Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was a novelist for the battlers. Probably best described as middle class – her father was a clerk and later a company executive; she was educated Brighton College, Manly and subsequently enrolled in Arts at Sydney Uni (which for financial reasons, she was unable to complete); and her husband was a school teacher (ADB) – nevertheless, she immersed herself in depression-era working class life, and her books reflect this.
I have written already on her most important novel, Ride on Stranger (1943) (here) and briefly on the Honey Flow (1956) in my dissertation (here – in Chapter 4, if you really want to go and look), where I summarised it as “the story of a young woman, Mallee, who takes on her late grandfather’s beehives and an old truck, and so takes on also the very male world of itinerant apiarists moving and tending their hives in the NSW southern highlands”.
My Imprint Classics edition has an Introduction by Jean Bedford which is really just a review of the novel itself rather than any extra material about the author or a wider view of the issues discussed or of the book’s place within either the author’s work or the wider Australian literary scene. I was and am interested in The Honey Flow for its heroine’s independence. Bedford is maybe not as impressed as I am, writing:
Little more than cursory lip-service is paid to the wider social issues that informed Tennant’s earlier work. There is an underlying feminist precept – that a young woman can break the barrier of social expectations and succeed in a male world on her own terms – but it is a precept applied specifically to Mallee, and it is part of her individual oddity…
Yet The Honey Flow remains an engaging, funny and rewarding novel, despite its avoidance of the deeper motives and consequences of human behaviour … Mallee is an attractively lonely and gallant figure and we can forgive her face-saving flights into wry humour. (1991)
In my magnum opus, I wrote further, that: “In many ways this is the novel Miles Franklin might have written if she’d stayed in Australia. The setting is Franklin country; Tennant, like Franklin, writes with a breezy style and doesn’t look too far beneath the surface; but unlike Franklin, Tennant, while sharing Franklin’s moral view, is able to look sex in the face and not be frightened”.
The novel begins:
Every time my memory opens its mouth it dribbles roads. Not so much the great bitumen and concrete flanks that cut the mountain spurs and plunge over the edge of plateaus, but bush tracks that suit a kangaroo or a rogue bullock, but look incredible to drivers who have never had to force a great truck loaded with bee boxes or honey tins through the forests, over corduroys where the forestry gangs have thrown down a few trees to make a footing in a swamp, down into steep creek beds, over places with names like Muldoon’s Mistake or The Downfall.
That’s exactly it! Us drivers, we open our mouths and dribble roads. Mallee is a truck driving apiarist, travelling her bees, competing with her fellows for the best sites up and down the east coast. “You sweat and lie exhausted and swear and talk obscenities and live on bread and corned beef and creek water with a little tea to disguise the taste of mud. The professional name for all this is migratory bee-keeping.”
Mallee, and her step-father who travels with her for a while, are script writers for a radio serial and that gives both a certain literary feel to the writing and positions Tennant/Mallee as middle class observer/participants in a working class environment. Mallee inherits some hives, borrows an old Ford truck and sets off for the bush, joining up with the well set-up outfit of the Muirdens, brothers Blaze and Joe, their father and their offsider in the Pilliga Forest in north central NSW. They subsequently journey back down to the Southern Alps – Miles Franklin country – and then up to the Brigalow scrub of south central Qld, following the seasons, the blossoms and water. You learn a lot about what bees need.
Blaze is the male lead, though hardly the ‘love interest’. He has a fiancée back home who is sick of him being away all the time, is a bit of a “ladys man” and anyway, Mallee is mostly too busy to be interested. The setting is the years immediately post-WWII – which is only referred to with the briefest references to men who have been living under canvas – and although we think of the 50s now as a prosperous time, the roads, the rough and ready vehicles, the primitive living conditions in camp are all reflective of a people, a way of living which had been tempered by years of Depression before the War (Are you old enough to remember when a bottle of dry sherry was a cheap substitute for beer? I am, and I can’t touch it now!)
Let me briefly address the points raised in the introduction: Bedford dismisses Mallee’s independence with faint praise, but at a time, the 1950s, when ‘every’ woman was married with 3 children in a little suburban house with a white picket fence, Mallee’s rejection of marriage – like Shannon and Sybylla before her – and her determination to succeed on her own terms is inspirational. Further, the work in classic Australian Legend style is set firmly in the bush, which in many places is lovingly and knowledgeably described, but with a female protagonist.
Franklin rediscovered her muse writing about the exploits of her mother’s and father’s families as pioneers in southern NSW. Tennant, born and raised in Sydney, famously walked with the unemployed and the battlers in the bush during the Depression, she lived the lives she wrote about and it shows. She writes of tying down a load, something I have spent years doing, drive tankers now to avoid:
It was daylight before the trucks were loaded, the ropes braced over, and the last double sheepshank knotted round the metal rod that ran along under the sides of the big table top. [It’s called a “tie rail”, Kylie.]
Mallee, like Franklin’s heroines and Eve Langley’s too, is surprised when her virtue isn’t obvious to others. She “gets a reputation” as did Langley’s Steve and Blue before her, for sharing her hut with men.
Franklin struggled not so much to write about sex, which she didn’t, but to portray relationships which were sexual. Tenant is much more relaxed. Here Blaze has put the hard word on Mallee: :“Would you ever just act human? Would you come over to my tent some night and say, “Well, you bastard, you win. Move over”?” So that night she does, “It would be nice to give Blaze a pleasant surprise. Well, I thought, what does it matter?” But without entering the tent she can hear that he is in bed with another woman. Mallee laughs and walks away. “Dear old Blaze! How I like that man! A heel if there ever was one.”
If I haven’t made it clear already, The Honey Flow is written with a light, sure touch and is well worth reading.
Kylie Tenant, The Honey Flow, first published A&R, 1956. My edition Imprint Classics, 1991
See also my review of Ride on Stranger (here)
Tennant later wrote the introduction for a reprint of Mary Gaunt’s 1897 novel of another woman seeking independence through bee-keeping, Kirkham’s Find (here)