Biography

Vale Leonie Kramer, 1924-2016

Broomstick: Personal Reflections of Leonie Kramer
by Leonie Kramer
Australian Scholarly, 2012, 222 pages, $35.95
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leonie kramerIf Joan Sutherland was a Grand Dame, Leonie Kramer continues as a dame of what seemed, for long years, inexhaustible greatness. Even her bitter opponents awarded her endless compliments, for that is what their criticisms amount to. To dull, leftist academic feminists she was not a woman to be admired, possibly remains so. Along with assertions and allegations naked of fact, and festered with feeble argument and name-calling (“devious”, “authoritarian”, “conservative”) came as well the feigned praise of these same detractors, for she could neither be denied nor ignored. There was also generous praise from people who, at first, might seem unlikely admirers, such as Michael Kirby. She was a teacher of ability, a scholar with a surprisingly slim publications section in her curriculum vitae, and a wife and mother. She was also one of the most outstanding Australian academics of her time, male or female, as well as being successful in many other fields including administration, business and public service. Perhaps that is why the sistercrats disliked her? As she said, “In Australia, nothing fails like success.”

After about ten years of work, “Leonie completed her writing of Broomstick but, with the progression of dementia, became unable to finish the manuscript for publication.” So her daughters Jocelyn and Hilary completed this task and supplied the preface and concluding biographical notes.

Why the title, Broomstick, they ask in their preface. A new broom? One who went where women hadn’t been before, as on a magical broom ride? A witch? In the dedication of his 1893 poems, Francis Thompson mused over what credit “the viol” owed its “witcher” for “the music lay hushed in it”. Leonie Kramer didn’t leave much of the music within her hushed. Patrick White referred to her as “Killer Kramer” and she appears to have delighted in this as she did, mischievously, in a gift, a stuffed toy named Tyrannosaurus Rex. The photograph of her smiling broadly with the creature carries a caption which notes that it was “given to her in acknowledgement of her reputation for ferocity”. She has a fondness for irony and ambiguity.

Leonie Kramer often went where women hadn’t been before. She was the first woman professor (of Australian Literature, appointed 1968 as the second holder of this new chair) and first woman chancellor (1991–2001) at the University of Sydney. First woman chairman, as the position was then called, of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1982–83). Almost certainly she was also the first woman tutor at Melbourne University’s Newman College. Shortly after she graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1945 with first-class honours in English, she was approached by the college’s rector, Jesuit Father Murphy, to tutor English I, II and III. (The Jesuits avoided appointing women to the staff of their all-male Sydney boarding school, St Ignatius College, Riverview, until 1968.) She was also the first woman to chair the board of Quadrant (1986–99).

The first chapter, “Theatre of the Absurd”, deals with her resignation as Chancellor of the University of Sydney in 2001. In a sense this was a case of sabotage by stereotyping. For the feminists and leftist academics who conspired against her, those who may wish to turn the university into a pulpit for proselytising, for propagating post­modernism, it was best first to caricature her as the wrong type of woman. She probably regarded herself, on the occasions when she may so have indulged, as a person. Of course she was a challenge to the groupthink of postmodernism.

There were other commonsense challenges. Lecturing, she thought, was best learnt through practice and mentoring: “[I] still believe that no formal courses in how to lecture can match the honest criticism of an experienced lecturer who has your interests at heart.” But this upset many who viewed it through the suspicious and insecure prism of an inspectorate. Yet inviting an experienced colleague to comment on one’s teaching can provide invaluable opportunities for learning how to improve various aspects, such as attracting students’ attention, explaining a difficult concept, and reinforcing material already presented. Lecturers were, she thought, sometimes show-offs, centred more on themselves than their students. (She regarded the tutorial as better suited for student learning and thought first-year students should have professors as their lecturers.) She feared that Faculties of Education, like most subjects in the humanities, had

fallen victim to fashionable theoretical notions, often imported from overseas and not infrequently when they have already been abandoned … in their countries of origin. Teachers are the victims of these passing side-shows, and have been deprived of the opportunity to expand and stay up-to-date in their teaching subjects.

Not with disapproval, one suspects, she relays this anecdote:

Not long after I joined the University of Sydney, there was a discussion about introducing Sociology into the Faculty of Arts. Professor Bill O’Neill, then Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and formerly Professor of Psychology, remarked that the best argument for the introduction of Sociology was that it would replace Education at the bottom of the Faculty’s pecking order.

Her outspoken views may occasionally have discomfited those comfortable with the given:

I am at present inclined to the view that any course which has the word “Studies” in it, needs close scrutiny. Most such courses provide a little knowledge about a lot of issues, rather than a sound knowledge about the nature of different disciplines.

The book covers her life from schooldays at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melbourne (also the school of the writer known as Henry Handel Richardson, Ethel Richardson, whose work was to become one of Leonie’s special interests) through her studies at Melbourne and Oxford universities and then her career at the University of New South Wales, a Harvard interlude, and the University of Sydney. Her doctoral thesis at Oxford dealt with formal satire in the period 1590–1660. As a result of this work, she developed what she regarded as one of her contributions to her great love, literature.

History, which I approached with a sinking heart, became a new and exciting interest. Drawing on it to illuminate literature, even bad verse, started a whole new train of thought about the interaction of the two subjects, and in particular about the representation in literature of individuals and historical processes. Not much of this was to the fore as I developed the argument of the thesis, but later on it made a significant contribution to incipient concepts of criticism, and authors’ relationships to their characters, and their historical context.

It also helped refine her discernment:

My subject made me something of a specialist in bad verse—a skill which proved invaluable when I began to write criticism and engage in editorial work. The now fashionable doctrine of relativity in literature has not altered my view that the critic’s task is to enable readers to appreciate the qualities of a work, and that it can be demonstrated that there are great writers, and, therefore, there are lesser ones down to the bottom of the ladder.

Despite this role she assigned to the critic, her students were advised to read a novel for themselves before they read any reviews.

The last chapter, the best maybe, deals with the ABC. She had been appointed to the board and as chair during the term of the Fraser government. The restructuring of the organisation in 1983 and the incoming Hawke government meant that she and the whole board were summarily dismissed, and she was replaced by ALP place-men Ken Myer and then David Hill.

She observes how television offered new and promising pathways for those bent on bias:

The advent of television changed the means by which bias was introduced into programs. Words alone no longer created meaning. The invisible and therefore expressionless reader or announcer was neutral, but the screen was alive with images, sometimes starkly and sometimes ambiguous. Perhaps it took a long time for viewers generally to realise that the camera can lie. It was given the benefit of the doubt because its images are so “real”, but by arrangement they can also create a context which misleads.

The camera never lies, or nothing lies like a camera! She analysed bias in its perpetration:

Over time, I’d observed that those [Four Corners programs] which attracted many complaints from the public had certain features in common. An announcer provided theme and set the tone. A supposed expert developed an hypothesis. Subliminal pictorial and musical devices created a hostile atmosphere. Evidence supplied by critics of the subject was treated as valid and truthful. Witnesses for the defence, if there any, were given scant attention.

Shades of Clive Hamilton or Tim Flannery or Eva Cox on Lateline, Insiders or Q&A! And she discerns the root cause of bias:

The virus of postmodernism, with its claim that there is no such thing as objectivity, has undermined traditional values. The idea that an opinion does not have to be supported by evidence relies on the view that there is no such thing as fact—even in history. How the opinion-giver feels—not what he or she can demonstrate—seems to be what matters …

The contemporary conviction that constant change is a virtue, that “moving on” guarantees progress to a better world, has been proved again and again to be self-delusion. Utopianism is indestructible. The same complaints about bias in the ABC continue. Unfortunately, the complacency of the so-called reporters prevents them from mending their ways. Objectivity is out, and subjectivity is a licence to print uninformed opinion, or to deride the search for evidence and historical fact.

On her last page Dame Leonie points to a 2007 Press Council case note, “Facts and Opinions”, regarding the intrusion of opinion into news reports. Given the number of times news readers inform viewers and listeners that minister so-and-so is “expected to announce later today …” perhaps the segment formerly known as News might be now called “Weather and Other Forecasts”, thus avoiding some doublespeak?

Apart from disagreements with some of the author’s views, there are other reasons for regret with her book. The first concerns the omissions. Obviously more details and some names might have been included in the strong first chapter on her forced resignation as chancellor. Was, for example, the deputy chancellor involved? Something on the affair regarding the Demidenko/Darville Hand That Signed the Paper novel receiving the Miles Franklin Award might have been welcome; so too might reflections on the Quadrant wars, which overlap with Demidenko and which saw the replacement of Robert Manne as editor with Paddy McGuinness.

The editors note that, despite representations to the contrary, the book contains little on “the family that enabled and supported her public life. All along she kept her family life private, safeguarding it from the glare of publicity.” Yet chapters two to ten and the photographs provide glimpses of early domestic life.

An index would have assisted this reader, who kept wondering, What are the sources for this? Memory? Diaries? Official records, personal recollections, and those of family and close friends? These are regrettable omissions, but scarcely fatal ones.

Those who knew and admired Leonie Judith Gibson Kramer will appreciate these reflections; those who do not know of her may be impressed by her life, one where the best, excellence, was nearly always pursued, and one of wide-ranging public service. (Her detractors probably will not bother with the book.) The incomplete list of her appointments, which the editors provide, mentions thirty associations, council, boards and so on. (It misses, for instance, the New South Wales Board of Studies.) To the bodies listed she gave an aggregated 176 years of service in a life that began, ordinarily enough, in Melbourne in 1925.

Gregory Haines, a pharmacist and historian, reviews occasionally in Quadrant.

1 comment
  • padraic

    Condolences to the family of this great Australian. Her comments on the 4-Corners and postmodernism are spot on. 4-Corners is a political version of the commercial TV caring/sharing stuff, but more dangerous because they interfere arrogantly in other countries’ internal affairs as if they are the new colonialists. I look forward to reading her book.

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