Onward Christian soldier
TOO many Australian biographies nowadays are published prematurely. In some cases, the still-living subject has lived a life of such banal inconsequence as scarcely to merit a magazine puff piece, let alone a book. In others, the subject is already so famous and their life so over-analysed that there is little of value or originality left to say. It is quite rare to discover a new biography about a person of genuine significance, whose story has not been told previously.
Kath Jordan’s Larrikin Angel belongs in this last category. Her subject, 80-year-old ‘‘ muscular Christian’’ nun Veronica Brady, is not widely known outside her adopted home state of Western Australia. Yet she has been lauded by prominent people on both sides of Australian politics as ‘‘ one of our national treasures’’ ( former Liberal senator Fred Chaney) and as a ‘‘ magnificent human being’’ ( left-wing Labor veteran Tom Uren).
Why, then, for the uninitiated, is Brady’s story worth telling?
First and foremost, she has been one of Australia’s most talented and influential educators. As a teenager in the early 1940s she was a star pupil at Mandeville Hall, a Catholic girls’ school in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak run by nuns of the Loreto order. She matriculated in 1945 with outstanding results and a Newman Society scholarship, and for the next four years took a double degree in English and history at the University of Melbourne.
This of itself was a notable achievement in that era, especially for a girl from a straightened middle-class background whose mother died young, in 1947, when Brady was only 18. Her beloved free-thinking father hastily married his secretary, a woman whom his daughter disdained.
Brady emerged from these formative experiences as an idealistic, courageous and fiercely intelligent young woman. After graduation she rejected a marriage proposal and entered the Loreto order, taking as her religious name Veronica, for Saint Veronica, who wiped the face of Christ on his way to Calvary. In due course, she undertook a distinguished 13-year career as a humanities teacher in the Catholic secondary school system. This included a six-year stint at Loreto Kirribilli, perhaps Sydney’s most prestigious Catholic girls’ school, and Jordan quotes several former students and teachers who remember her fondly and attest to her talent and zeal.
After postgraduate study in North America in the late ’ 60s, Brady accepted a position in the English department at the University of Western Australia, which she took up in 1972. There, during the next two decades, she earned a reputation as an outstanding tutor and lecturer. She served on the board of the ABC from 1983-86 and was elected a member of the UWA’s senate in 1986.
In the field of Australian literature, Brady has two special claims to fame. First, she was an early advocate for the fiction of Patrick White. Indeed, she became that brilliant but irascible author’s close friend and confidant. ( Jordan