The enigma of Killer Kramer’
Broomstick: Personal Reflections of Leonie Kramer
AT one point in Broomstick, a volume of her ‘‘ personal reflections’’, Leonie Kramer remarks gnomically that ‘‘ I felt, in Australia, nothing fails like success’’. The comment is personal and general and revives the now more or less abandoned notion of the tall poppy syndrome (plucked out by celebrity culture).
That Leonie Kramer, DBE, AC, professor of Australian literature, for a decade chancellor of the University of Sydney, briefly chairman (the word, then) of the ABC, director of Western Mining and member of many other bodies, had a strikingly successful public career (especially for a woman in her times) is evident. Yet she aroused antagonism not only within the always rancorous academic community but in partisan political circles that seems out of proportion. Her book — at once evasive and enlightening — does not fully explain this puzzle.
The title signals some of the ambiguities to follow. The preface is written by Kramer’s daughters, Jocelyn and Hilary, who have brought the book to publication during ‘‘ the progression of dementia’’ in their 87-year-old mother. To the question, Why call it Broomstick?, three contradictory, or perhaps complementary answers are given: Kramer’s life has been like ‘‘ the magical adventure of riding a broomstick’’; she might rightly be regarded as having been ‘‘ a new broom venturing into male bastions’’ and ‘‘ she was aware that others, perhaps, perceived her as a witch’’.
For Patrick White, she was, petulantly, ‘‘ Killer Kramer’’, figurehead of the academic By Leonie Kramer Australian Scholarly Publishing, 222pp, $49.95 study of literature that he loathed, this irrespective of her extensive if sometimes sarcastic commentaries on his fiction. Whether she consented to the book’s title or not, Kramer certainly addresses its connotations. Broomstick begins with a disarming mildness: What follows is an account of how a child from Melbourne, whose parents had very modest means, and who lived a settled and happy childhood, came to be in a position to reflect on fifty years of public life, as well as on other unplanned adventures.
Then we are plunged abruptly (in an opening chapter titled Theatre of the Absurd) into one of those adventures. This was the attempt, brutal and ultimately successful, to truncate her third successive term as chancellor of the University of Sydney, ‘‘ events both reprehensible and ludicrous, marked by irrational action of plot and players’’.
The accusations against her Kramer keeps vague: ‘‘ out of touch with the existing millennia fervour’’, unpersuaded by ‘‘ the passing fashions of business rhetoric’’ for university governance. Hers is an abiding anger regarding ‘‘ that curious mixture of falsehood, insinuation and malevolence’’, but the case is weakened because Kramer disdains to name or analyse those who opposed her. And if she doesn’t tell the other side of the story, nor does she tell all of hers.
Although the preface informs us that ‘‘ biographical information was intended only as a context for her ideas’’, the first chapters follow a conventional autobiographical pattern: school at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne (where the author known as Henry Handel Richardson, the subject of Kramer’s most important critical work, had also been a pupil); honours in English and philosophy at the University of Melbourne; the chance to