Elizabeth Salkeld Hunter is dying. Her children have come to pay their respects to the old lady in her bed in her Sydney mansion with round-the-clock nurses and regular staff.
Dorothy, now Princess Lascabanes, Elizabeth’s daughter, flies her pathetic divorced self in from Paris while Elizabeth’s son Basil, an exceptional actor, comes from England. Their father, Alfred Hunter, has been dead for many years so the family estate will be broken up and Arnold Wyburd, the family solicitor is present to assist with that.
Elizabeth was never what you would call a “nice” woman, she didn’t much care for her children and cheated on her husband, although he adored her. It was said that she “ate” people – despised and humiliated them for her own glory. Sanseverina from Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma is referred to in relation to Elizabeth.
The nurses and other staff gossip, joke and bicker while their patient recalls stories from her life, the people, the places, the events. Her attitude is biting and critical even now, partly because she was raised in poverty, partly because that’s just how she is.
Dorothy is a much bruised “princess” looking for love from her mother, too bad – so sad. Very complex relationship with Elizabeth – a good bit of her hates her mother. And she needs some money.
Basil is a has-been actor, knighted for his roles on the English stage but now, in his 50s, failing in all areas. Life to Sir Basil is a stage. He’s pretentious, egotistical and of course, he needs money. Sir Basil is haunted by King Lear without a Cordelia.
The three nurses are distinct characters, Flora Manhood is a young pretty woman with very little family, only a cousin who is quite low class. Flora is being hounded by her boyfriend to marry but she really has no desire to do that, she does not want babies, she wants to be a nurse. She’s worldly in her attitudes, enjoys putting makeup on Elizabeth. And she sees Basil as an opportunity.
Mary De Santis is another nurse, older and quite devout. The nicest of the bunch. And there’s nurse Sister Badgery who does her job quite methodically. Mrs Lippmann, the German-Jewish cook and Mrs Cush, the main housekeeper are both integral parts of the household, if not the storyline.
White, a nobel winner has got to be Australia’s Faulkner. It’s incredible what this book is in terms of plot, character development, structure and language.