Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 24, 2021

Ride on Stranger, by Kylie Tennant

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007


Ride on Stranger, by Kylie Tennant (first published 1943)

According to the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature edited by Nicholas José) (2009), which includes an excerpt from Ride on Stranger, Kylie Tennant was sued for libel over one of the scenes in it.  In satirising the social life of the Communist Party of Australia, she apparently made one of her characters identifiable, so Angus & Robertson withdrew the edition and paid up £250.  But unless that was included in Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Introduction to the 1990 A&R edition, I didn’t know that when I scrawled my thoughts in my journal.  In 2006, I had not read anything else by Tennant, and as you can see, I was a bit dismissive.

6th October, 2006

Beware: spoilers

Written in 1943 and made into a tele-series in the 1980s, this is probably the most well-known of Tennant’s novels.  In her day, I think she was as popular as George Johnson.

It’s the story of Shannon Hicks, whose father works in the butter factory and whose mother wanted something better for her daughter.  It’s ironic then that Shannon ends up back in small town Kerluit (?sp) milking cows.  Then again, maybe not, because she left school prematurely, and never stuck at anything.

She is destined to be alone and independent, and yet she is the one on whom others depend—because she has an innate ability to learn new skills and to organise.  She goes to live at her Aunt Edith’s Sydney boarding house as an unpaid skivvy, but leaves when Edith marries a snake-oil salesman called Vincent Sladder (who eventually ends up in gaol.)  Shannon goes on to work in a variety of jobs unworthy of her and nearly marries Quilter, for whom she organises a political campaign.  She mixes with anarchists and lefties and has a harshly cynical view of the world.  I didn’t like her much.

I also became tired of the parade of characters.  They’re vaguely Dickensian in their stereotyping: good-hearted blowsy Beryl; Merv Leggatt the earnest Leftie; Mr Sladder the snake-oil salesman; assorted ‘types’ from the Proletarian Club.  Even John Terry whom she eventually marries because he seems ‘sane’ is a caricature of a ‘solid dependable type’.

Kerryn Goldsworthy says in the Introduction that the novel deals with serious issues and it’s true, but IMO they’re swamped by the slightly hysterical style.  Shannon’s mother nearly dies giving birth, and Olly dies from a botched illegal abortion—being a woman is a risky business before contraception.  There’s poverty, ignorance, exploitation by bosses, limited choices for women and so on.  But ultimately there’s too much of everything and it’s all a bit of a muddle.

Tennant at least thought so too.


Well, that last sentence is interesting, eh?  I have no recollection of what made me write it.  Perhaps there is something in the Introduction to suggest that Tennant was dissatisfied with her novel; perhaps Tennant had something to say about it in her autobiography The Missing Heir (1986).  Since I’d borrowed the book from the library, I can’t check it to see.

In 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 it now, I am a bit taken aback.  I am, after all, resurrecting this review for Bill’s AWW Gen 3 week at The Australian Legend, and he thinks highly of Tennant. (See here).  But fossicking around online to find something to temper my criticism, I found that I’m not the only one to have some reservations about Tennant’s writing.  Some Curator’s Notes about the novel’s successful 1979 transition to screen by Anne Lucas suggest that she found the ABC TV series humorous and well-paced, less iconoclastic and more romantic than Tennant’s novel.  Well, I had long grown out of wanting romantic novels by 2006, but I did like political novels, especially written by feminists. Why didn’t I like this one much?

I consulted my own review of Kylie Tennant, a life, by Jane Grant in which Grant discusses Tennant’s rejection of modernism and her suggestion that this eventually made her writing unfashionable.  I thought there was more to it than that:

In… Jill Roe’s biography of Miles Franklin (see my review), [..] 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.

Perhaps that’s what made the novel seem iconoclastic…

Author: Kylie Tennant
Title: Ride on Stranger
Introduction by Kerryn Goldsworthy
Publisher: Imprint Classics (Angus & Robertson), 1990, first published 1943
ISBN: ISBN 10: 0207166390, pbk., 301 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Seems like quite a bit going on in this story. The history around its publishing is interesting.

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    • It would be fun to dig up a copy of the TV series…

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  2. I was interested to see Kylie Tennant’s name – I’m not familiar with her work and I didn’t grow up in Australia. However I remembered a review of ‘Alva’s Boy’ by the film critic Jan Epstein and here’s the quote:

    ‘Having just read Ride On Stranger, published in 1943 and made into a drama series for ABC television in 1979, I felt sure no writer since Kylie Tennant had captured Australia in the 1930s and 40s with such veracity and precision. That was before I read Alva’s Boy.’

    Jan also had this to say about another of Alan’s books: ‘I’m a film person, who, as Fellini once remarked about cinema generally, loves “dreaming with the eyes open”. This is what captured me from the first page with The Boys From Bondi. It was translucently visual – an image of the past delivered in vivid snapshots that were profoundly personal, based as they were on events and memories of his own young life, yet recalled with a clarity and objectivity usually associated with the lens of a camera.

    Perhaps writing of this kind is of particular value as source material for those working in the visual media? More so than as ‘high’ lit?

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    • Yes, that’s a thought, Ros…
      We have to remember that at this time there was still not much OzLit around and especially not by women. What with the cultural cringe, and the dominance of British publishing… it would have been refreshing to see Australian life depicted in any context, I expect.
      But I think you have your finger on the pulse when you talk about ‘personal snapshots’. It really is too long since I read Ride on Stranger, and I have no desire to revisit it, but I think my discontent with it is that the characterisation lacks the personal perspective that (as you say) gives life to Alan’s books. .

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  3. Interesting! I’m pretty sure I have at least one Kyle Tennant book somewhere which I must dig out!

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  4. I have one too so will go right know and try to find it. Oh Lisa you do keep me on my toes. I tried to read as many Australian women writers when first discovering them and was so pleased to discover that my view was always positive. Interesting to hear yours.

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    • Ha ha, well, it is an ‘old’ view of it. Today I would probably read it through a different lens… back then, I was just reading it as a ‘story’ with preconceived expectations about plot and character, rather than as a book with a particular place in Australian literary history.
      And before that, my records tell me, I had just read Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir and I was pretty liverish about that too. Because before that I had just read the wonderful Old Filth by Jane Gardam, and I was wanting all my reading to be as good as that.

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  5. […] ANZ Litlovers LitblogKatharine Susannah Prichard, Coonardoo (here)Kylie Tennant, Ride on Stranger (here) […]

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