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Mann, Leonard (1895–1981)

by Gavin De Lacy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Leonard Mann (1895-1981), writer, was born on 15 November 1895 at Prahran, Melbourne, eldest son of Victorian-born parents Samuel Mann, draper, and his wife Kate Louise, née Truebridge. Leonard was educated at Moreland State School and Wesley College. In 1913 the failure of his father’s business led him to abandon his scholarship and work as a military staff clerk in the Australian Military Forces. He continued studying and enrolled at the University of Melbourne (LL.B, 1920), attending night lectures during 1915 and 1916.

On 12 January 1917 Mann enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Promoted to corporal next month, he sailed for Britain aboard the troopship Ballarat. After training at Southampton he proceeded in September to France, where he saw action on the Western Front with the 39th Battalion. In February 1918 he joined the headquarters of the 5th Division Engineers. He served as a sapper and was promoted to sergeant in March. Having transferred to the 8th Field Company in October, he returned to Britain in January 1919 before embarking for Australia. His experiences in the trenches, including being buried alive by a shell burst and losing consciousness in the mud before his rescue, were to affect him for the rest of his life. He was discharged from the AIF on 9 June.

Back in Melbourne, Mann completed his degree and signed the Victorian Bar Roll on 28 April 1921. On 11 January 1926 at St George’s Church of England, Malvern, he married Florence Eileen Archer. Seeking more regular employment than his legal practice provided, he became an associate to Justice Lionel Lukin of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. From 1929, appointed secretary of the Victorian Employers’ Federation, he worked as an advocate on basic wage and industrial cases. He was approached to stand as a United Australia Party candidate for Federal parliament, but by the end of the decade his politics had moved towards democratic socialism. In 1940 he resigned his position and became industrial and staff manager at the Aircraft Production Commission. After World War II he worked as senior public relations officer in the Department of Labour and National Service.

Mann’s ‘double life’, as he called it, started in the late 1920s, when he began contributing short stories and sketches to the Age under the pen-name ‘Fabius’. In 1932 he self-published his first book, Flesh in Armour, which depicted the experiences of an Australian platoon through World War I, both ‘in the line and out of it’. A thousand copies were printed and he kept the type standing, optimistic that Angus & Robertson Ltd would publish a trade edition after the novel won the annual Australian Literature Society’s gold medal. A negative reader’s report led to the rejection of the work, but it was finally issued in a paperback edition in 1973.

Continuing as a part-time novelist, Mann published Human Drift (1935); A Murder in Sydney (1937), a London Book Society Book of the Month and his only bestseller; Mountain Flat (1939); and The Go-Getter (1942). The first of his four volumes of poetry, The Plumed Voice (1938), was also self-published, but issued under Angus & Robertson’s imprint. While best-known for his fiction, he won literary prizes for his Poems From the Mask (1941) and Elegiac and Other Poems (1957).

During the 1930s Mann developed important literary connections with writers including Vance and Nettie Palmer and Frank Dalby Davison. Foundation president (1938) of the P.E.N. Club (Melbourne), and an active member of the Victorian section of the Fellowship of Australian Writers from its inception in the same year, he soon became an influential figure in his own right. As president (1947-48) of the Victorian FAW he issued The Robert Close and Georgian House Case (1948), a pamphlet discussing writers and the law in the light of Close’s Love Me Sailor (1945) obscenity trial.

In 1948 Mann settled in the Dandenong Ranges, where he became a poultry farmer on his Macclesfield property after retirement in 1950. Later, moving to Olinda, to the seaside at Inverloch, Gippsland, and back to the Dandenongs at Emerald, he took occasional jobs, among them organising secretary for the 1967 congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. Andrea Caslin (1959) was written with the support of the Commonwealth Literary Fund; Venus Half-Caste appeared in 1963. Another novel, completed during the 1940s and known under several working titles, remained unpublished.

Of medium height (5 ft 6½ ins; 169 cm), with blue eyes, light brown hair, and a moustache, Mann could seem—as Vance Palmer found—’inarticulate’ in conversation. Others noted his ‘weigh-the-matter-up-as-I-go speech’. Stephen Murray-Smith recalled him as a ‘man of singular sweetness of disposition’ who ‘loved his pipe’. Widowed in 1976, Leonard Mann died on 29 April 1981 at Hallam, Victoria, and was buried in Emerald cemetery, survived by his son and daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (1962)
  • V. Smith (ed), Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer (1977)
  • Australian Literary Studies, vol 7, no 3, 1976, p 324
  • Herald (Melbourne), 23 Sept 1933, p 11
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 11 Mar 1939, p 39
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 May 1981, p 12
  • G. de Lacy, Literary Life in Melbourne in the 1930s (PhD thesis, Monash University, 2007).

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Citation details

Gavin De Lacy, 'Mann, Leonard (1895–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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