Patrick White spills the tea in Voss

Patrick White was the first Australian to win a Nobel Prize for literature. His 1957 novel Voss, about the titular explorer attempting to cross the Australian continent in 1845, is the existential reckoning of a recently-arrived people with an ancient land. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of men believing they are God, and a lot of very fine sentences that take work to bend your mind around. But enough of that.

White was also a huge homo. Which means that he could absolutely skewer a character. Towards the end of the novel he introduces a character named Palethorpe. Palethorpe is the right hand of Mr Bonner, a wealthy draper and key patron of the explorer’s expedition. Palethorpe and his wife, White writes, “were of the doormat class, although of that superior quality which some impeccable doormats have”. Which is to say the Palethorpes are inoffensive, unambitious, and liable to be walked all over.

But at home Palethorpe and his wife have a rather charming habit of drinking tea and bitching about the other characters in the novel. A certain character’s weight, for instance, is a topic of discussion.

“Now stout ladies I do not intend to criticize,” says Mrs Palethorpe. “It is not my habit, as you know,” she protests, “But Mrs Bonner cannot resist a large pattern.” (Mrs Bonner has given Mrs Palethorpe a paisley shawl)

Mr Palethorpe responds: “Mrs Bonner is of a generous, one might say embarrassingly generous nature.”

They move onto Laura Trevalyan, the novel’s central love interest, who has “perfect taste” but unfortunately suffers from being “an intellectual young lady, and sometimes rather quiet”.

Then they get onto Voss himself, the explorer at that moment losing his mind and half his expedition party in central Australia.

Is he, Mrs Palethorpe asks, “a funny sort of man?”

“He is a German,” Mr Palethorpe deadpans.

Why does Mr Bonner support such a man? Mrs Palethorpe wonders.

“Mr Bonner will not see what he does not wish to see,” Mr Palethorpe replies, “And all of Sydney [is] waiting for him to remove the blinkers”.

“The Palethorpes”, the author writes, “Did grow steamy over tea in that climate”. Indeed.

“The tea”, as anyone who has watched RuPaul’s Drag Race would know, is gossip. Tea can be served at many strengths but is best strong and piping hot. For example, RuPaul catching Akiria C. Davenport lying about whether she had or had not started something about Plastique Tiara in Season 11 was excellent tea.

The term “tea”, like its sister concept “shade”, comes from black drag culture, and according to Merriam-Webster was in print by the ’90s. Originally it was just the letter, T, and didn’t refer to the drink, but has evolved over the past two decades to its present ubiquity. I can’t find any earlier records but that’s probably because white gays, and white people in general, have been pretty poor at acknowledging what we’ve taken from black culture (see also: “Yass!” and ballroom culture). Also, guilty. 

So I’m certainly not saying White invented the concept. But I do like to think he tapped into something universally queer in his ruthless dissections of character. White may even have had two queens in mind when he wrote of the Palethorpes. Or maybe he just knew some charming straight people who liked their tea steaming.