A Dutiful Daughter, Thomas Keneally

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Thomas Keneally (b.1935) has to date written something like 33 novels and 17 works of non-fiction, and it is at least arguable that he may be better regarded if he had written fewer. A Dutiful Daughter  (1971), a novella I guess at 150 pp, is thankfully not one of the churned out novels of his later years, but is the author’s first attempt at addressing the Joan of Arc myth, of a young woman asserting her moral strength and independence in the face of tremendous difficulties, which, of course, he addresses more directly in Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974).

Keneally himself describes A Dutiful Daughter as:

… a fairly eccentric early novel of my mine, but it had a definite purpose. I was trying to create an allegory of adolescence, and it’s about a young girl who reaches puberty and immediately, her parents are turned into cattle. … and she has the tending of this herd of parents.*

 I’m not enough of a Keneally scholar reader to say (or guess) how long, over how many books, he dealt with issues around sex and guilt after leaving his Catholic seminary, but they are certainly central to this work. The main character, Barbara has to cope with not just her own burgeoning sexuality, but her father’s renewed sexual appetite (for heifers) and her brother’s sexual urges (for her).

Barbara’s family, the Glovers, are dairy farmers, with 430 acres of waterlogged grass and swampland on the coast in the Northern Rivers region of NSW. Mr and Mrs Glover have become, from the waist down, cattle – Mr is very proud of his spectacular new appendage, “twelve inches of A-grade barmaid’s delight”, but Mrs is suffering from mastitis. At the beginning of the novel Barbara’s brother Damian is just home from university. He pauses at the gate to wave goodbye to the girl who has given him a lift home and also, you suspect, to wave goodbye to normality:

But having spent the night with Helen and suspecting yourself of loving her – or better still suspecting yourself of being unwise not to love and marry her – you feel you owe her a wave-off.

Not that Keneally makes a life with Helen sound particularly attractive, in a scene from the previous day:

… her knees sedulously locked beneath her, the girl went on looking as pitiably avid and bright as a long reading of women’s magazines could make a person; the path to her womb seemed suddenly as predictably laid down, with as much bland inevitability, as an expressway approach.

The problem is that the closer Damian is to Barbara, the more he is drawn back into their fierce infatuation with one another. On his arrival home, they stay in the kitchen, talking, embracing; “Barbara took you into her ample arms and you were reminded by contrast of bird-boned Helen”; their parents stamping and complaining out on the veranda, until at last Damian forces himself to face them: “The fixed facial pattern of your parents’ delight was as automatic and terrible as you had feared.”

In the beginning: On the morning after Barbara’s first period, she asks Damian, then aged 7, to burn her nightdress:

You took the nightdress with both hands … your right thumb could feel the especial harshness of the cloth where blood had dried. Beginning in your shoulders, spasms of terror ran down your arms … How evil was it to bleed from a private place? Was it a sin or a disease?

Mrs Glover confronts Damian over the burning nightie. Barbara, back from the milking, cries “I bled all over it”. “’All right, all right,’ the mother shouted. ‘Don’t talk filthy.’ A gentle and unappalled Christ, you noticed, seemed to befriend Barbara from his fixed place above the hearth.” Barbara rends her clothes and dashes from the house, pursued by her parents, across the paddocks and into the scrub. When they return, some hours later, the parents “had found their bovine selves, and now loped on four hoofs and had angular quarters like all the poor Glover cattle.” Barbara, now clearly the centre, the benevolent despot and the tireless servant, of all the family, orders them off to the barn.

It took time for your parents to assimilate the practical reality of their new state, while all the time they wondered if the accident was something in their woof or a satire their minds or Barbara’s had worked on them.

Though Mrs Glover, “a Catholic in the old mould” tended to believe “that God had chosen her out to punish in her the straying limbs of man and woman.”

Barbara too suspects she has been singled out by God, and treasures hand written documents of dubious antiquity purporting to be the examination of Joan of Arc at Poitiers, purchased by her father at a market in Alexandria during the War. She accepts the isolation that comes with caring for her parents; “virginity is apt in such lives that are a manifestation: religion and a sixth sense told her that.” When her parents finally accuse her directly of causing their condition she goes to the doctor to see if she bears Joan’s mark, ‘the mark of the beast’.

When Damian woos her, first in the guise of a visiting truck driver Damian has met in a bar, but finally in his own voice: “’Barbara, I’m so sick from wanting you’”, she doesn’t resist and “the two of you began to make love with the vehemence of people committing an ultimate crime”. But she is also clear that they have done wrong.

Mr Glover too, feels good Catholic guilt for his lusts: “He could perceive an electric quiddity in the air, and knew that he would walk over the rise and find himself among cows. He prayed for a second. Since I have already lusted and damned myself, please don’t let me be disappointed.” He is knocked off one heifer by a jersey bull, but takes another. “The predictable abhorrence took him at the climax, and with it an impotence, a jolting abnegation …” and he forces the cow down, into the swampy water, and drowns it.

Over an eventful 24 hours Mr Glover makes an ineffective attempt to get into town to seek treatment for Mrs Glover’s mastitis: women “ like it best when you’re performing great feats that do nothing to change the way things are”; while Damian and Mr Glover are arguing in the road, a truck swerves to avoid them and the driver is killed; rain sets in, threatening floods; Helen comes out to the farm, to propose to Damian and to confront Barbara, and gets stuck in floodwaters on the way back to town; Barbara has sex for a second time, in the sandhills, with the truck driver Damian was pretending to be; it all comes to a terrible, inevitable climax.

Do I recommend A Dutiful Daughter? Yes I do. Despite Keneally seemingly working off years of repressed sexuality, and a lifetime of Catholic teaching, he carries off the allegory with wit and a surprising lightness of touch.


Thomas Keneally, A Dutiful Daughter, Penguin, Melbourne, 1971

*Interview (here) with Keneally for the Australian Biography project (2002)

See also this fabulous review by Angela Carter in the NY Times


13 thoughts on “A Dutiful Daughter, Thomas Keneally

  1. I really haven’t read much Keneally, and I really should – his early works in particular. He is such a fascinating – and charming, I think, man (though I can imagine some thinking otherwise after reading your quote selections here!) I recently bought Three cheers for the Paraclete which I’d love to get to. And I also recently read his book about researching Schindler’s ark, which I should also get to.

    My favourite Keneally of the very small sample I’ve read is his non-fiction “travel” book, Their souls were watching God. I think I love it because he writes so eloquently about a part of the US I love.


    • I’ve read a few. This is my favourite. He tries out different styles as they become fashionable, never very convincingly. He says this one is magic realism. I listened to the one about researching S’s Ark a few years ago. I like his early novels and also To Asmara.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll give it high priority then – though I’m not sure what that means in terms of actually getting to read it! Thanks for your recommendations – including To Asmara.


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