(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)


Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm and Botticelli's Primavera

David Coad (Université de Valenciennes)

"We are never the one they think; we are not one, but many." (ES p. 100) (1)

Botticelli's Primavera, most probably painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, is a masterpiece of the Renaissance, giving pictural form to a series of Platonic poetic and philosophical doctrines that we find reworked by the Italian Neoplatonists. Botticelli participated in the artistic revival of Platonism in sixteenth century ltatly, together with his famous contemporaries: Lorenzo de Medici, Pico della Mirandola, Poliziano, and Ficino. The Primavera depicts nine figures in a garden. The central figure is Venus, the goddess of love. She is flanked on both sides by a triad. On her left dance the three Graces: the unadorned Grace in the centre – she is wearing no necklace or brooch – is Castitas (Chastity); she joins hands with Voluptas (Pleasure) on the left with snake-like hair and an elaborate jewel on her breast and with Pulchritudo (Beauty) on the right with pearls in her neat locks. The hands of Pleasure and Beauty are raised and joined over the central Grace, Chastity, the neophyte, initiated into the mysteries of love (Cupid's arrow is pointed directly at her) by the ministrations of Pleasure and Beauty. This triad shows a concordia discors. Chastity is being, enraptured by Cupid's arrow; she unites the opposites: her robe reveals naked flesh on the side of Pleasure, whereas her long flowing hair covers and protects on the side of Beauty. The whole group of Graces shows the Beauty of Desire which is Love (2).


1. All references are to Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
2. I have based my analysis of Botticelli's Primavera on the discussion contained in Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.



On Venus's right we have another triad. The central figure, the earth-nymph Chloris, pursued by the wind of spring, Zephyr, is transformed into Flora, the herald of spring Botticelli takes his inspiration from Ovid's Fasti: "Chloris eram quae Flora vocor" (I once was Chloris who am now called Flora). As in the triad of the three Graces, here the neophyte is transformed, enraptured by love. The fleeing nymph (Chastity) and the amorous Zephyr (Passion) unite in Flora (Beauty).

The remaining, figure of the painting is Mercury-Hermes. His staff and gaze are directed upward since he is the divine mystagogue, the voice of Hermetic knowledge, psychopomp, the leader of souls: here the three Graces. Mercury looks away from this world towards the Beyond; he contemplates the divine world of Ideas. Botticelli has the grace Chastity look in the direction of Mercury since enflamed by Love's arrow, she aspires to transcendent, divine love.

Botticelli's Primavera can be read as a Neoplatonic allegory on love. The three Graces and the Flora-Chloris-Zephyr triad unfold the attributes of Venus (love) and make clear this Platonic definition: Love is Desire aroused by Beauty. The full meaning of this Platonic dialectic is only evident, however, once we see the connection between Mercury and Zephyr. They are in fact symmetrical figures. Love is of this world (Zephyr) and turns away from this world (Mercury). Love enters this world (the Neoplatonic "procession"), there is a "conversion" as exemplified in the dance of the Graces, followed by a "return," an ascent towards the love of wisdom, knowledge and the numinous.

An idea contained in each triad of the Primavera is the union of opposites: love can be sacred (Venus Coelestis) or profane (Venus Vulgaris), that is celestial or human. In the Christianised version this becomes love of God (Agape) or erotic, sexual love (Eros). The goddess Venus is sometimes portrayed as a discordia concors in order to suggest chaste, celestial, divine love and the passion of earthly, profane love. In the first book of the Aeneid, Venus appears to her son, Acneas, as a virgin: "She had a maiden's countenance and a maiden's guise, and carried a maiden's weapons ... Slung ready on her shoulder she carried a bow as a huntress would" (3). Here Venus is described in terms which we traditionally associate with her "opposite," the goddess of the hunt, the chaste Diana. If we return to Botticelli's Graces, we see that the central Grace, Chastity, unfolds one attribute of Venus, as does Virgil's Venus: sacred love which can be interpreted in a Platonic or Christian sense. Likewise, Pleasure unfolds another attribute of Venus: earthly love, again liable to a Platonic or Christian interpretation.


3. VIRGIL, The Aeneid, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983, tr. W. F. Jackson Knight, Bk.1, p. 37.



In Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm, as in Botticelli's Primavera, the protagonist or central figure is a Venusian woman. Elizabeth Hunter is a discordia concurs: she shares some of the traditional attributes of Venus (beauty, eroticism, sexual love) as well as those of Diana (chastity, purity, divine love). Just as different qualities of Venus are unfolded in the three Graces, so various qualities of Elizabeth Hunter are unfolded in her nurses: Mary de Santis, Flora Manhood and Sister Badgery. The dance of the Graces can be seen in the dance of the mad house-keeper, Lotte Lippmann, in chapter eleven. There is furthermore in the portrait of Elizabeth Hunter a parallel with Elizabeth I, the "virgin queen" of England, admired and praised by Spenser and other poets in terms of the Venus-Diana dialectic. Elizabeth Hunter is portrayed as a coincidentia oppositorum by means of a network of images which recall Venus, then by another chain of images recalling Diana. Sister de Santis embodies the attribute of Chastity, and Flora Manhood the attribute of Pleasure or Desire. The tension between chastity and pleasure, between love, that is sex, and "the other love" (ES 157), is a major problematic of the novel.

There are many allusions in The Eye of the Storm to the former beauty of Elizabeth Hunter, linking her to the goddess of beauty, Venus. Basil, her son, describes her as "extraordinary - beautiful - exceptional ... a great – an incredibly beautiful woman" (ES 327, 240). Admiring her portrait, Flora Manhood reflects that her mistress must have been a passionate woman" (ES 290). In the following description we have the impression of looking at a Botlicelli-like Venus, as depicted in the Venus and Mars: Her essentials only cobwebbed by the fine sheet, Elizabeth Hunter looked as Good as naked. She was so perfectly lulled, Alfred might have been caressing her breasts, her navel, her Mount of Venus" (ES 416). There are numerous emblems of Venus in the novel. Patrick White makes use of the mirror, the swan, the rose, the pearl and the emerald. The Toilet of Venus, or the recumbent Venus, was a favourite subject of Venitian painting in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cupid holding a mirror to Venus is suggested in the gestures of the nurses at Moreton Drive. Here is de Santis as Cupid: "'Bring me my looking-glass, Nurse.' Sister de Santis fetched the class: it was of that same ivory set as the brushes with lovers' knots in gold and lapis lazuli. Holding it by its fluted handle she tilted the glass for her patient to look" (ES 13). Another theme of Italian painting is the Triumph of Venus showing the goddess enthroned on her triumphal chariot drawn by doves or swans. Ironically Venus's chariot becomes a commode in The Eye of the Storm, the arms of which suggest a swan's neck. White conceives the Grotesque image of a costive goat sitting, waitingg and finally dying on her "throne." Venus's flower, the rose, is described many times in the novel. They are said to be Mrs Hunter's particular flower. In the Birth of Venus, Botticelli shows Venus standing on a shell, recalling the pearl in its



shell, a typical emblem of Venus Vulgaris. Mrs Hunter has a passion for jewels, often calling for her jewel-box when she is being dressed. When Flora prepares Mrs Hunter for her final scene, she brings a green wig and two emerald ear-rings, a typical Venusian jewel and colour, to adorn the dying queen.

Like Virgil's description of Venus as huntress, Patrick White draws on traditional images and symbols of the goddess Diana to compliment the Venusian portrait. He constructs a network of images including the colour white, the lily and the moon. A white lily is reflected in one of the mirrors of Moreton Drive; Mrs Hunter adorns herself with white roses and is remembered as having worn a white robe, typical of a Botticellian sylph: "There was her back though, white amongst the shadows, and the light in her hair ... in a long white robe of raw silk, of unbroken fall if it had not been for a corded girdle, and faint flutings which gave her slenderness an architecture" (ES 382). There are more than 125 references to the colour white in The Eye of the Storm. The author is not only indulging in onomastic narcissism, like Shakespeare in some of his sonnets; he is insisting, on the pure, virginal quality of the heroine. The moon is described as full just before the eye of the storm and at the moment when Mrs Hunter dies. Suggesting renewal, death and rebirth, the image also brings to mind the lunar goddess, Selene-Diana. Lastly, the choice of the name Hunter suggests not only the protagonist's religious quest, but also the pagan huntress, Diana.

White makes use of the Venus-Diana opposition in order to show conflicting urges in the heroine. She betrays her husband more than once: with the politician, Athol Shreve, with her solicitor, Arnold Wyburd, and later flirts with the Norwegian ecologist, Edvard Pehl. She gives into passion repeatedly, but later suffers from remorse for having, deceived Alfred. Knowing the limitations of sexual love, she aspires to a different sort of love in which she may find fulfilment. In the novel, Sister Mary de Santis embodies Elizabeth Hunter as Chastity-Chloris before the conversion. White's Flora is tempted by Cupid's dart (Col Pardoe and Basil Hunter's "great red angry club" [ES 85]), succumbs to temptation and is "enraptured" by Passion. Like Botticelli's Flora, and unlike Botticelli's Castitas, her love is human and restricted to this world. De Santis, however, resembles Castitas: she suffers love's dart (Basil's attempt at seduction) and remains physically chaste, as she has her eyes transfixed on another world.

Flora Manhood. the 25 year-old carefree nurse with her patterned dress, gyrating Perspex earrings and orange handbag, is the portrait of a sexually liberated young woman of the early 1970s, interested in yummy food, sleep and cosmetics. Dorothy de Lascabanes sees in her a gaudy strumpet, an opinion shared by her Don Juan brother. For Basil Hunter Flora is simply a cocktease nurse interested in a one-night stand. Even her "fiancé's"



phallocratic attitude annoys Flora with his constant demand for it. This provokes her outcry: "Col, I'm not the fucking whore you think" (ES 305).

When Flora visits her future seducer, Mrs Hunter's son, Basil, she wears a Green dress which reminds Basil and us of the leaves on Botticelli's Flora. When he sees her Basil exclaims: "A genuine Botticelli!" (ES 304). He calls her "Botterchelly Flora," "this Botticelli" and "his Primavera" (ES 308, 336, 419). What in the terms of the novel is a cheap bit on the side, given the transartistic reference to the Primavera, alludes to the moment when, touched by Zephyr, flowers spring out of Chloris's mouth and she is transformed into Flora. The gap between the two seductions is exploited by White. Unable to cast her gaze on Mercury for any extended period of time (we are told Flora Manhood has only "inklings of transcendence" [ES 427]), the nurse remains a scatter-brained potential breeder locked in the material world. This becomes a condemnation by White of his fellow Countrymen: "Like every good Australian, [Flora] must continue to believe only in the now which you can see and touch" (ES 427-28). Flora Manhood represents the Venus Genitrix aspect of Elizabeth Hunter devoid of any counterbalancing Diana. Platonically speaking there has been a procession and conversion, but no return.

Sister Mary de Santis is one of White's humble everyday saints, devoted to the service of others. The author draws on traditional imagery that we associate with the Virgin Mary to emphasise her purity, sanctity and devotion. She is described as mild, humble, pure, innocent, immaculate and selfless. Like Flora Manhood, she is troubled and attracted by Sir Basil Hunter's overt virility and is sexually tempted before fleeing Basil, her lust and moral shame. Mary de Santis is able to resist the passion which drives Flora and which overcame at intervals the younger Elizabeth Hunter. Reminding us of Botticeili's Castitas, de Santis has her eyes fixed on the Beyond: "love is a kind of supernatural state to which I must give myself entirely, and be used up" (ES 157). She tells Mrs Hunter that she has only wanted to serve others, to love. This she puts into practice looking after the often nasty, sick, smelly Elizabeth Hunter until her mistress dies, and then by taking on another patient, the young girl, Irene. Mary de Santis is a model of the love Mrs Hunter is yearning to show, but finds difficult or impossible to express. The old woman confides in her nurse: "There is this other love, I know. Haven't I been shown? And I still can't reach it. But I shall! I shall!" (ES 157). This "other love" can be identified with caritas, Christian love. In loving, serving her neighbour, Mary de Santis is showing her love for God. At the end of The Eye of the Storm, White describes de Santis in Mrs Hunter's garden, feeding the birds with seed, bathed in matutinal light. We leave the novel, and de Santis, at a moment of rapture: she is symbolically receiving the Holy Spirit. There is a procession (of the Holy Spirit), a conversion by love (White


uses a sexual metaphor: an excess of seed"; "her own unmanageable joy" [ES 589]), and a return to this world – de Santis returns to a new patient. At the end of The Eye of the Storm, Mary de Santis is Castitas (she remains sexually chaste), Voluptas (her vocation gives immense joy) and Pulchritudo she possesses spiritual beauty.

The combined Venus-Diana image lies behind the resemblance between Elizabeth Hunter and her namesake, Elizabeth I. Mrs Hunter is mockingly or respectfully referred to as a queen several times in the novel. We have already noted the Grotesque isomorphic parallel: the old woman's commode is her throne where she sits made up. When we remember that in the pictorial as well as the literary iconography of the sixteenth-century, Elizabeth I was often depicted as the goddess Diana, the reference to the virgin queen in The Eye of the Storm takes on an added significance. The portrait of Elizabeth I by Isaac Oliver in the engraving of Crispin van de Passe carries the inscription: Virginis os habitumque geris divina virago, an echo of the passage in Virgil already referred to. The artist is giving praise to his monarch worthy of two goddesses, as Patrick White bas done for his protagonist. In the Proem to Book IV of the Faerie Queene, Spenser describes Elizabeth as "The Queene of loue." More extensively, the Queen can be seen in the portraits of Gloriana, Una, Britomart and Belphoebe in Spenser's poem. Elizabeth Hunter is the descendant of all these literary portraits.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 5. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)