MY ACCIDENTAL CAREER
By Brenda Niall
Text Publishing, 2022
RRP: $34.99 (pb)
Reviewed by Gerard Henderson
Thanks to the (anonymous) Private Eye (4 November 2022) reviewer of Suleika Dawson’s The Secret Heart: John Le Carré: An Intimate Memoir for reminding readers of the old gag: Question: “How do you know someone went to Oxford?” Answer: “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”
Which raises this question: “How do you know that the Melbourne author Brenda Niall is something of a literary genius?” Answer: “Read her latest memoir My Accidental Career (Text Publishing, 2022) and you will soon find out.”
GROWING UP CATHOLIC IN MELBOURNE’S KEW
Without question, Brenda Niall is a bright woman and a fine writer. However, she has led a somewhat narrow life. Born in 1930 to what she calls “young middle-class professionals” (her father Frank was a surgeon at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, her mother Connie was into what would be called home duties and never had a part-time or full-time job as was not uncommon for many women of her generation), Niall has lived all her life in Melbourne. Apart, that is, from a period of academic appointment (in Canberra) and overseas scholarly travel (mainly to Ireland, Britain and the United States).
Niall’s parents were born around the turn of the 20th century and as teenagers and young adults would have experienced the anti-Catholic sectarianism prevailing in Melbourne which, at the time, was dominated by the Protestant Ascendancy. This became more evident following the opposition to conscription for overseas service by the Irish born Daniel Mannix – who became coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne in 1913 and succeeded to the See of Melbourne following the death of Archbishop Thomas Carr in 1917.
A consequence of anti-Catholic sectarianism meant that Catholics were rarely found in prominent roles in business and were excluded from membership of the influential Melbourne Club. Talented Catholics who had the good fortune to finish their schooling frequently found their way into the professions – mainly medicine and the law. Many moved into Kew in Melbourne’s east – including the Nialls who built a house on Studley Park Road near the Kew Junction. At the other end of the road, not far from where the Yarra River separates Kew from the (then) essentially working class Collingwood, Mannix resided at the mansion Raheen. Frank Niall had a very successful career as a surgeon and consultant in private practice – but, as was the practice at the time, he did honorary work as a surgeon and consultant for the poor and less well-off around Fitzroy.
Two of Melbourne’s leading Catholic schools were located in Kew – Xavier College (boys) and Genazzano Convent (girls). Brenda’s father went to Xavier and her mother boarded at Genazzano (her brothers went to Xavier). Brenda and her sisters went to Genazzano, her brothers to Xavier. As she writes, “For my generation, the choice of the same schools was never in doubt; it was a tribal pattern.”
Well, this may have been the case for sons and daughters of the Catholic professional classes who lived in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs – along with some others of the middle classes who struggled to pay the fees. What’s notable about Niall’s career is that it has invariably involved the educated middle class – Catholic and non-Catholic alike. She exhibits no contact with – or awareness of – Australians of her generation who had limited money and limited education.
Brenda Niall’s life centred initially on Genazzano Convent in Kew where the females socialised with the boys at Xavier College in Kew. After that, she went to the University of Melbourne in Parkville not far from the Melbourne CBD – initially as a student and then as a researcher. Then she took an academic appointment at the Australian National University in Canberra. After that, she commenced and finished a tenured academic life at Monash University in the south-east of Melbourne suburb of Clayton. Niall’s career may or may not have been “accidental” – as she claims (whatever that means) – but it was certainly insular.
Before and after the Second World War, Xavier prided itself on academic achievement. Success at exams was at least as important – perhaps more so – as success on the sporting field. Inspired by Dr Mannix, the Jesuits wanted their students to get ahead and occupy important positions in Australian society. Most other male and female religious orders who ran schools operated with a similar intent. What made Xavier different was that it was one of the original “public schools” (the term public was derived from Britain – it really meant private) along with Melbourne Grammar and Geelong Grammar (both Church of England), Scotch College and Geelong College (both Presbyterian) and Wesley College (Methodist). And it educated the sons of Melbourne’s professional classes (with some exceptions).
Genazzano was run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ) – a French religious order founded by Marie Madeleine d’Houët in 1820. The FCJs were focused on educating Catholic ladies who would go on to marry good Catholic men. So, in the 1930s and 1940s, Brenda Niall’s brothers at Xavier received an education of far greater academic value than the Niall sisters at Genazzano. Nevertheless, the Niall girls did very well at school.
Once the reader reaches Page 31, it is evident just how brilliant the author was (in spite of the fact that she missed periods of school due to asthma) in winning a residential scholarship to Newman College – the Catholic College next to the University of Melbourne campus – at the end of her school days:
It was only in the last year at school that I had a stirring of ambition. I won one of the three resident scholarships in the Newman College entrance examinations, with first places in history and English. The other two top awards went to Xavier’s finest, who were spoken of as brilliant. Genazzano didn’t do brilliant. The nuns had barely noticed Philippa’s success, five years earlier, when she won an exhibition with first class honours in English in the Newman exam, outclassing future poet Vincent Buckley. Later when Margaret successfully battled the Genazzano science system, Reverend Mother remarked to my mother: “Connie, your girls have a real little talent.”
Brenda was the sister between Philippa and Margaret – Frances was the Nialls’ youngest daughter. It is true that the students at Genazzano who were good at mathematics and science were, for the most part, poorly taught. The humanities focused students received a better education. Niall reflects on the Xavier/Genazzano void:
The Newman [residential scholarship] win made me competitive enough to be annoyed at being allowed only one prize [at Genazzano] at the end of the year ceremony. There were just two subject prizes, in English and French. I was given the French prize because one was enough, and I’d won the English prize the year before. Academic achievement wasn’t important. There were more prizes for being good than for being clever. Loyalty, devotedness and good spirit were recognised at prize night, as was “Early and Regular Attendance”. I didn’t win any of those prizes, nor did I get anything for my first place in Latin and history.
The system at Xavier was quite different. On their annual speech night, my brothers carried a stack of books from the platform: handsome volumes from endowed prize funds. Hugh was allowed to choose his own, and he added P.G. Woodhouse and Sherlock Holmes to a set of English poets in the Oxford series, with the Xavier crest in gold lettering embossed on the covers. The Jesuits didn’t worry about too much academic success, as the nuns did. For boys, the more the better. Years later, when there was talk of abolishing the concept of failure I thought of the nuns. They had no problem with failing their students, they did it all the time. It was success that troubled them.
This is a harsh judgment. After all, Niall concedes that her own parents were more like FCJ nuns than Jesuit priests – in that they were more focused on the academic success of their sons than their daughters. Also, the nuns she criticises gave up their lives at a young age to enter religious order where they taught the daughters of the Catholic middle class for no remuneration – thus keeping school fees lower than otherwise would have been the case. Yet, after seven decades and a highly successful career, Niall complains that she was dudded out of receiving prizes for schoolgirl English, Latin and history.
ENTERING THE GROVES OF ACADEME
In any event, Brenda Niall did well enough – as she tells readers constantly. At Page 35, the author refers to attaining four first class honours and one second class honours in her final year at Genazzano and being the most successful student from a Catholic girls school in Victoria. Later, studying at Melbourne University, she missed out on a first class honours in her Arts degree – the exams took place as her father was dying, at age 53, from a brain tumour. But the reader learns at Page 107 that, later, Niall was awarded first class honours for her M.A. thesis on Edith Wharton – following which she was appointed to the tenured position of senior tutor – “this meant security, and a rise in salary without having to lecture”. Due to her fear of public speaking, Niall never delivered a university lecture during her time as an academic.
Niall’s M.A. thesis was read by an internal examiner at the Australian National University (Grahame Johnston) as well as the Los Angeles based “author of the only scholarly study of Edith Wharton” (Blake Nevius). As Niall puts it, “a first from Nevius meant a lot”. Soon after, Johnston, on their second meeting, told Niall her “M.A. thesis was the best he’d ever seen – the best written anyway”. Some years later, laying on the (intellectual) flattery, Johnston told Niall, “You write better than any of us, but you won’t push yourself.” The “us” with whom Johnston compared Niall favourably comprised Judith Wright, Alec Hope, Vincent Buckley and Leonie Kramer.
Well, maybe. But My Accidental Career is not an example of first-class writing although it does get the job done in telling a life story. There is not much humour or evident irreverence – but there is some. Niall describes an English Department meeting at Monash University as “Professor Scott’s Theatre of Controlled Boredom – beginning with Bill Scott’s slow-moving report”.
He took off his glasses, gazed vaguely round the room and turned to item one on the soporific agenda with, “As Harold would want to say if he were here…” Harold Love protested: “I am here.” Scott continued without pause with whatever it was that Harold would have wanted to say. Or not. Francis King seemed to be taking notes. In fact, he was writing to an imagist poem called “Toes”….Grahame had written back suggesting I start a campus novel: “You’d be more David Lodge than Kingsley Amis, and different because we haven’t had one from a woman.”
That’s about it for humour in An Accidental Career. Niall is not David Lodge nor a Kingsley Amis. Also Niall is less than gracious. After all, Bill Scott supported Niall’s academic career and made it possible for her to be exempt from giving lectures. In return, he received a (rare) mocking in her memoirs.
An Accidental Career is the tale of an English Studies student-cum-academic who whose fear of public speaking prevents her from giving lectures but who handles tutorials well and becomes a highly regarded biographer with books on Martin Boyd, Ethel Turner & Mary Grant Bruce, Georgina McCrae, Arthur Boyd, Judy Cassab, Mary & Elizabeth Durack – but not Edith Wharton (despite Nevius’ praise). .
There is also Mannix, perhaps the best biography about Dr Daniel Mannix but not without its flaws. The same can be said of her book on Mannix’s Irish-born Jesuit friend Fr William Hackett S.J. – both are discussed below.
Brenda Niall’s publications amount to a fine body of work – but not worthy of two memoirs. My Accidental Career (Text Publishing, 2022) follows Life Class; The Education of a Biographer (MUP, 2007) and contains much similar material about an unexceptional personal life.
A PERSONAL LIFE
Brenda Niall never married. But she was briefly engaged to “G” – a Xavier College alumni who became a barrister. “G” would have gone down on both knees to propose except they were on St Kilda Beach and, in “G”’s reported words, it was “so damn dirty”. It was the summer of 1956.
The account in My Accidental Life and in her earlier memoir would suggest that neither Brenda nor “G” was in a rush to get to church on time. Miss Niall, as she then was, writes of a time before she called the whole thing off in October 1957:
…I remember saying: “You don’t want a family with me. You can’t help putting your little sisters first”. And in another context, he asked: “Would you have accepted me if I hadn’t won a first in classics?”. There was something in that. It was a truth almost universally acknowledged in those days that a wife mustn’t be more intelligent than her husband. And I’d had the ignominy of overhearing medical student Tony H. refuse to dance with me: “Too damn clever,” he said to his hostess. “No thanks!”
There is some truth in this reflection on the Xavier/Genazzano dating scene in the 1950s. But many a clever woman got to marry a somewhat less clever man. In any event, An Accidental Life is replete with references to the academic and linguist Grahame Johnston (1929-1976) along with a large photograph of him. According to Niall, they wanted to get married but he was a divorced Catholic and she is a Catholic – so the union was impossible. But at Page 172 Niall makes it clear that she didn’t accept the church’s ruling on divorce. Earlier, at Page 110, she writes that due to Johnston’s past hepatitis and liver damage, he could not ask her to “share” his life “even if the Catholic ruling against marriage doesn’t exist”. So Niall’s unwillingness to marry Johnston cannot be fully explained by the fact that he was previously married.
Shortly before Johnston’s untimely death, Niall felt that the relationship was “still close and loving” and that they “might take overseas study leave together”. But he died while promoting his The Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary. She believes he went back on the grog. As The Australian Dictionary of Biography reports, Grahame Johnson died of cirrhosis of the liver. Niall is mostly private about her own personal life – but not Johnston’s.
At Page 218, Niall has this to say about another man in her life:
At about this time [circa 1990], I had a late marriage opportunity when an intelligent, well-to-do and agreeable widower, a medical specialist, wanted me to share his life. He came from the same group of Catholic professional families as I did, and he would once have seemed just right for me. But now – by one of life’s ironies – I didn’t need the security he offered and I’d have found it hard to fit into his structured life. Or, for that matter, he into mine. I was sorry to miss his company but had no regrets when he very soon married someone else.
That’s a hat-trick. First up “G”, then Grahame Johnston and then a medical widower specialist who all wanted to marry Brenda Niall – two of whom were from Melbourne Catholic professional families and the other was a Catholic born in New Zealand. None of whom were put off by her cleverness. You get the impression that her heart wasn’t really in marriage.
A SHORT AND (FOR A TIME) SECRETIVE CAREER WITH BOB SANTAMARIA
With one exception, Brenda Niall never worked outside of the academe. When Life Class: The Education of A Biographer was published in 2007, Niall revealed for the first time that she had worked on two occasions for B.A. (Bob) Santamaria (1915-2007). The circumstances are discussed in my book Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man (MUP, 2015).
Some time in the early 1950s, Niall was introduced to Santamaria and was offered a job by him. Niall graduated in March 1952 when her father was dying. Her uncle died soon after. Due to the grief involved, she did not seek employment immediately after graduating and Santamaria’s job offer was her first move into the workforce.
At the time, Santamaria was Director of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action (ANSCA) and the head of the secretive Catholic Social Studies Movement (the Movement). It seems that Niall worked for Santamaria in his ANSCA capacity – although the roles interchanged at times. In 1954, ANSCA was closed and Niall was working for Santamaria in his Movement role. She left following the breakup of her engagement to “G” and, in April 1957, headed overseas for a year on a holiday paid for by her mother.
Soon after Christmas 1958, following her return to Australia, Niall received another job offer from Santamaria – to do some research on his planned biography of Mannix (which was not published until 1984). The Mannix task was not successful and Niall finished up working for Santamaria in Christmas 1962. At page 33, the author reflects on her second period working for Santamaria:
I don’t remember saying goodbye to anyone at Gertrude Street. Apart from Bob and Helen Santamaria. I might wonder about my apparent coldness except that having met Philip Martin and Bob Beveridge again, after a ten-year hiatus, I felt as happily at home with them as I had when we were students.
Philip Martin and Bob Beveridge were one-time student friends and became an academic and public servant respectively. Bob Santamaria was a clever, well-educated man. His wife (who went to Genazzano) was also clever and met her husband while working as a librarian. It would appear that Niall had little time for those less educated and less clever than her. This is what Niall had to say about her first stint as one of Santamaria’s employees:
Bob had two secretaries … They were always pleasant, but I didn’t make friends with either of them, nor with any of the other secretaries. They never spoke about their work, so I got no enlightenment from our lunches together. They did a lot of knitting. The men seemed totally uninteresting. That says more about me than them, and about the male-female divide in the office.
I was never sure what the men did. … they, like Bob, had given up better-paid jobs in order to save the unions – and the nation. … Self sacrificing they may have been, but from my limited observation, I wasn’t impressed.
I know that my own intellectual snobbishness is showing, but I came to feel that if these were our leaders, then where were we going? … As time went by, it became clear to me that Bob outshone the others by far. I wondered why he surrounded himself with men of no ability, and concluded they were all that he could find, given the low wages offered. Much later, I came to question Bob’s ability to cope with his intellectual equals.
Again, there is some truth in this. Like many political organisations of seven decades ago, Santamaria’s ANSCA and Movement were blokey affairs. But, as Niall attests, so was the Newman Society at Melbourne University which consisted of mainly men who were opposed to Santamaria. This is how Niall describes it circa 1955:
… for me and for other women students, the Newman Society wasn’t much more than a social group. Poet and academic Vin Buckley was the guru to whom the younger Catholic male intellectuals deferred. My friends Colin Thornton-Smith and Geoff Brady used to drink with Vin at Naughton’s pub. Because women didn’t go to Naughton’s, or to any pub, I never heard the men discuss religion or politics. We’d be having coffee in the I, after a 3.15 lecture, when Vin would appear and summon the disciples, and Enid Murphy and I would go home. I didn’t think much about our exclusion at the time: it was the way things were.
The point is that Niall does not exhibit contempt for Buckley’s male followers – only for those of Santamaria. Why the difference? Well, virtually none of Santamaria’s followers at the time had been to university.
A FINE BIOGRAPHER BUT A FLAWED HISTORIAN
After leaving Santamaria, Niall took a position at the Australian National University and then moved to Monash University’s English department in January 1964 – where she remained until retirement from academic life in 1995. In between her ANU and Monash appointments, Niall gained a Fulbright Scholarship to Ann Arbor. Then followed other overseas sabbaticals, books and so on – all the hallmarks of a brilliant career. MUP publisher Peter Ryan described her Martin Boyd biography as “bloody marvellous” – it became her PhD and so on and so on.
At times An Accidental Career resembles a boring travelogue – as in the account of the author’s encounter with a chemist shop somewhere in Italy:
At Poggibonsi we scoured the pharmacies. I asked for a cough mixture. The only name I could remember was the favourite Senega and Ammonia. The pharmacist rolled the syllables on his tongue: “Sengamona, sengamona”, as if the sound delighted him, but sadly he didn’t know it. Not that he was daunted. “Tell me what is in it and I will make it up for you” was a nice offer. I tried next day in Ferrara, no luck. I settled for a local choice which wasn’t bad but didn’t do much.
In her penultimate chapter, Brenda Niall discusses her venture into autobiographical history – namely, her books on the Jesuit priest William Hackett SJ, The Riddle of Father Hackett: A Life in Ireland and Australia (National Library of Australia, 2009) and Mannix (Text Publishing, 2015)
Niall, above all, is an English studies academic who translated her skills into telling the stories of novelists, artists and the like. But she has defects as an historian. There were numerous errors in The Riddle of Father Hackett to which I drew Niall’s attention in private correspondence. This was subsequently published in the Correspondence section of The Sydney Institute Quarterly Issue 38, January 2011, and Issue 39, August 2011. In particular, I queried Niall’s claim that “Mannix had all his papers burned so as to frustrate biographers”. Especially since, when Niall worked for Santamaria on the second occasion, she had access to some of Mannix papers in Santamaria’s possession after Mannix the archbishop died. Moreover a brief check at the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission reveals that it has holdings of many Mannix papers.
Niall has not addressed this and other issues. In short, she avoided proving her claims with evidence. The introduction to Mannix commences: ”It took three days to burn his [Mannix’s] private papers, so the legend has it”. But history is supposed to be about facts – not legends. Niall’s Mannix is replete with assertions posing as evidence as is The Riddle of Father Hackett.
In My Accidental Career Niall does not deal with criticism of her work. Readers of her second memoir would get the (false) impression that her history has been unchallenged. However, in My Accidental Career she writes that “despite the bonfire of the [Mannix] papers there was still a formidable archive at St Patrick’s Cathedral” of which she read as much as she could. How could this be the case if Mannix’s private papers were burned on his death at his instructions? Niall does not say. But she tells readers, near the end of An Accidental Career, that she received an “honorary doctorate of letters at Monash University (LLD)… “plus an Order of Australia (AO) conferred in 2004”. So there.
AN AVOIDANCE OF CONFLICT AND PUBLIC DEBATE
Brenda Niall has enjoyed a most successful career. But she rarely, if ever, engaged in the public debate and essentially avoids conflict in this book – stating that she was “never one to make statements of any kind”.
On one occasion Niall refers to a devastating critique she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about “a biography of Margaret Whitlam”. But she does not say who was the author of this work. It was Susan Mitchell and Niall’s review was published in the SMH on 23 October 2006. It’s one of the few occasions in her writing life when she opened up.
Niall complains about a male reviewer who apparently referred to Life Class as “toothachingly dull”. But she does not name names and a web search does not lead to any source. Moreover, this is about the only criticism of Niall found in An Accidental Career – a second memoir which essentially re-tells the rise and rise of Brenda Niall as told in her first memoir.
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Gerard Henderson is the author of Santamaria: A Most Unusual Man (MUP, 2015).