Lady Historian and Pro-Communist Patrician

Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass


Biography of Kathleen Fitzgerald

Elizabeth Kleinhenz: A Brimming Cup: The Life of Kathleen Fitzpatrick. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2013.

ISBN: 978-0-522-86488-5

RRP: $34.99 (also available as an ebook)

The Brimming Cup’ is the title of an unpublished manuscript (often rejected) of a critical work on Henry James, written by the subject of this biography, Kathleen Fitzpatrick. While it is a pretty title for the biography, it is perhaps less than apposite. The life of Kathleen ‘Battie’ (for ‘Battler’) Fitzpatrick was, it seems to this reader, far from brimming: brimming over with others’ agendas perhaps.

Solid Bluestone Foundations and Other Memories of a Melbourne Girlhood (1998), an autobiography by Fitzpatrick, was immensely popular, especially in reading groups. It surveyed her girlhood and early adulthood. This biography covers some of those events but also explores later ground, especially her failed marriage to Brian Fitzpatrick, her life as a university lecturer after divorce, her old age and death. Brian Fitzpatrick, a journalist and economic historian, was like her, a second generation Irish Australian, but much more sentimental about Ireland, who during his time as her husband did not always win his battle with alcohol.

It’s a tale of an Australia which has disappeared – bourgeois, genteel (be-hatted and gloved), learned after its own fashion, but also full of patrician pro-communists. I’ve often met women (and occasionally men) like Batty, but they belong to another century in their adherence to etiquette and to a kind of intellectual elitism, not to say snobbishness. They can defend the proletariat without at all wanting to be part of its struggle. The beginning of European migration after the war, the Whitlamisation of politics, the gender revolution of the late ’60s, and a broader definition of what it is to be Australian and a woman, seem to have marked the passing of such folk.

The story of Kathleen Fitzpatrick is the story of middle class privilege and the University of Melbourne. The solid bluestone foundations of her life were provided by her grandfather, J R Buxton of Melbourne real-estate fame. He had built an Italianate mansion, Hughenden, (named after Disraeli’s house) on Beaconsfield Parade, South Melbourne for his Irish wife, Mary (‘Polly’) O’Brien. (It seems that as a city councillor, he may have had naming rights to the street). The name honoured Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, and was an appropriate adjunct to his grand house. It survives. Kathleen’s mother, Gertrude ‘Plum’ Buxton, married Harry Pitt who would, much later, have a distinguished career in the Treasury of the Victorian Public Service and so add to Kathleen’s own wealth. But she grew up in modest if comfortable circumstances, having to make her own way as a career woman, a ‘lady’ historian. She did not come into that money until after she had made a moderately distinguished career as a historian at the University of Melbourne. There was another Irish strand to the family, the pub side, which was quixotically named ‘Bleak House’, presumably because her uncle (via his grandfather) loved Dickens, but also after the winds that swept in from the Antarctic to the foreshore at South Melbourne.

Class  plays a big role in this story. Kleinhenz casts light on how seamlessly the trappings of wealth and privilege were joined to notions of scholarship, an assumption that can no longer be made. Kathleen and her husband, Brian Fitzpatrick, and Professor Max Crawford, in his early years, were instrumental in shaping a world that was more in tune with Marxist thinking on class, and that contributed to building a more democratic Australia. Kleinhenz sees the Moscow-friendliness as being connected to the Fitzpatricks’ Irishness. Despite her left-leaning liberalism, Kathleen was very much a grande dame, a prima donna. She even had a faux-Oxford accent, which sounds like a different kind of formation from an Irish one. She was certainly a woman of many parts and contradictions. She would eventually became a formidable and irritable old lady, with a great deal of hauteur, standing well above the hoi-polloi.

The story of Kathleen’s education and subsequent rise and rise in the History department at the University of Melbourne is the main burden of this biography, and it is one that is instructive of how gender expectations have changed in the few short decades since the 1930s.

University of Melbourne

As the daughter of a gentleman, educated in the Catholic system at Presentation Convent Windsor, and in her final two years at Protestant Lauriston which prepared girls for matriculation, she was well prepared for the University of Melbourne, where she shone. But she was not as brilliantly prepared for Oxford, her next educational destination. Kleinhenz cleverly parallels her path through her second undergraduate degree with that of Max Crawford, the man who would become her boss. They were near contemporaries and had identical trajectories. He graduated from Oxford with a first class degree, by dint of much support (this was automatic for those perceived as potential male leaders of Empire); the best tutors and male confidence. By the age of 30, he was a Professor of History. Feeling colonial and gauche, Kathleen had to endure much British snobbishness from her tutors, and failed to finish because of illness (exacerbated by poverty – she could not afford the heating). She was to become Professor Crawford’s ‘wife’ at work, the kind of departmental hack who works selflessly, fills in when convenient, defers study leave, cleans up, and fails to reap rewards. She was deeply wounded when the boss, whom she had served loyally and with whom she enjoyed a great deal of intimacy (possibly short of sexual), married a close friend, having kept the liaison secret from her. She was the first woman at an Australian university to become an Associate Professor in 1948 at the age of 42.

Kleinhenz, the biographer, makes much of Kathleen as an academic and a teacher –‘the most respected female academic at the University of Melbourne in the 1940s and 1950s’, she claims (p 277). While it is difficult to argue with the profusion of testimonials (which surfaced when she published Bluestone Foundations), it seems that the teaching was largely a matter of genteel and mannered performance rather than a deep interest in students or original scholarship, which are the modern criteria by which such a career is judged. I am not a Melbourne graduate, but I remember the era of dramatic female lecturers (at the University of Queensland twenty years later): they relied heavily on costume (Kathleen dressed well and sported signature camellias on her academic gown for her lectures) and beauty, on measured and theatrical delivery, and their scarcity value. So, I’m skeptical about Kleinhenz’s fulsome claims. Certainly, she produced grateful students who did well (mainly male ones), but presumably other factors and other teachers also played their part. Her legacy as a researcher is also rather thin. She was criticised by publishers’ readers as un-original. Her book on Martin Boyd was slight, and evaluative rather than penetrating, and might have served a revival of interest in him, but didn’t. That waited on Brenda Niall and Dorothy Green. However, it seems that she probably oiled the cogs of the History Department in a very self-sacrificing manner for decades. In signing up to the job at Melbourne, she effectively guaranteed her boss, who subsequently may well have become the love of her life, that re-marriage (she was divorced) and children were not in her life-plan. That such a demand could be made would now be considered intolerable. The casual sexism and exploitation experienced by women like Kathleen, and able contemporaries like Margaret Kiddle, does not surprise me, but it nonetheless shocks me.

More interesting to me is her conflicted attitude to feminism – she belongs firmly to first wave equality campaigners, and resisted, even refused, second wave with its greater focus on systemic oppression. She certainly earned her stripes as a feminist: she supported women in the academy by establishing and serving on the board of the University Women’s college, and she fought for better pay and conditions for women during and after the second world war. But she was gender blind about systemic bias against women. Although the evidence of her life suggests otherwise, she did not feel oppressed or unequal as a woman.  What is not adequately explained to me is why she knocked back a certain professorship (offered by Crawford). One can only speculate, as Kleinhenz does, that it was maidenly modesty and lack of confidence in her own academic ability (the reason she articulated to the Professor and the Vice-Chancellor). I’d suggest two other factors: one, her upbringing as a Catholic woman by nuns who typically ingrained humility and kept control by such means; and secondly, her failure to experience in full the life of an academic, with its attendant obligation, and acres of time, to research and write. The second factor was probably more important: the administrative role forced upon her by Crawford, the person who most profited from her role as hand-maiden to the great man, seems to me to have been her main contribution as an academic, and not her teaching or research, which she did slowly, and mostly after retirement. Kept in the back room, she paid a high price for power. One wonders if Max Crawford might have made fewer ignominious capitulations to anti-communist pressure if he had had Kathleen to consult and advise.

This book gives a fascinating insight into pre- and post-war Melbourne and university politics in this era. Locals will love the bit-parts that swan across Kathleen’s stage – Barry Humphries, Manning-Clark, Zelman Cowan, John La Nauze, Vincent Buckley and Frank Knopfelmacher, and many more. She also had a fine gift for forming women’s friendships: old school or uni chums, and her sister, Lorna, who married an Italian and lived most of her life in Italy, occasioning much angst when Mussolini was in charge.

Kleinhenz is maybe a tad too much in love with her subject, a forgivable flaw in a biographer, but she does give us a wonderfully nuanced woman for whom one can feel a modulated measure of pity mixed with qualified admiration.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is on the editorial team at Tinteán, and taught in universities for nearly forty years.

2 thoughts on “Lady Historian and Pro-Communist Patrician

  1. I am puzzled by the title of this review – “Lady Historian and Patrician Communist”. Is there any evidence that KF was a Communist?

  2. It might be a tad sensationalistic, David, and you prompt a change! Plenty of evidence of her as an armchair socialist and a pro-communist, but not a member of CPA as far as I could see. Watch this space!

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