The Place at Whitton is the debut novel of Thomas Keneally, twice-winner of the Miles Franklin Award and author of more books than I have space to list here. I found it as an audio book at my library and chose it for the daily commute when I went back to work after my Long Service Leave. The novel was first published in 1964 and it has a rather old-fashioned feel about it, and that’s not just because a young woman wears gloves and because phone numbers had only three digits and went through a local exchange.
Keneally’s Miles Franklin award-winning Bring Larks and Heroes (Text Classics) (1967) was a surprise to me (see my review) because – having only ever read his later more commercial novels – I hadn’t connected him with modernist literary fiction (and I hadn’t read Geordie Williams review, apologies if this is paywalled). But The Place at Whitton is nothing like Bring Larks and Heroes, it’s a kind of crime novel, relying on its unusual setting and characters and some existential musings for interest.
Agatha Christie was still churning out crime novels in the 1960s, and I read them
all lots of them back then but The Place at Whitton is nothing like hers. No Big House with servants, no eccentric Belgians or old ladies with an observant eye. Nor, mercifully, does this book feature the contemporary ho-hum crime scenario of a gritty setting and a world-weary detective who speaks in monosyllables. The men in Keneally’s book lack a love-life for different reasons. It’s not the first book I’ve read that was set in a religious institution – remember the superb An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears? but this one features a barmy woman dabbling in black magic, a woman who has a use for a priest whose soul is up for grabs. I could be wrong but I suspect that a theme like this might have trouble finding a publisher today.
The Place at Whitton is set in an Australian seminary at a time when there was no shortage of young Catholic men wanting to study for the priesthood. The Church could afford to be choosy with its recruits, and the young men at Whitton are anxious that they might yet fail to be ordained for one reason or another. They live a spartan life, isolated from the rest of the community and their days are filled with work and study.
One aspect of this novel that I noticed that has a particular resonance today is the seminary’s concern with covering up scandal. There is some grief for the manner in which poor Wally meets his end (it’s rather gory, and in a slimy pig pen to boot) but Father Stenner, the seminary’s President, is also not keen for it to get into the papers. Already most people in the nearby town think that the closed society of the priesthood is rather odd, and the eternal issue of priestly celibacy makes ordinary people suspicious if anything unusual happens, though this is more because they think it’s odd to repudiate marriage than for the reasons why they might look askance at the priesthood today.
Like many a first time novelist Keneally had a couple of things to get off his chest, and one of the flaws in this novel is a long and rather tedious sequence of complaints about the food at Whitton (Keneally was a seminarian himself for a while). There are also some rather obscure arguments about religious doctrine. The conflation of lust as in uncontrollable desire, lust for power and blood lust isn’t entirely convincing, especially since there is no explanation for why Agnes Grey makes her strange Faustian pacts in the first place. (Unless I missed it while concentrating on the traffic).
But the plot which seems quite bizarre at the beginning turns out to be quite credible in the end and the characterisation shows the gift for observing human nature which has marked Keneally’s long career as an author.
Author: Thomas Keneally
Title: The Place at Whitton
Narrated by Geoff Hiscock
Publisher: Bolinda Audio Books, 1999, first published 1964