TEXT review


Flying high

review by Laurie Hergenhan

 

Leonie Kramer
Broomstick: Personal Reflections of Leonie Kramer
Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne 2012
ISBN: 978-1-9221875-84-7
Pb 222pp AUD49.95

 

This book does not belong to the genre of memoir or autobiography as one might expect from the title, though it draws selectively on both. Its genesis, described in a Preface by Kramer’s two daughters, is complicated. Kramer began work on the book on retirement in 2002, intending to write a series of essays on educational change, based on some sixty years experience in the field, but she later decided to include ‘some of her personal history … intended only as the context for the ideas, not the substance of the book’ (ix). Later still, ‘the project evolved to become broader than a personal view of educational changes’ (ix). The altering conception of the work was further complicated by the onset of the author’s dementia. This left her daughters and friends to finalise publication.

Kramer’s highly selective ‘personal history’ is limited to an outline of her growing up in Kew, Melbourne; her education at Presbyterian Ladies’ College; her university studies at Melbourne, specialising in literature and philosophy; and her doctorate at Oxford, which allowed for student travels around Britain and ‘the continent’. This history is obviously not intended to be in-depth. Kramer alludes to her challenges in writing personal reminiscences, by offering as exemplar of the genre, the autobiography of Hal Porter: he uses ‘the language and rhythms of poetry; while the rest of us have only the inadequate equipment of plain prose’ (13).  Kramer’s aim is to record rather than to recreate. Hence, while possessing the virtues of lucidity and straightforwardness, the narrative of Broomstick lacks vividness and inwardness. The overall tone is detached and reticent.

Curiously Kramer leaves out much that is personal. Her two daughters are mentioned only on their arrival in the world as babies. The daughters supply a biographical note on their father, a distinguished medico, adding that Kramer ‘could not have achieved what she did without her late husband’s encouragement and quiet unobtrusive presence’ (xi). Indeed, any suggestion of personal narrative is dropped half way through the book in favour of a series of essays covering Kramer’s public career.    Two comments arise: why did such context become unimportant? Moreover, Kramer’s public life is not notable for originality of ‘ideas’, either on education or literature, her two main fields. Her middle class background and education up to and including Oxford might be seen as the story of the making of a conservative. If expressed with flair, it is a conservatism of the conventional kind:

From the 1960’s onwards, the word

conservative became a pejorative term, and those of us who challenged the progressive movement were caricatured as people afraid of change, determined to freeze the past and to allow its mistakes to disappear from memory, so as better to retain only the sentimentalised dream of an imagined paradise lost. In fact, we conservatives were reformers, and our opponents did not recognise that the concept of conservatism was an intellectual position with a distinguished philosophical history. (24)

This statement typifies Kramer’s combative nature, a tendency to see life in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’.  Increasingly, after the changes of the 1970’s, which she disparages, many came to see her conservatism as reactionary. She makes no allowance for this in her defensive accounts of her loss of the Chancellorship of the Sydney University and of chairmanship of the ABC. These two turning points of her life serve to ‘bookend’ Broomstick, and they are defiantly blamed on others.

If Kramer’s ideas were not original her public expression of them, in print and on TV, was outstandingly effective so that she became an influential public figure. Admirers were impressed by the elegant, lucid and detached expression of her views. She was witty (at times mischievous), coolly logical, even steely, as well as articulate and agile in debate – a doughty combatant.  Kramer sat on numerous boards and committees.

An impressive list of these, covering the worlds of business and culture, is provided in her daughters’ condensed ‘Biographical Notes’. How did Kramer cope with all these demands? Her daughters’ answer is: ‘Leonie chose to accept every invitation that came her way’ (x). Yet, generous as she may have been, she obviously welcomed these requests because they provided outlets for exercising her persuasive powers and influence. More an outstanding committee person than a scholar, for a long timed she was one of the few women fulfilling such a public role, beginning as Professor of Australian literature in 1968. She was not, however, a feminist.

It is interesting to note what is omitted from the list of her public achievements. As well as introducing the first major in Australian literature at Sydney University against fierce opposition, she and writer-academic Professor Michael Wilding introduced the first Australian university course in Australia in creative writing, in the 1970s.  Kramer used her influence to delay the decision of the Literature Board to cut off its subsidy to Australian Literary Studies, the first scholarly journal in the field. Such undisclosed interventions may not be among Kramer’s major achievements but they do show that she took her custodial role seriously.

Broomstick is restricted by the circumstances of its composition and by the limits its author set herself. The book nevertheless has much to offer future biographers and social historians.

 

 

Laurie Hergenhan, emeritus professor of Australian literature, University of Queensland, edited Australian Literary Studies from its inception in 1963 until 2001. 2013 marks its 50th year.

 

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Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
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