What a character Kylie Tennant was. Her strength and distinctiveness leap out from the pages of Jane Grant’s biography, right from the opening where she walks 500 miles at age twenty during the Depression to visit her university friend Lewis Rodd. Impulsively, they marry.
Born in 1912, she was the same age as Patrick White but Grant draws a line from her fiction to that of an earlier generation’s more documentary, realist approach, including Katharine Susannah Prichard. Despite a dislike of interiority in fiction, Tennant managed to fall out with KSP but remain friends with Patrick White, the latter a particular achievement.
Grant quotes a wonderful unpublished reflection on life writing by Tennant:
It saddens me that there is this present craze for autobiography. When a writer gets old and his creative faculty is impaired all people can do is urge him to write autobiography. Don’t they trust you any more? God knows I don’t want to take the bread out of the mouths of some future young writer who might get a grant for writing my biography – doing a great deal of research and grubbing out old letters that say nothing except: ‘It’s damned hot here but we might get some rain.’ (127)
On display are Tennant’s humour as well as her understanding of biography – she wrote one herself, on Labor leader Doc Evatt. Writing a biography does involve much reading of weather and apologies for late replies and unremarkable comments on books being read or visitors staying. Yet every piece of information is the piece of a puzzle and sometimes mundane details reveal important things. Not to mention the obvious glint of gold between the banalities and the pleasure of being in the dead subject’s company.
There’s an increasing recognition of the thankless support role women have played in the lives of male authors – editing and typing particularly. But in this case the roles were reversed, and Rodd did much to help Tennant’s literary career. He wasn’t easy to live with though, suffering severe depression and making many suicide attempts. In the most horrific moment of the biography, he lost an arm and a foot to a train in his final unsuccessful attempt. He was, like me, a pacifist Christian socialist.
As Lisa of ANZ Litlovers has noted before me in her excellent review, in 2006 this was the second in NLA Publishing ‘Australian Lives’ series; sadly, it seems to have been the last. At 129 pages of narrative and around 30,000 words – similar to the Quarterly Essay – the concept seems a wonderful one to me. The great gaps in Australian biography – beyond the superb capsule biographies of the Australian Dictionary of Biography – might be filled. A biographer might hope to produce one in a year; a reader might hope to read one in a day. I would like to know the story of the discontinued series – were other titles commissioned? Were sales not high enough? If not, why not? I’ve heard several writers tell me about how hard it is to sell a novella to a publisher and I’m sure it applies to ‘biographettes’ too. (What would be a good term for novella-length biographies?) I’m sure that with the right writing and the right marketing, readers would embrace shorter books.
Reflecting on the film The Imitation Game a couple of years ago, I wrote about the potential of the biopic as a model for a new kind of biography:
Biopics have much to offer the biographer in methodological possibility. Surely there are other readers like me who want to read biography for interest, but not generally the comprehensive brick. We should look to biopics for inspiration for a form of biography which is not simply a condensed brick, but a more Stracheyean form. Perhaps a central drama in a subject’s life, intertwined with subplots from past and future points. There would be a suggestion of the whole, without the detail of the whole. It would be the length of a shortish novel, two to three hundred pages. It need not take on the biopic’s creative sins – the amalgamated characters, the invented dialogue – but rely on the best tradition of biographical storytelling without being shackled by comprehensiveness. It would not replace the comprehensive biography, which needs to be written, but it would supplement it so well, perhaps revitalise biography as a readers’ genre and as an art form.
I would still like to try that, even though I’ve made a different decision for the Katharine Susannah Prichard biography. (Covering her life in three books of three hundred pages, is the idea.) In the Tennant biography, Grant has covered her whole life in 129 pages of text. Inevitably there is much action and summary, little pause and limited detail and analysis. Yet it is a real achievement by Grant that in these constraints she’s written a highly engaging biography. The tone is assured and intelligent while never awkward or overly-technical. Tennant’s life is so interesting it deserves more biographical treatments, but this is a worthy one.