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Tennant, Kathleen (Kylie) (1912–1988)

by Jane Grant

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

Kylie Tennant, by Jacqueline Mitelman, c1988

Kylie Tennant, by Jacqueline Mitelman, c1988

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn789166

Kathleen (Kylie) Tennant (1912-1988), author, was born on 12 March 1912 at Manly, Sydney, elder child of New South Wales-born parents Thomas Walter Tennant, clerk and later company executive, and his wife Kathleen Alice, née Tolhurst. Kylie was baptised in her father’s church as a Presbyterian, but raised with her maternal family’s beliefs in Christian Science. Educated at Brighton College, Manly, she was an imaginative child who excelled at English and acting in school plays. Her childhood was far from stable. ‘It toughens you to have fighting parents’, she later wrote, ‘and I don’t know how people get on who haven’t been reared in a battling Australian family’.

In 1931 Tennant enrolled in an arts degree at the University of Sydney. She later regretted not finishing her degree, but her family had provided little financial support and, unable to reconcile the demands of work and study, she left after a year. At the university she met Lewis Charles Rodd. In 1932 he took up a teaching post at Coonabarabran and Tennant walked the 280 miles (450km) from Sydney to join him. On the journey she witnessed the hardship and suffering of the rural unemployed. It was the first of the many arduous, punishing walking tours Tennant undertook in the early 1930s that would form the background to her rural Depression novel Tiburon. She was already writing for Smith’s Weekly and the Referee.

Tennant and Rodd married with Anglican rites on 21 November 1932 at Christ Church, Coonabarabran. While the early years of the marriage were complicated by the conflicts between Tennant’s attraction to communism and Rodd’s High Anglicanism, it proved to be an extremely successful creative partnership. As her editor, Rodd meticulously typed and corrected her handwritten manuscripts. He was also her harshest critic: after reading a draft of her first novel he persuaded her to burn it. They shared interests in literature, socialism and social justice; their partnership was at the vanguard of movements supporting better wages and housing, pacifism, rights for Indigenous Australians, and environmentalism.

In 1935 Tennant won the S. H. Prior memorial prize for her first published novel, Tiburon. Six novels followed in quick succession, although it was the 1941 publication of her third novel, The Battlers, with its vivid portrayal of the lives of the itinerant unemployed, that made her a household name and brought her international acclaim as the Australian John Steinbeck. The comparison irritated Tennant, who claimed that she had never read The Grapes of Wrath.

Tennant’s unorthodox research methods also attracted publicity. While researching Foveaux (1939) Tennant moved into a rundown boarding house in the slums of Redfern and gave an account of life there to the Sydney Morning Herald. Working on The Battlers, Tennant took to the roads of rural New South Wales, lived rough among the long-term unemployed, and reported on her experiences in the newspapers. As part of her research for Tell Morning This (1967, first published in 1953 in an abridged form as The Joyful Condemned), Tennant spent a week in Parramatta gaol.

In the documentary tradition of slightly older writers such as Vance Palmer and Katharine Susannah Prichard, Tennant believed that her novels would educate the public about poverty and disadvantage and change what she termed ‘the climate of opinion’. The social message of her novels, however, was always leavened by humour. As she told Meanjin’s editor, Clem Christesen, she had a strong distaste of ‘great chunks of propaganda sogging up your book like stale bread in a pudding’. Briefly a member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1935, she resigned after some months believing that the party had lost touch with working-class politics.

Despite Tennant’s repeated reassurances to her publishers, the distinctions between reportage and fiction were not clear-cut to her. Many of her characters were modelled on people she knew and, as with Snow in The Battlers, she sometimes used their real names. In 1943 her luck ran out. The publication of Ride on Stranger resulted in a libel case when a Melbourne communist, who used the alias Leslie Charteris, read this surname in the novel and took offence at her satirical portrait. Angus & Robertson withdrew the edition and settled out of court for £175.

In 1952 Tennant’s own membership of the party came back to haunt her. On 28 August a Federal Liberal member, William Wentworth, asserted in parliament that one-third of the beneficiaries of the Commonwealth Literary Fund were communists; he named Tennant. In a flamboyant gesture she returned the grant and demanded Wentworth make the allegation outside parliament, without privilege, so that she could sue him. As she wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Anyone taking the trouble to glance through my books would realise that not only am I no Communist but that I am extremely unpopular with them’.

The Honey Flow (1956) was Tennant’s eighth novel and her last for twenty-seven years. With two young children to support and a mortgage, she was under increasing pressure to make money. She took on work as the Australian reader for the publishing house Macmillan Co. and as a reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald. Incensed after reading A. D. Hope’s vitriolic attack on The Tree of Man in the Sydney Morning Herald, she countered with a laudatory interview with Patrick White for the same newspaper. She formed close friendships with him and with the novelist Elizabeth Harrower. Continuing to write books and plays for children, she won the Children’s Book Council of Australia award in 1960 for All the Proud Tribesmen. She also wrote non-fiction—Australia, Her Story (1953), a short history; Speak You So Gently (1959), on Aboriginal co-operatives; and The Man on the Headland (1971), about a friend in Laurieton, where the Rodds lived from 1941 to 1953.

In 1960 Tennant accepted an invitation from Overland’s editor, Stephen Murray-Smith, to be an advisory editor. Appointed to the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1961, she helped to convince the board that the elderly novelist Martin Boyd, living in poverty in Italy, was a worthy recipient of the fund’s resources.

Although Tennant continued to work, producing Evatt: Politics and Justice, a biography of H. V. Evatt in 1970, the last third of her life was governed by a sequence of family tragedies. Having long suffered from episodes of severe depression, Lewis Rodd threw himself under a train at Circular Quay in 1961. He survived, sustaining the loss of an arm and a foot. In 1971 their son John Lawrence (known as Bim) was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After her husband had another breakdown in 1975, Tennant moved her family to a farm at Blackheath in the hope that the mountains would be healing for both husband and son.

In 1978 Bim was admitted to hospital after being found unconscious in a house at Kings Cross. On 6 March he died. As it emerged at the trial, Bim had been bashed and robbed in a drug deal. Nursed at home by Tennant and their daughter, Benison, Lewis Rodd died of cancer the following year. Tantavallon (1983) was Tennant’s farewell to Rodd and Bim. Set in a suburb like Hunters Hill, where the family had lived for many years, the novel drew directly upon Tennant’s knowledge of suicidal depression and drugs. Her transformation of so much personal tragedy into what is essentially a comedy is remarkable, but as she said in an interview: ‘humour is a defence. Primitive people use it when they’re in a desperate situation; they will laugh’.

In 1980 Tennant was appointed AO and in 1987 was awarded a D.Litt. by Monash University. She continued to help writers, contributing to biographies and a stream of doctorates on Australian literary and social history, and in 1986 she published her autobiography The Missing Heir. Always at the forefront of socially progressive movements, she wrote her final words as an activist. In early February 1988, when near death from cancer, Tennant sent a ‘letter to a friend’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, speaking out against ‘the way our stupid laws keep such people alive and put compassion of doctors, nurses and helpers within the realm of criminal prosecution should any attempt be made to shorten the agony of sufferers’. Survived by her daughter, she died on 28 February 1988 at Chatswood and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Grant, Kylie Tennant (2006)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb 1988, p 1
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1988, p 19
  • H. de Berg, interview with K. Tennant (ts, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • Tennant papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Tennant correspondence, Meanjin papers (University Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Jane Grant, 'Tennant, Kathleen (Kylie) (1912–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tennant-kathleen-kylie-15669/text26865, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 November 2014.

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

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