Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 4, 2018

The Honey Flow (1956), by Kylie Tennant

A reader needs to be a bit patient with this novel, the eighth from the prolific Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) but not IMO in the same league as the more well-known The Battlers (1941) and Ride on Stranger (1943).  The first part of the book is taken up with explaining more than most of us want to know about the mechanics of bee-keeping by itinerant apiarists out in the Australian bush.

But once that’s out of the way, the novel settles down to what Tennant does best: quirky characters and a central female character who doesn’t fit the mould.  Mallee, so named because that’s where she was born, is a tetchy loner who yearns to be a writer but instead has to keep the family afloat by writing drivel for a radio serial (not unlike Blue Hills, by the sound of it).  And she wants to be a ‘boss’ bee-keeper among the entirely male company of migratory bee-keepers who travel about following the moving feast of blossom of the great eucalypt forests.  She drives a truck called The Roaring Ruin, and for preference she sleeps on the ground in a sleeping bag, despite the protests of the occasional women she meets, who offer her a bed and a bath—and symbolically, a return to a ‘normal’ woman’s life.

Tennant was known for the authenticity of her writing.  As Wikipedia says:

Her work was known for its well-researched, realistic, yet positive portrayals of the lives of the underprivileged in Australia. In a video interview filmed in 1986, three years before her death for the Australia Council’s Archival Film Series, Tennant told how she lived as the people she wrote about, travelling as an unemployed itinerant worker during the Depression years, living in Aboriginal communities and spending a short time in prison for research. (Wikipedia, viewed 3/11/18)

After WW2, Tennant worked in this hut, now in Crowdy Bay National Park (Wikipedia Commons*)

It’s common practice now to research for a book online, but IMO nothing replaces being there in order to write prose like this:

Of course when we settled down to extract, we fell naturally into two opposing parties, me and Joe in the extracting house, and Big Mike and Blaze out in the yard, working against each other for dear life. Having Big Mike instead of Mongo must have been sheer delight to Blaze, for Mike was a man who could work as smoothly and as well as he did, a man who never dropped the super on his hands as Mongo did, or trod on bees, or fell over Blaze’s feet. They shared their own jokes and catchwords and they kidded Joe to death.  But the honey was coming off, and we were doing better than three tins to the hive, so the feeling of exultation and the pace of the work carried us headlong over any slight discords.

Besides, it was that gentle weather, with a bloom on it like a grape, the stillness of perfection when the year surveys its handiwork.  We would drive out in the morning with the dew or the tender vapours of mist, and eat at noon in some sun-warmed hollow of old gold-diggings, with a screaming, plunging surf of bees about us and the smell of wild roses in the short grass the sheep had nibbled.  Long after dark, tired and dirty, we would come home, singing, to eat steak and boil our overalls. (p. 141)

Tennant was never a city girl at heart.  Her characters are working in the area about to be dammed by the Snowy Mountain Hydro and the engineer Lee Stollin is proud of it as a symbol of Australian progress.  But Mallee isn’t impressed:

But what kind of country was he making self-supporting?  A country where three-quarters of the people—more than three-quarters—lived in cities and worked in offices and factories, filling up sheets of paper or transporting other workers to their various jobs.  What a life! (p. 119)

Jean Bedford (who wrote a feminist version of the Ned Kelly story called Sister Kate and is one of the brains behind the Newtown Review of Books) says in the Introduction that what we don’t see in the novel is much of Mallee’s inner life, and that it can be argued that Tennant is deliberately disappointing our expectations. Potential romances go nowhere because Mallee is determined to keep her independence, and the book is

…an amusing and sympathetic slice of life rather than a serious novel of issues and emotional motivation.  Little more than cursory lip-service is paid to the wider social issues that informed Tennant’s earlier work. There is an underlying feminist precept—that a young women can break the barrier of social expectations and succeed in a male world on her own terms—but it is a precept applied specifically to Mallee, and it is part of her individual oddity.  The other women in the book do not step outside their designated female roles, even when these are unusual or unconventional, nor is it an issue. (p. ix)

Well, yes, but IMO this decision to avoid (or skirt around) tackling wider social issues is a charge that can be applied to a lot of writing.  Tennant and Ruth Park, another professional woman writer of the period, copped flak for tackling ‘issues’ in their work: Ride on Stranger takes on the death of a woman from a botched abortion, and Park not only wrote about the dangers of abortion but was also harshly criticised for raising the sorrows of life in Sydney’s slums in The Harp in the South. If their readers didn’t want to read about such things, and preferred light-hearted escapism in their reading, well, then writers aiming to make a living from their work had to be cognisant of that. (And maybe they still do.) Having said that,  there is certainly grim realism in the way Tennant tackles the issue of domestic violence by the brute Hertz, right down to the way Mallee witnesses Fay being willing to take him back.  Tennant also shows the way Mallee weakens her position on supporting Fay to break free and ends up feeling pity for him, conceding that their separation is making him unhappy and that his sons miss him… instead of recognising not only that Hertz needs to take responsibility for his violence and to change his attitude to women, but also that the other men around him do too.

I also think there is realism in Tennant’s depiction of Mallee as a one-off Independent Woman in The Honey Flow and that the novel would have lost its raison d’être if more of the female characters had demanded independence as Mallee does. The redoubtable Hilda, (who is a marvellous creation) does step outside her designated role when she breaks up a fight, but she’s also alert to Mallee’s position.  It’s either naiveté or arrogance that lies behind the way that Mallee thinks a lone young woman can live in remote places in an entirely male world without some sexual rivalry about her presence there. She’s right, of course, that it ought to be possible to live among male friends, who are just friends, and that she ought to be able to earn a living in her chosen field without being pestered to form sexual liaisons with men like Blaze who think they’re God’s Gift to Women—but Tennant shows that it’s not the way the world was then, (and perhaps it’s just as risky in similar situations now too).

Hilda knows about scandal and the damage to a woman’s reputation in small towns:

 Hilda looked at me exasperated, the rain dripping off her and a lettuce in each hand.  ‘Mallee, you make me tired.  You think you can just stroll in and out of people’s lives.  Why do you suppose those boys got into that fight?  It’s what that Hertz fellow said about you!’ (p.153)

Hilda only has power because she is physically big.

‘Look, missis,’ Hertz swung round, harassed, pushing his pal to one side. ‘I’ve got enough of them on my neck without you sticking your face in.’

Hilda swelled in the best dress printed with large roses which she had put on in honour of visitors.  ‘Well, now my face is stuck in,’ she announced.  ‘You can want it or not.’ She had decided that this must be Fay’s husband. ‘I’ve been waiting for the chance to meet you, you dirty big hippopotamus.  I’m no frail little woman like your wife that can’t stand up for herself.  I’m not the kind you can knock down and ill-treat and trample on the way you do her.’ (p.135)

The Honey Flow is a terrific book, and I thank Bill from The Australian Legend for lending it to me.

PS I was minded to read this novel because Kristina Olsson’s character in Shell, Pearl, refers to Kylie Tennant as one of the forgotten women writers that she plans to profile for the Women’s Pages in the newspaper where she works.  Although my searches around the web suggest that Olsson is largely right, Tennant isn’t a ‘forgotten woman writer’ here at ANZ LitLovers.  I’ve previously reviewed The Battlers, and I’ve also read the biography Kylie Tennant, a Life, by Jane Grant.  Tennant is also a presence at The Australian Legend, where Bill has also reviewed The Honey Flow and Ride on Stranger (much more kindly than the rather churlish review in my reading journal from 2006.)

PPS I see now that I have read Bill’s review that he has quoted exactly the same excerpt from Bedford’s introduction!

* Photo credit: Kylie Tennant’s hut in Crowdy Bay National Park, Wikipedia Commons, photo by Graemec.

Author: Kylie Tennant
Title: The Honey Flow
Introduction by Jean Bedford
Publisher: Imprint Classics, Angus & Robertson, 1991, first published 1956, 357 pages
ISBN: 9780207166402
Source: On loan from Bill at The Australian Legend


  1. Firstly, thanks for the mentions. Kylie Tennant was a well-known name when I was young, I suppose one that our parents and teachers had grown up with. It’s a shame when writers drop out of fashion but then I am struggling to keep up with my own generation, Thea Astley’s say, let alone the generation(s) that are younger again.

    Tennant is very good on women striking out on their own and I am glad you have pointed out the issue of men’s power through both bullying and actual violence which I largely missed in my own review.


    • In my case I knew of her not because of parents: on the evidence of their bookshelves which I knew well, I don’t think my parents read anything much of AusLit. It was because I saw Ride on Stranger on ABCTV. My taste in TV was shaped by being able to get so little in the way of media when I sojourned in Seymour, and I never lost the taste for watching TV without ads. So I saw almost everything the ABC produced in those golden Whitlam-funded years.
      I am inclined to think that I should re-read Ride on Stranger. Re-reading my journal ramblings now, I suspect that I’d be reading a different book to the one I dismissed as ‘slightly hysterical’ in style, swamped by ‘too much of everything’ and ‘all a bit of a muddle.’


      • I hope you do, and look forward to your review. RoS is one of very few Oz novels I can think of built around a number of strong women characters.


        • I can’t give any details, because I don’t know exactly what was said, and I can’t find the tweet now… but there was a comment on Twitter about the judge of the Barbara Jefferis Award being disappointed about the entries for the award this year. Apparently some that were entered had missed the point about the award being for novels that “depict women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society.” The women in these novels apparently showed women as victims.

          *pause* I’ve found a report about it:

          Which means, I think, that the publishers didn’t seem to understand the purpose of the award or didn’t recognise how the novels they were submitting were epic fails.

          As I understand it, publishing is a feminised occupation. Maybe not at the very top as in CEOs, but down the hierarchy making lots of the decisions. If they are in their forties, they are the children of 1970s feminists. So what is going on???

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ok, I admit I skipped that story first time round, but I’ve read it now. Have you seen Ruth Parks’ drawings of publishers – male and female and all ferocious – she and Niland had to front up to in 1950s Sydney?


            • No, where are they? Accessible on line?
              BTW I can’t work out which novels Sandra Yates is referencing: “The first three books Yates read from the longlist saw one woman burnt at the stake, one woman pushed off a cliff and the other a victim of domestic violence”. Presumably these are LitFic… any ideas?


              • The pictures are in The Drums Go Bang. Gave away my original hardback copy years ago but B2 found it for me in paperback.

                I only read the ones she liked: Rawson and McKinnon


                • I’ll look out for The Drums Go Bang…


  2. Hi Lisa,

    Kylie Tennant and my great-aunt Doris Chadwick were close friends. Doris edited The School Magazine, a much-loved publication of the NSW Department of Education, for 37 years. She also wrote historical novels for children. (John of the Sirius was the first in the series. The second, John of Sydney Cove, was dedicated to Kylie and her family.) I suppose it was the magazine that brought the two women together, because Kylie wrote regularly for it, as did many well-known Australian writers. (For Keeps, the centenary anthology published in 2016, gives an idea of the magazine’s breadth and evolution.) Last year I was asked to write something about Miss Chadwick, and I discovered from my mother that Doris accompanied Kylie on her research trip for The Honey Flow. That is, the two women tagged along with the beekeepers as they moved their hives around the eucalypt forest. It takes some effort to imagine Doris on that camping trip, because she never, ever, wore trousers. She always wanted to know everything about everything, so she probably drove the men nuts with her questions. The women’s correspondence is in the NLA.


    • Good heavens, what a wonderful story and thank you for sharing the connection.
      Now I admit that I had rather romanticised Kylie Tennant as going it alone on these travels, but you say that she prudently took your great-aunt with her. That makes much more sense…
      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were photos!


      • Doris was quite the happy snapper, but I haven’t found any photos related to that trip. I’ll have another look in the Doris archive when I’m on aged-care duties next week. After the honey fact-finding mission, Doris and Kylie stayed with my grandparents on their dairy farm on the Clarence River. You never know: something might turn up in the old house. And yes, Kylie was probably wise to take Doris along. She had a reputation as a bit of a dragon in the Department of Education. Not that Kylie wasn’t made of stern stuff herself… Oh dear, it makes me sad to think of all that I could have asked my great-aunt. Why are the young so… young?


        • *chuckle* Yes indeed, it’s not until they’re gone that we discover the questions we should have asked – though let’s be fair, that doesn’t mean we would have got answers, of course!


          • My mother has just told me that Kylie took ‘the child’ with her on the honey trip, carried on her back in a kind of pouch before there were such things. Apparently my grandparents were very impressed by that. Which child? Benison. My mother turns 94 on Friday, but until recently has been fairly reliable on historical matters.

            I’ve dug out the first edition of The Honey Flow with its charming fifties dust jacket. The dedication reads as follows: To Doris — who wandered up to Queensland looking for:– THE HONEY FLOW
            — and down the Snowy — and all about Laurieton and out to Ernie’s — but (underlined followed by a space)
            with love from Kylie.

            No mention of little Benison on her back. I wonder what the but and the space were all about?


            • Oh how wonderful! Do tell your mother how grateful we are for this snippet, it makes the story even better, doesn’t it?
              And that enigmatic dedication… how exciting!


  3. What a treasure trove we have in Australia of those women writers such as K.T. and oh so many others of that era. I fortunately stumbled on a few in my early life in Australia which more than anything gave me an understanding of this country. I lived an isolated existence for years in suburban Sydney and Perth and books more than anything kept me half sane.
    Another favourite was Dymphna Cusak.


    • I read Cusack’s Come In Spinner, but have recently acquired a copy of Jungfrau, which is such an interesting name for the period…
      Another one I have to chase up is Barbara Hanrahan…


  4. I haven’t read any Kylie Tennant on my blog, and would love to rectify that one day. I most remember one of her lesser known novels I think, Tell morning this, which was such a strong story about Sydney during the war and the impact of the American servicemen.


    • That one sounds great… I haunt the Vinnies and Red Cross Op Shops in Hampton St because they are on my walk from where I park the car to where I do French, maybe I’ll get lucky…


      • It is great. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy as my reading group did it when we were getting some of our books from the CAE in Victoria. I’d probably buy it though if I saw it.


        • There’s nothing at Brotherhood Books at the moment either. I haven’t tried Abe Books yet, I like to exhaust the charities before I look elsewhere, though of course if I buy local I’m supporting an Aussie 2nd hand bookshop, even if Amazon is creaming off a commission from them…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m starting a new comment, because it is just too crazy the way text disintegrates in the to and fro of conversation. Benison was born in 1946, so she wouldn’t have been in the homemade backpack. My mother has conceded that it must have been the boy, John.

    I passed on your message, Lisa. My father has dementia, so believe me, it is a pleasant distraction for my mother to think about the past. We have the centenary of The School Magazine, along with the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature in Canberra, to thank for this memory having surfaced at all.

    What a remarkable woman Kylie was. I’ll chase up the biography. Thank you.


    • I didn’t know there was a National Centre for Australian Children’s Lit in Canberra! I’ve been trying to chase up an article I had published in a now defunct school library journal called Orana years ago when I was at teacher’s college (1975-78). I don’t have a copy of it, and maybe, just maybe, the NCACL has some back copies… I’ll have a look on my next trip to Canberra, thank you!


      • Not sure what they have aside from books and a lovely collection of original illustrations donated by the artists — and of course bound copies of The School Magazine! The centre is at the University of Canberra and is run by volunteers. Why don’t you contact Dr Belle Alderman? Also, feel free to email me.


        • Thanks, Diana, I’ll email you privately:)


  6. […] my review of The Honey Flow, I referred to this review of Ride on Stranger in my journal as churlish. and I confess, re-reading […]


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