Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) is famous in my mind for the extraordinary method of research for her Depression novels, so as soon as I saw this biography in the local book bargain shop, I knew I had to have it. Many of us know her work from the ABC TV adaptation (2005) of Ride On Stranger (1943) and I have read The Battlers (1941) but this biography shows that Tennant was a prolific author who wrote in many genres and was also a noted reviewer of Australian literature.
The biography was commissioned by the National Library of Australia as the second in its An Australian Life series. Drawing on papers held in the NLA, this series includes biographies of authors such as Alan Moorehead and Daisy Bates, but if there are others in the series they didn’t come up in the search I did at the NLA bookshop. It’s a pity if there aren’t any more, because I can think of dozens of Australian authors who merit a brief, capable biography like this one, if not more than that.
Today’s young authors, many of whom have the resources of a university behind the PhD that guides their first novel, would perhaps recoil in dismay at Tennant’s methods. The daughter of a middle-class family, she was nonetheless denied university education by her conservative father, and it was an uncle who paid her first term fees at Sydney University in 1931. But (like many of today’s young students) Tennant could not manage both part-time work (as a copywriter) and also the rigours of study, and she abandoned her course. Nevertheless she was determined to write, and so in 1932 (aged 20) she set out to walk the 600 miles from Sydney to Coonabarabran in northern NSW, ostensibly in response to an invitation to visit the friend who would become her husband, Lewis Rodd. What she said later was that she had wanted to find out all she could about the unemployed men on the track who (sometimes with their families) were searching for work in what was the worst year of the Depression. As you can see in my review of The Battlers what she did was what they did: camping out; being moved on and out of towns that didn’t want them; doing without; going hungry and getting sick. She was also sometimes in real danger, including from an attempted rape. But right from the very beginning she was a writer of social conscience: she wrote her novels with the express intention of wanting to change public opinion about the injustices she saw.
Well, she married Rodd, six days after she arrived in Coonabarabran, and began a creative partnership with him that guided her literary career. Rodd was seven years older than she was, and a teacher, and (notwithstanding the shabby little entry about him at Wikipedia) it was he who helped her plan the research she needed for her novels, edited them, and typed them all up for publication. These plans for research were meticulous, but you begin to realise just how risky these methods were when you see what it was that she needed to experience for a novel such as Tell Morning This (1967, though first published in abridged form as The Joyful Condemned in 1953).
Tell Morning This is about a girl called Rene who is deemed to be in moral danger by the Department of Moral Rehabilitation and under constant surveillance. Set during the war, the novel explores the irony of a society eroding personal freedom and punishing people for refusing to conform to a prescriptive moral code at the very time that a war is being fought to defend democracy and human rights.
Tennant immersed herself in the life of her delinquent female character, visiting pubs, brothels, nightclubs, reformatory schools, working in a jam factory and again living in the seedier quarters of the city. In an article written during this period, Tennant credited Rodd with planning her research:
‘I can see now,’ my husband said, ‘you will need to go to gaol.’ He had just written down on the list of my plans:-‘Fortnight in jam factory, fortnight as barmaid’, and he methodically wrote underneath:- ‘one week in gaol.’ I was pleased he had made it a week. He was quite capable of writing down ‘one month’. (p.64)
She had to stage a stunt to get herself into gaol, and the authorities were not best pleased when she finally revealed her identity: she was lucky to escape without being charged with being a public nuisance.
After failing to persuade the Commissioner of Police to let her voluntarily spend a week in gaol, Tennant took matters into her own hands. Her performance as a drunken prostitute, however, was politely ignored by the police and she was forced to resort to abuse. This misdemeanour brought Tennant one night in the lockup but refusing to give her name landed her a week in Parramatta Gaol. At the end of the week, the still silent Tennant was moved to the psychiatric facility, the Reception House. It was not until after she was summoned before the Lunacy Tribunal, and in real danger of being committed, that she finally revealed her identity. (p. 64)
Allowing for the fact that Tennant was often ironic about personal matters as a way of concealing a deeply felt reticence, her papers reveal just how much time she spent away from her husband. They had made, she said, an agreement not to have children because it would inhibit her career as a writer, but Grant suggests that this was not wholly a joint decision, and that Tennant enjoyed her times away from Rodd. Sometimes in the reading of this biography I felt that there was more to explore in the relationship, but that the biographer was treading carefully because of Rodd’s tragic history as a suicidal depressive. I’ll ask the question here: was Rodd a controlling father figure displacing the father who had failed to support Tennant’s intellectual ambition, or was he a man whose severe mental illness made him difficult to live with, so that the research was a form of much needed respite from the illness, not the man? Perhaps it was both…
But there are also elements of their partnership that hint at other possible causes for friction. They had very different family backgrounds: Rodd was raised by his widowed mother in the slums of Surry Hills and it was an education department studentship which enabled his elevation to teaching. Tennant came from an English migrant-made-good background and went to a private school in Manly; and although through her ambition to write she came to know at first-hand what poverty was like, her interest in socialism and her brief flirtation with communism derived (at least in part) from rebellion against her father and his ‘respectable’ plans for her.
There were also religious differences – though late in life he lost his faith in response to the brutal murder of his son Bim, Rodd was a devout member of the High Church of England while Tennant (although she converted to marry Rodd) had had an unorthodox religious upbringing. Grant says that while in adulthood Tennant rejected Christian Science, she retained some aspects of its philosophy that disease had its origins in the mind and could only be cured through spiritual healing and that her early interest in psychiatry might also be read as a secular interpretation of this religion. (p.16) I wonder whether these beliefs impacted on how she coped with marriage to a man – and tragically eventually also a son – who suffered from serious mental illness.
But perhaps also there were unacknowledged professional rivalries:
Rodd also had ambitions to write and in middle age would produce biographies of his father and Reverend John Hope, although he never achieved either the popularity or the acclaim of his wife. Other factors that went beyond talent contributed to Tennant’s success. Her fictional subjects of the common man and woman had enormous appeal to a society that aspired to egalitarian ideals … Rodd’s more esoteric interests appealed to a far smaller market. He also lacked the desire to seek the spotlight. It might be suggested that Tennant’s fearless pursuit of adventure and flair for self-publicity played their part in her success as a writer. (p.10)
And maybe the labour of editing and typing her work inhibited his writing? There were times when he was unable to work himself (was there sick leave for teachers back then?) and the money she brought in from writing was needed. Certainly after the suicide attempt which left him disabled and forced his retirement, it was Tennant’s writing that paid the mortgage. Perhaps he made a strategic decision to help keep the financial boat afloat in the only way he could …
I remain curious about Tennant’s eventual motherhood after 14 years of marriage. She had two children, Benison and Bim. She wasn’t the first author to assert that children inhibit the careers of female authors – I remember reading in Anne Chisolm’s biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life (1998) that Godden said so unequivocally in terms that must have really hurt her children’s feelings, especially the last unwanted one who turned up late in her reproductive life when she thought she was finally free. Tennant wasn’t just away from home when she was doing her research, she also took time out from being a respectable schoolteacher’s wife to write in her various hideaways – and she had a surprising number of these including a place that she bought with Elizabeth Harrower in the Blue Mountains. As Grant acknowledges in the introduction, Tennant’s sole surviving child Benison Todd shared what at times must have been painful memories but what’s not recorded in this biography is much about what kind of mother she was. We can only infer it. (To be fair, Grant’s brief from the NLA was to write a short biography. The biography is only 129 pages of a 156 page book, and I read it in a single sitting.)
To fully understand what Grant has to say about Tennant’s rejection of modernism I would need to read more of Tennant’s fiction – a daunting task because she wrote ten novels. Grant says that Rodd’s preference for 19th century authors such as Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope influenced her literary preferences and her style, and she was indignant when reviewers of her work alluded to John Steinbeck (whose novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is arguably the most famous of Depression novels). Rejecting modernism, while it did not hamper her friendship with Patrick White, eventually made her writing unfashionable – but there was more to it than this, I think. I am remembering Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin (see my review), in which she comments that Franklin never repeated the success of her early work because she lacked the education and mentoring that could have guided writing that instead became fossilised. (That’s my word for it, not Roe’s). While both Franklin and Tennant had gifts of characterisation based on real life and their reportage was adept and incisive, and Tennant went on being published though Franklin had much more limited success, their publication difficulties were not because they were women, it seems to have been because they were writing picaresque novels that did not explore personal feelings, as did the novels of Ruth Park, Eleanor Dark, and Eve Langley.
Grant suggests that Tennant felt that Langley’s 1943 novel The Pea Pickers was an intrusion on her territory, but it ‘s what she quotes from one of Tennant’s letters that’s illuminating:
I admit that the general tone of it is not to my taste. … Eve Langley and I differ on the importance of the subjective as against the objective facts. I have always avoided subjective writing like debt or scandal. Eve Langley quite obviously thinks that the personal reactions to a situation are what count. She may be right. It is very interesting to read someone else dealing with the same subject as yourself. … Mark you, I think Eve Langley has more colour than I have, but again she does not fear long descriptions. I am always afraid of boring people. (p.59)
Roe says that Franklin might better have been suited to journalism if opportunities had been different for women in those days; maybe this was true of Tennant too because her tendency to overcrowd her novels with characters and incidents may, in part, have arisen from her fear of being unable to sustain the reader’s interest in a focussed study of her central characters. (p.60)
Whatever the case, Tennant eventually realised that she could make more money writing reviews of other people ‘s books… not an option open to many these days!
Author: Jane Grant
Title: Kylie Tennant: a life
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2006
Source: personal library, purchased from local bargain bookstore, $10
Fishpond: An Australian Life: Kylie Tennant