Con­fes­sions of a late bloom­ing fem­i­nist

Tom Ke­neally’s bi­og­ra­pher Stephany Evans Steggall con­sid­ers the pro­lific au­thor’s de­vel­op­ment of fe­male char­ac­ters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Tom Ke­neally at­tended a Chris­tian Broth­ers col­lege and Catholic sem­i­nar­ies for many years so it is hardly sur­pris­ing that his early he­roes were male. Among them were the Je­suit poet Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins, the mav­er­ick priest Charles de Fou­cauld and the un­con­ven­tional Car­di­nal Moran. The only woman among the he­roes was Joan of Arc, who fea­tures in his 1964 de­but novel, The Place at Whit­ton, along­side another fe­male char­ac­ter, Agnes the witch.

Agnes con­ducts black masses that in­volve a mau­vais pre­tre (evil priest). Her ex­treme be­hav­iour is typ­i­cal of the ab­sur­di­ties and de­prav­i­ties of the book, which pokes fun at some of the pro­hi­bi­tions and pre­ten­sions in a sem­i­nary. Agnes is not a cred­i­ble char­ac­ter, but she is not in­tended to be in such a darkly hu­mor­ous story.

The ap­pear­ances of the phan­tom Joan to the sick sem­i­nar­ian Veris­simo are sym­bolic of the lu­nacy that Ke­neally faced in his last months at St Pa­trick’s Col­lege, Manly, be­fore leav­ing ab- ruptly in 1960. For some time af­ter he left, Ke­neally was not com­fort­able around women and this awk­ward­ness is ap­par­ent in his first se­ri­ous writ­ing. The ex-sem­i­nar­ian stigma re­mained and he was anx­ious about ap­pear­ing ‘‘phys­i­cally un­pre­pos­sess­ing’’, as one cruel priest at the sem­i­nary had de­scribed him.

He feared he would never be mar­ried, yet he be­lieved there was some­one out there who was part of him. ‘‘I could feel her pres­ence but I could not vi­su­alise her,’’ he re­calls. ‘‘But she was the other side of my soul, which is a very shoddy im­age, and there was an im­pulse in me to find that per­son.’’

Ke­neally mar­ried Ju­dith Martin in 1965 and soon af­ter­wards wrote Bring Larks and He­roes, the first in­di­ca­tor of his skill in writ­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. The re­la­tion­ship he builds be­tween Ir­ish marine Phe­lim Hal­lo­ran and Ann Rush was no doubt in­flu­enced by his own newly wed­ded state and was in­tended to tran­scend the warped views of Catholic dog­ma­tists with whom he had grown up. Nev­er­the­less, Ann, the vic­timised Ir­ish ser­vant girl in the novel, is part of a very mys­ti­cal story and she is not quite be­liev­able.

The women in Ke­neally’s sub­se­quent his­tor­i­cal fic­tion are more ro­bust and in­ter­est­ing, re­flect­ing the gath­er­ing strength of this genre in his writ­ing. Be­fore hit­ting his stride as a ‘‘non­fic­tion nov­el­ist’’ (as Bri­tish critic Alexan­der Walker de­scribed him) he cre­ated a few other un­likely women. There is Bar­bara Glover in A Du­ti­ful Daugh­ter (1971), a book Ke­neally ad­mits was writ­ten by ‘‘a very black young man, whom I barely re­mem­ber ... look­ing back to my alien­ated younger self I think the cat­tle busi­ness is a fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what ado­les­cents and par­tic­u­larly girls would like to do to their par­ents. To turn them into beasts of the field!’’ The story is about the ab­nor­mal life of Bar­bara Glover car­ing for par­ents who have meta­mor­phosed into bovine cen­taurs.

Ke­neally’s Joan of Arc stands out as one of his most suc­cess­ful fe­male char­ac­ters, although the achieve­ment in Blood Red, Sis­ter Rose (1974) is as much about the his­toric drama and scene paint­ing as it is about the cen­tral char­ac­ter. As Ke­neally’s eighth book in his first decade as a pub­lished au­thor, it is po­si­tioned at a crit­i­cal phase of his ca­reer: while the pre­vi­ous ti­tle, The Chant of Jim­mie Black­smith (1972), had marked a turn­ing point in his per­sonal life and af­firmed his po­si­tion as a lead­ing Aus­tralian nov­el­ist, he had to con­sol­i­date this.

Hav­ing been ac­cused in the past of not writ­ing com­pe­tently about women, he felt some pres­sure to cre­ate a mem­o­rable Joan. He likens her to Ger­maine Greer: ‘‘She had the in­cred­i­ble rudeness of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary, didn’t apol­o­gise for her per­cep­tions, and could give the same cas­trat­ing replies to ques­tions!’’ He de­scribes Joan as freak­ish but fem­i­nine. ‘‘And be­cause she was fem­i­nine, a male so­ci­ety pun­ished her for par­tic­i­pat­ing in what be­longed to it — pol­i­tics and war.’’ Ke­neally be­lieved he was writ­ing a fem­i­nist novel, in keep­ing with the times. He ded­i­cated the book to his two daugh­ters, whose pres­ence in his life helped him to un­der­stand the fem­i­nine per­spec­tive.

‘‘It’s the first book about a vir­gin I’ve read in years,’’ wrote Frank Moor­house of Blood Red, Sis­ter Rose. ‘‘Vir­gins don’t get much of a run in con­tem­po­rary fic­tion.’’

Moor­house, who ad­mit­ted at the time he was not then ‘‘a Ke­neally reader’’, thought the book was ‘‘an out­stand­ing viv­i­fi­ca­tion of some ma­jor in­sights about be­hav­iour’’.

‘’Blood Red, Sis­ter Rose was a book of rare bril­liance,” said Si­mon King, who edited the book for the pub­lisher Collins in Lon­don, ‘‘in which page af­ter page sparkles with those rare sto­ry­telling gifts that dis­tin­guish Tom from so many other writ­ers.”

These were im­por­tant en­dorse­ments to take into the next stage of Ke­neally’s writ­ing life and to en­cour­age im­prove­ments in his de­vel­op­ment of fe­male char­ac­ters. A cou­ple of ti­tles that fol­lowed were con­tro­ver­sial, such as Sea­son in Pur­ga­tory (1976), for which he had to con­front claims of pla­gia­rism. He did not re­cover his place un­til Schindler’s Ark in 1982, although A Vic­tim of the Aurora (1978) and The Cut-Rate King­dom (1980) both of­fer telling in­sights into Ke­neally’s ex­plo­ration of re­la­tion­ships.

In A Vic­tim of the Aurora he probes at­ti­tudes to ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and adul­tery. El­derly An­thony Piers is in con­fes­sional mode about his love life: ‘‘When you re­mem­ber such women you know that even now, in a La­guna Hills

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.