There are many Australian writers that seem to have been forgotten: Miles Franklin, Christina Stead, Katherine Susannah Pritchard, Henry Handle Richardson, Ruth Park, and Kylie Tennant (Thank god Elizabeth Harrower has been resurrected from obscurity by Text Publishing).
Kylie Tennant (1912 – 1988) was hailed in 1935 as the new star of the Australian social-realist tradition with the publication of her first novel Tiburon, a three-pronged story of a small mid-west New South Wales country town and its life and loses. This was followed in 1939 with Foveaux, which translated the themes of Tiburon to the inner-city suburb of fictitious Forveau, identifiable as the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills. Her reputation peaked in 1941 with the publication of her best known work, The Battlers, which deals with the itinerant unemployed who tramp the back-roads of the countryside when war breaks out in Europe in 1939. It also secured her an international reputation and is still her best-known work among Australians. A television series of Ride on Stranger (1943), her fourth novel, in 1979, starring Noni Hazlehurst and Liddy Clark, sparked a brief revival but unfortunately Kylie Tennant has slipped from the literary landscape.
Her third novel, Time Enough Later (1942), is a departure, in that it is more light-hearted – almost (but not quite) a comedy – than her first three novels which were a serious look at the working underclass, but also a continuation of her development as a writer as it is the first to feature an independent woman and her unconventional choices, a theme she continues and masters in the novel that followed, Ride on Stranger.
Time Enough Later is a light, slip of a story of a young girl’s discovery of an agreeable alternative to men: agriculture. Bessie Drew grows up in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern. She is “unfashionably wholesome, sensible, and unselfconscious.” Her squabbling family, especially her hard-done-by mother and alcohol and temper ridden father, force her to set her feet on a different path to an unknown but adventurous future. She forms a tenuous relationship – part amorous, part professional – with a cad of a man, Maurice Wainwright: a theatrical, selfish, ego-maniac; a con-man who has a talent for photography, sets up a studio with Bessie’s self-sacrificing help, and establishes a reasonable living and reputation but without the work-ethic to make it a continuing success. Into Wainwright’s coterie of Bohemians, performers, and socialists comes Esther, a free-thinking loner who lives in the country and continually urges Bessie to come and see her place. This she finally does to house-sit for Esther as she travels on one of her botanical/zoological expeditions. Bessie takes the whinging and whining Maurice with her and all is set for what we would call in times between then and now, a ‘dirty weekend’. The seduction is a failure – a “disconcerting mixture” of Maurice’s self-possession; the normalities of the rural night – strange noises from out of the quiet, moths the size of dinner-plates, and a lumpy bed; and Bessie’s “unconventional matter-of-factness which strikes her would-be lover as exasperating stolidity”. But it’s Bessie’s plain-speaking that undermines Maurice and precipitates the slow and floppy end to their ‘affair’.
“I don’t see what you’re getting so mad about,” Bessie went on patiently. “If a thing doesn’t work, what’s the use of wasting time on it? Here’s twice we’ve had this hoo-doo on us. And it just looks like the idea is no good … Don’t think I’m not fond of you. But it just seems a waste of time getting all stirred up when it’s just as easy not to get stirred up.”
But what does grab city-raised Bessie’s interest is the countryside. Her eyes are opened to a possibility, and a place, that had never occurred to her. She had always thought of Esther as a “lonely and disappointed woman who put her passion into a wild hermitage, wilfully withdrawing into the desert.
Yet here was the desert flowering like paradise in a glory of red and gold. The trees, the earth, the smell of the leaves, stirred Bessie as none of Maurice’s ideas, none of his talk about beauty and art had done. This place talked a language of long thirst and survival, of struggle and rain and the bite of weather. Something in her knew this language; and the old restlessness clamoured as it had never done before – not Archer Street, not the studio – this place.”
Margaret Dick in her slight 1966 volume, The Novels of Kylie Tennant, almost apologises for the slapstick, the humour, and the ‘lightness’ of the theme, as if such novelistic considerations are beneath Tennant’s talent. However the success of Time Enough Later lies in the novelist’s expert handling of these difficult, and unlikely scenarios. It’s not easy making a believable failure of a sexual seduction by a selfish roué; nor is it a mere trifle to make the offerings of a rural existence, toil and thin-reward, a believable alternative for a young girl from a society which has already set her future: a future she sees as aprons, children, and the gray, grime, and gossip of Redfern. Tennant’s descriptive passages of the rural setting, nature, a threatening bushfire, and the simple rewards of husbanding chickens and ducks, rhubarb and radishes are beautiful, alive and even tantalising. You can well understand, and believe, Bessie’s attraction to such things. Light the story may be but the writing is assured, entertaining, and masterful.