Sympathy with the working poor

February 15, 2007

Kylie Tennant: A Life

By Jane Grant

National Library of Australia, 2006

156 pages, $24.95 (pb)

Kylie Tennant was adventurous in getting material for her novels. Schooled in middle-class ways (her father was a management executive in a major steel company, she was educated at a private girls' school and became a headmaster's wife), Tennant nevertheless tramped thousands of miles through rural NSW, following the job search and food ration ("dole") path of the unemployed during the 1930s depression. She joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), she lived in urban slums, and she impersonated a drunken prostitute, winding up in Parramatta Gaol.

As Jane Grant's biography of Tennant shows, however, this was much more than a mere gathering of journalistic "copy". Tennant felt for, and championed, the underdog and battler, and sharing their lives allowed her to write novels that were highly popular.

Born in 1912 in Manly, Tennant followed her Sydney University partner, the socialist and pacifist Lewis Rodd, to his bonded teaching jobs in rural NSW, with Tennant walking the 600 miles to Coonabarabran in 1932 at the height of the Depression. She turned this lover's journey into an odyssey exploring the lives of the bush unemployed and itinerant workers.

A youthfully misguided offer at an unemployed meeting in Lithgow "to throw a brick through a bank window to draw attention to their plight" understandably provoked suspicion of her as a police spy and provocateur, but the rest of her journey proved more fruitful for her first novel, Tiburon, about those doing it tough during the Depression.

Tennant signalled her political commitment to the poor by joining the CPA in 1935, although her tenure was brief, leaving to become a founding member and secretary of the Christian Socialist movement, a political home where she could reconcile her left-wing politics with her (Church of England) Christianity.

Tennant's second novel, Foveaux, did for the urban poor what Tiburon had done for the rural strugglers. Lived research (staying in squalid rooms in Redfern, Surrey Hills and Paddington) and the insights of humour gave Foveaux a finely textured understanding of the lives of the poor, free of romanticism, political didacticism and middle-class sentimentalism. Her third novel, The Battlers, returned to unemployment in the NSW bush, with Tennant personally covering 450 miles of it by horse and cart, and 600 by foot.

Satirical humour became a weapon both for and against social protest in Tennant's entertaining Ride on Stranger, published in 1943. It was her most autobiographical novel, which traced Shannon Hicks's idealistic quest through religious cults, pacifist organisations and the CPA in pre-war Sydney, where pessimism and disillusionment tussle with idealism and belief in personal and social change. Tennant's use of irony to adjust to a wry awareness of the timescale of, obstacles to, and faultiness of the human material for social change, diminishes but still leaves vital a belief in a transformed future. Ride on Stranger is a critically reaffirming novel, unlike the crop of "loss of faith" novels by other writers from the red '30s busily abandoning the idealistic "indiscretions" of their youth.

Unfortunately, the CPA was "passing through one of its more humourless periods" and Tennant's derogatory portrait of a fictional communist called Charteris brought on a successful libel suit by CPA leader and cultural critic Jack Blake (whose party alias was Charteris). This incident permanently soured relations between the CPA and Tennant, an unnecessarily wasteful divorce that could have been avoided by a less uptight, less Stalinist party paying more attention to two of Tennant's chief characters who were examples, she writes, of the "sincere Communists of the type I admired but with whom I could not always agree".

Despite being disowned by CPA leaders, Tennant's defiantly left-wing politics and widespread popularity as a writer brought her into the Cold War sights of the fanatic red-hunter W.C. Wentworth, a federal politician who, under parliamentary privilege in 1952, specifically named Tennant as a communist receiving public money through Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF) grants. Tennant indignantly forced an apology from the conservative prime minister, Robert Menzies, and she was later (in 1961) appointed to the CLF Advisory Board, where she promoted Australian literature but, less redeemingly, managed to alienate the progressive journals Overland and Meanjin.

Tennant's last four decades were not good ones for creative writing. The first 14 years of Tennant's marriage were childless (for economic reasons) but produced seven novels. The 42 years from her first child in 1946 until her death in 1988, however, saw only three more novels.

Conspiring to sap Tennant's creative drive were breast cancer, a mortgage, two children (one who suffered from schizophrenia and heroin addiction and was murdered in Kings Cross) and caring responsibilities for her partner who suffered from suicidal depression, culminating in throwing himself under a train at Circular Quay and forcing his early retirement due to disability. Mental health themes were to be the subject of Tennant's last novel, Tantavallon, in 1983.

Tennant's critics had noted her tendency to overcrowd her novels with characters and incidents as a substitute for an in-depth central character study. Her trademark ironic humour was seen as an emotional distancing device. Two souls — the profound artist and the clever journalist — lodged within Tennant the writer. Her steadfastness to the social documentary tradition, spurning the modernist and experimental, added to the impression, shared by Grant, that her writing avoided "entering too deeply into the inner emotional lives of her fictional characters".

Implicit in this school of literary criticism is the view that literary worthiness should be measured by a focus on the inner rather than the outer world. Against this yardstick, Tennant is seen to fail. Her novels do have a "light" touch and are decidedly lacking in the ponderous.

Grant, for her part, attempts to redress this by making Tennant's inner psychological life the focus of her biography. The effect of this, however, is to give Tennant's "external" life (her political and social passions) a semi-cursory treatment. Tennant's political life, however, was anything but perfunctory. She was a pacifist and a founder of the Peace Pledge Union, which supported conscientious objectors imprisoned during World War II. She was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. She was a left-wing social democrat ardently supportive of the ALP.

Grant's methodology also tends to reduce the political to the personal. Although there are many paths to left-wing political commitment, Grant speculates that Tennant's was primarily a gesture of rebellion against her politically conservative and domineering father. In line with favouring the domestic over the social as a valid literary focus, Grant also speculates that Tennant's avoidance of the "inner" life in her novels was largely driven by a reaction to a family environment where "domestic melodramas were endlessly and destructively paraded". This may be oversimplifying a writing style (social documentary leavened by ironic humour) that served Tennant, and her readers, extremely well.

Its literary value-system aside, Grant's biography nevertheless makes available new and valuable material from Tennant's letters. It usefully adds to an appreciation of a highly accessible Australian writer, a gregarious extrovert who, with warm sympathy, entered into and wrote about the humanity, resilience, humour and flaws of the downtrodden and the lives they live in the battlers' lane.