hills, to Sunningdale in Rushcutters Bay when the Courtneys purchase and adopt him.

The geography of the city is lightly placed around the drama of Hurtle’s art, but it’s a necessary and important part of the story. As a young man, after Hurtle meets Nance Lightfoot, he lives with her in Darlinghurst or in his own apartment on George Street. After a disastrous foray into the bush (Galston Gorge?) Hurtle buys a house in Paddington, meets one of his influential bystanders, Cutbush, on the edge of the cleft in Cooper Park, Bellevue Hill, visits Boo Courtney in her house with a balustrade between it and the sea, and Hero Pavloussi in her house at Rose Bay.

The journey from Cox Street to Sunningdale, from slum boy to privileged boy, is key to Hurtle’s development, and he only seems settled when he buys his own house in ‘Flint Street’ Paddington with a yard that opens onto the Cox Street-like world of Chubb’s Lane.

Here the clothes-lines and corrugated iron took over; ladies called to one another over collapsing paling fences; the go-carts were parked and serviced, and dragged out on shrieking wheels. In the evening young girls hung around in clusters, sucking oranges, sharing fashion mags, and criticising one another’s hair as though they had been artists. There was a mingled smell of poor washing, sump oil, rotting vegetables, goatish male bodies, soggy female armpits, in Chubb’s Lane.[i]

Hurtle is born with the twentieth century, and White marks the passing of time with careful hints at the changing features of the city. The story of Hurtle’s grandfather, who ‘died of a seizure on the Parramatta Road’ (p11) and fell off his mule, is suitably pre-1900. Hurtle’s father takes him in the horse-drawn cart on his first day of school, and Hurtle notices the smell of the animals in the zoo in Moore Park (which closed in 1916). World War I breaks out, and Hurtle’s adoptive mother Mrs Courtney makes decorations for “the Allied Ball. She sold buttons for Little Belgium from a little tray in Martin Place; she sold flags for Serbia; she represented la Belle France on an evening of tableaux vivants in the Town Hall” (p144). The detail is as particular as Hurtle going to town where he eats “a sandwich in a tea-room, sprinkling the ham with some of the dry mustard provided by the management.” (p230)


[i]White, P. The Vivisector. Vintage 1994 p264.