Tennant, Kylie (1912–1988)

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Tennant, Kylie (1912–1988)

Australian writer. Name variations: Kylie Tennant Rodd. Born Kathleen Tennant on March 12, 1912, in Manly, New South Wales, Australia; died on February 28, 1988, in Sydney, Australia; daughter of Thomas Walter Tennant and Kathleen (Tolhurst) Tennant; attended Brighton College and University of Sydney; married Lewis Charles Rodd (a schoolteacher and headmaster), on November 21, 1932 (died 1979); children: (daughter) Benison Rodd; John Laurence Rodd (died 1978).


S.H. Prior Memorial Prize for Tiburon (1935) and The Battlers (1941); gold medal, Australian Literary Society for The Battlers (1941); fellowship from Commonwealth Literary Fund (1951); Commonwealth Jubilee Stage Play Award for Tether a Dragon (1952); Children's Book of the Year Award, Australian Children's Book Council (1960), for All the Proud Tribesmen; Officer of the Order of Australia (1980).

Worked at various jobs (1928–32); full-time writer (1935–59); worked as journalist, editor, and publishing adviser (1959–69); full-time writer (1969–88); lecturer for Commonwealth Literary Fund (1957–58), member of advisory board (1961–73); member of board, Australian Aborigines Cooperatives; made appearances on Australian television and radio.

Selected novels:

Tiburon (originally serialized in Bulletin, 1935, Endeavor Press, 1935); Foveaux (Gollancz, 1939); The Battlers (Macmillan, 1941); Ride on, Stranger (Macmillan, 1943); Time Enough Later (Macmillan, 1943); Lost Haven (Macmillan, 1946); The Joyful Condemned (St. Martin's, 1953, complete version published as Tell Morning This, Angus & Robertson, 1968); The Honey Flow (St. Martin's, 1956); Tantavallon (Macmillan, 1983).

Short stories:

(contributor) Edith M. Fry, ed., Tales by Australians (British Authors' Press, 1939); (contributor) Cecil Mann, ed., Coast to Coast 1941 (Angus & Robertson, 1941); (contributor) T. Inglis Moore, ed., Australia Writes (Cheshire, 1953); (contributor) H.P. Heseltine, ed., Australian Idiom (Cheshire, 1963); (general ed. and contributor) Great Stories of Australia (7 vols., St. Martin's, 1963–66); (general ed. and contributor) Summer's Tales (2 vols., St. Martin's, 1964–65); Ma Jones and the Little White Cannibals (collection, St. Martin's, 1967); (contributor) The Cool Man and Other Contemporary Stories by Australian Authors (Angus & Robertson, 1973).


Australia: Her Story; Notes on a Nation (St. Martin's, 1953); (travelogue) Speak You So Gently (Gollancz, 1959); (with husband Lewis C. Rodd) The Australian Essay (Cheshire, 1968); (biography of Herbert Vere Evatt) Evatt: Politics and Justice (Angus & Robertson, 1970); The Missing Heir: The Autobiography of Kylie Tennant (Macmillan, 1986).


John o' the Forest and Other Plays (Macmillan, 1950); The Bells of the City and Other Plays (Macmillan, 1955); The Bushrangers' Christmas Eve and Other Plays (Macmillan, 1959); All the Proud Tribesmen (story, illustrated by Clem Seale, St. Martin's, 1959); Trail Blazers of the Air (stories, St. Martin's, 1966); Tether a Dragon (play, Associated General

Publications, 1952); Long John Silver: The Story of the Film; Adapted by K. Tennant from the … Screenplay by Martin Rackin (Associated General Publications, 1954); The Man on the Headland (fictionalized biography, Angus & Robertson, 1971). Critic for Sydney Morning Herald. Australian literary advisor to Macmillan & Co.

A noted Australian author of social-realist fiction, Kylie Tennant wrote novels offering spirited and authentic portrayals of Australian life. Her award-winning 1935 first novel Tiburon, profiling a small town during the Depression, launched a prolific writing career that, in addition to nine more novels, saw her produce short stories, nonfiction, plays, and criticism. Noted for emphasizing the externals of human experience, Tennant's fiction abounds with authentic place descriptions, colorful characters, and fast-paced, witty dialogue. Although she often emerges as a reformer—Tennant's writings display an affinity for characters besieged by modern societal ills—at the same time she demonstrates a good-natured acceptance of some of life's harsher conditions. The obituary writer for the London Times noted that Tennant's "desire to improve society was at odds in her with her almost Brechtian celebration of its rougher elements and her conviction that human nature was not likely to change."

Tennant was born in Manly, New South Wales, in 1912, and originally named Kathleen. She acquired the name "Kylie"—an Australian Aborigine word for boomerang—during childhood, and kept it all of her life. Tennant left school at the age of 16, after which she took on a variety of jobs, including work for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, work as a salesgirl, and operating a chicken farm. For a year she attended the University of Sydney as a psychology student. In 1932, she hitchhiked and jumped trains throughout New South Wales, eventually ending up in the northern city of Coonabarabran where she married her husband. Three years later, Tiburon appeared, garnering critical praise for its authentic and lively depiction of the residents of a small New South Wales village living on handouts during the Great Depression. Tiburon won for its 23-year-old author the S.H. Prior Memorial Prize and, as the Times obituary writer notes, "a certain notoriety amongst the polite readership for its many swipes at things they held sacred, such as local politics and bureaucracy."

Throughout her writing career, Tennant was noted for the rigorous and thorough research she invested in her novels—often gained through firsthand experience. For The Battlers, she camped with vagabonds and migrant laborers, traveling across Australia in a cart. For The Joyful Condemned, Tennant lived among prostitutes and the slum inhabitants of Sydney—even managing to get herself thrown into jail. For other novels, she turned to technical tasks. Preparing for Lost Haven, she studied shipbuilding, and for The Honey Flow accompanied bee-keepers on their annual migrations through the blossoming eucalyptus trees of Australia. Tennant once commented that her preference was for people who existed on the margins of modern industrial society.

Critics praised Tennant's ability to portray authentically, with understanding and honesty, a spectrum of unordinary characters, locales, and situations. Regarding The Battlers, which profiles the lives of hobos, vagrants, and migrant workers, Lionel Bridge commented in Commonweal: "Here is a combination of the most unusual events happening to the most original characters in the strangest setting the American fiction audience is likely to be offered again." J.S. Southron in The New York Times praised both Tennant's control of her subject matter and its integrity: "There are enough stories in 'The Battlers' to have filled a novel twice the size in the hands of a less concise, less artistic writer. And there is the curious affection aroused in us for characters as unglamorous and devoid of show-manship as they are genuine. It is a book whose outstanding feature is the sort of strength that compels admiration." Klaus Lambrecht in the Saturday Review of Literature called The Battlers "a most appealing book" in that "there is humor in it and a bitter realism, tragedy and love, warmth and cruelty, and sensitive conception of a peculiar form of life." Tennant's third novel won her another S.H. Prior Memorial Prize, in addition to a gold medal from the Australian Literary Society.

Like The Battlers, Tennant's other novels were noted for empathetic and vigorous characterizations. In Ride on, Stranger, she tells of an Australian girl who leaves her family of seven "on a career of moderately healthy disillusionment among faith-healers, occultists, left-wings, aesthetes and others," according to a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. John Hampon in Spectator called Tennant a "lively gifted writer," who, in Ride on, Stranger, "handles the seamy side of life with robust vigour." The Times Literary Supplement reviewer added: "There is a good deal of fun in this sprawling, crowded story of uncultivated types in the Australian wilds and of excessively cultivated or freakish types in Sydney, and with the fun goes a certain hard honesty of sentiment that is frequently telling." Regarding the 1946 novel Lost Haven, Robert Traver noted in Book Week that Tennant displayed "a remarkable facility for figurative expression, the evocative phrase." He added that, although such "occasionally gets a trifle out of hand" and that "at times she pelts the reader with words," when Tennant "wants to—which is most of the time—she can write like an inspired demon."

One of Tennant's most praised works is the 1953 novel The Joyful Condemned, initially published in abridged form due to a paper shortage and fears of censorship backlash, and reissued 15 years later in its entirety as Tell Morning This. Tennant's longest novel, The Joyful Condemned, traces the lives of several working-class girls in wartime Sydney who indulge themselves in the worlds of the slums. Tennant "is remarkably skilful in conveying the helpless ignorance of such girls in [the] face of authority and their eagerness to escape from the gentility of middle-class life into the riotous freedom of their own world," noted a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. Sylvia Stallings wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review that Tennant's "quick ear and eye bring home both the raciness of underworld speech and the curious beauty of the city at night, the searchlights 'working through the clouds like the fingers of a wool-classer through fleeces.' Her novel comes as a great wash of fresh air after the thin-blooded elegance of so many of her peers." Upon the novel's reissue as Tell Morning This, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement commented that the book was "told with clarity and honesty, and even, despite the bumpiness of much of the writing, a degree of poetic sensitivity."

In addition to her celebrated fiction, Tennant wrote in other genres, continuing to demonstrate thorough and thoughtful treatment of subject matter. Australia: Her Story; Notes on a Nation was praised by Fritz Stern in the Saturday Review as an "excellent example of popular history, an art which nowadays is too often neglected in favor of specialized treatises or historical novels which mistake life for lust." Tennant's 1970 biography of Herbert Vere Evatt, Evatt: Politics and Justice, "goes a long way towards doing justice to the most fascinating figure in the Australian labour movement since W.M. Hughes," according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, who singled out both Tennant's "control of complex material and events" and her "insight into Evatt's character." And in her 1959 children's book All the Proud Tribesmen, Tennant relates the lifestyles and history of Australia's Aborigines. P.D. Beard noted in Library Journal that Tennant's story "reveal[s] keen insight into the minds of a people and a fine sense of local atmosphere." Howard Boston likewise commented in The New York Times Book Review that in All the Proud Tribesmen, Tennant's "characterization is deft and sure, and she is adept at juggling several themes simultaneously." "The story's real strength, though," added Boston, "lies in its sensitive and appealing portrayal of the island folk."

Tennant's last novel, Tantavallon, published in 1983, displays the complexion of her earlier novels, offering a panorama of varied characters and situations. Featured in Tantavallon, notes Ken Goodwin in A History of Australian Literature, are "Vietnamese migrants mining uranium, a churchwarden attempting suicide in Sydney Harbour, a fire, a suburban street battle, a spectacular car accident, and a cancer scare." Tantavallon "illustrates well [Tennant's] belief that life in general is 'a thin layer of ice over a raging human volcano,' full of 'absurdity and chaos,'" according to Goodwin; however, as in Tennant's other novels, "there is always vigour, entertainment, and comedy in her depiction." The Times obituary writer comments on a lasting impression of Tennant's work: "Her often noted slapdash writing and lack of psychological penetration … are compensated for, in her best books, by her zest for life, humour and, above all, by her affection for the human race."

sources and suggested reading:

Dick, Margaret. The Novels of Kylie Tennant. Rigby, 1966.

Goodwin, Ken. A History of Australian Literature. St. Martin's, 1986.

Tennant, Kylie. The Joyful Condemned, reissued as Tell Morning This. Angus & Robertson, 1968.

——. The Missing Heir: The Autobiography of Kylie Tennant. Macmillan, 1986.


Books. August 10, 1941.

Book Week. September 5, 1943, March 31, 1946.

Christian Science Monitor. November 5, 1953.

Commonweal. October 10, 1941.

Listener. March 23, 1943.

Meanjin Quarterly. No. 4, 1953.

New Republic. August 25, 1941.

New Statesman and Nation. January 25, 1941.

The New Yorker. August 28, 1943, March 30, 1946, October 2, 1954.

New York Herald Tribune Book Review. May 10, 1953.

The New York Times. August 10, 1941, November 8, 1941, February 14, 1943, September 12, 1943, April 7, 1946, May 10, 1953.

The New York Times Book Review. August 21, 1960.

Saturday Review. October 17, 1953.

Saturday Review of Literature. August 9, 1941, May 18, 1946.

Spectator. April 9, 1943.

Times Literary Supplement. January 4, 1941, March 20, 1943, February 27, 1953, June 26, 1953, February 8, 1968, July 30, 1971.

Weekly Book Review. April 4, 1943, September 12, 1943, March 31, 1946.

Yale Review. Autumn 1941.


Manuscripts at Australian National Library in Canberra.

Michael E. Mueller for Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 1999

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