Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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You escaped your life in Geelong, or left it behind, shrugged it off and went to university in Melbourne. What did that period mean for you in terms of your general development? How much did you miss Geelong and what did you find as an alternative life?

I missed Geelong not at all. I went back in my first vacation and hung about like an unquiet spirit. I hated it. Had nothing to do, no connection with anything, none. It didn't occur to me to see any of my school friends who I'd not seen for a year anyway except at the Boat Race Ball in March or something. I'm surprised, and even shocked, at the firmness with which I left Geelong behind but I had - you see, Morongo was a boarding school and day girls but it wasn't as if I'd gone to Geelong High which was the only high school there and which gave you a nexus of people who remained in situ and you went on socialising with them. That had happened to my two brothers and my sister and superficially I resented the fact I hadn't had a chance to develop that kind of horizontal connection with Geelong through my peers. In reality I didn't mind it at all. I made no effort to keep any of the day girl friends I'd had and I shook Geelong from my feet. In fact I had a strange experience when I went back there, only a couple of years ago. I had to go up to town from Anglesea to Geelong, from Anglesea for a blood test, and the pathology lab was quite close I thought to my father's old factory, so I, the site of my father's old factory, so I parked up there and discovered I had to walk along, I'd been a block out, I had to walk along a long narrow street that ran along the back of St Mary's Cathedral. And I began to walk down this long narrow street with an extremely narrow footpath and six foot high rough paling fences which were leaning out somewhat. You felt that the householders were trying to poach a little bit of extra territory. And there was no vegetation except for the odd dusty dandelion thrusting through the asphalt and it seemed very hot and on the St Mary's side there was a lot of stringy, old, dry bushes that had been allowed to spill out and the road was, the path was too broken to be walked on. And as I walked uneasily along, almost with one foot in the gutter, leaning sideways out from the fence, I was overcome with an extraordinary sort of anxious melancholy, a panicky, claustrophobic sense that I'd never get to the end of this goddamn street, that I was enclosed and trapped. And everything about it seemed redolent with a bad significance and I'd had no idea I'd been so unhappy in Geelong. But it was a kind of distilled message: you hated it here. Specially in those territories which I'd very rarely cross. They were still the outside world that my mother was so afraid of, because they hadn't been tamed by regular usage, so the malevolence seems still there and it continued to pervade Geelong and I think Geelong is a terrifically pretty place. It has beautiful buildings. I think Moorabool Street leaping down to the sea is one of the most exhilarating streets in the world but it's not for me. There is this sense of oppression about it. So I obviously was glad to leave it.

And what did you discover at the university?

Well I discovered on my very - I was put into a room at Women's College, a shared room. The other girl had shared a Shakespeare prize with me, we'd both got, we'd shared the exhibition thing, and that's presumably why they put us in together. She was a very pretty girl and she walked around the room naked, and I thought, streuth [laughs] because that was one thing that, you know, our household had gone in for modesty. So I was very impressed, and she painted, which I was pleased about, and on my first night I was adopted by a slightly older girl and I was at an ALP club meeting and Clyde Holding was the president and it was later Clyde who introduced me to John. You know, I mean, in a second I was absorbed in a quite different world of politics and social action. And meanwhile I went, I was doing History and English, literature was my chief love, I don't quite know why I did History as well, but you could do a combined honours degree. And then I fell out of love with English literature very quickly. The department seemed affected, self-conscious, mentally confused and - except for English language which surprisingly I liked a lot. It was taught by a man called Keith McCartney who was a brilliant lecturer and who managed to make transformation of vowel sounds absolutely compelling. I was very surprised to find I loved it. And I became more and more involved with the History Department which was a curious department because it was - it must have been preposterously accessible to its honours students, because I can remember being on friendly terms, not on student teacher terms, with staff members, certainly by my second year. Going to films with them. We used to have end of year parties for honours students and staff and they were extremely convivial occasions that would go on till very late and possibly the most important thing - the History Department at that point was run by a man called Max Crawford who'd been appointed as a young man with no academic experience really and who turned out to be a great teacher and a great creator of a university department, and a man of singular moral courage. I'd already found him because he'd written a small book called 'The Renaissance and Other Essays' and in HSC, as it is now called, Year, Year 12, whatever they call it, I'd taken the Renaissance as one of my histories and I'd read this book of essays and I had fallen in love with it and with the essays and with the vision of the past having once really been alive, which is a well-kept secret in the writings of most historians, never for a moment believe those characters had been real. And Crawford had the knack of making them real and establishing a connection with you and them, mediated by him. So, and before that, books had been these mysterious things on, in libraries and on shelves but of course you never knew the person who'd written them. They belonged to some godlike breed, they lived in some other place altogether. So for Crawford to exist and be there and be lecturing to me seemed to me quite astonishing. And obviously I must have developed some sense of intellectual discipline at that point too because I seriously embarrassed a very fresh-faced young tutor. They used, they'd train you by letting you give the occasional lecture and this fresh-faced young tutor who's turned into Ken Inglis, K.S. Inglis, gave a lecture on Italian humanists and I'd been wrestling with the humanists, and I hadn't been able to comprehend them. I couldn't get the connections between their different positions, I just had - they were still unmapped, and he mapped them for me. And I stumbled up to him when the lecture was over, obviously glowing, you know, sort of saying, "Mr Inglis, that was just wonderful", and he was utterly taken aback, he's never forgotten it. Scuttled out of the building, you know, but clearly I was then ready to respond to acts of intellectual distinction.

But Crawford did a kinder thing and a more remarkable thing. He was a gentleman, a cultivated gentleman, the first one I had ever seen, because in Geelong we were all philistines and he was prepared to display his cultivation, without condescension, to a provincial girl. You know, the Melbourne History Department was my Paris. I had exactly that sense of an expanding world and another lovely man and his friend took John and me off to their house, fed us a beautiful dinner and then we listened to Wagner till four in the morning, and I had no idea people did that kind of thing. So I had, I had a milieu where a quick tongue was an advantage, instead of viewed as an aggressive weapon, and a lot of people, but most particularly Crawford, who would exhibit, as it were, the graces of a cultivated mind because he properly understood that as one of his duties.

When did you get the idea that you might be one of these people that were opening up the world to you?

Women played a peculiar role in the department at that point. It's a contested role now as things have got more ideologised. I think there was a kind of assumption by the men that women would not achieve high seriousness in scholarship, but that they brought different graces to it. There was a woman called Kathleen Fitzpatrick who's written a book with what I thought was the hilarious title 'Solid Bluestone Foundations' but no one else thought that was funny. My mother always referred to her terrifying corsets as foundation garments, you know, solid bluestone ones would have been something else. It's a charming book and she was an associate professor but she was someone who we all were meant to agree had not fulfilled her real promise. There was that kind of notion. Men were given the scholarships and girls were expected to go on and be tutors. Men were given the scholarships partly because the strong connections were all to England and to Oxford and to Balliol, you know, all-male colleges were a bit of a problem. So, you know there was that kind of orientation of the serious intellectual endeavour but it seemed to me that women were cultivated and permitted to play a kind of - this sounds contemptuous, it's not meant to be, it was a great role to be offered - a kind of salon role. And of course it suited me because I was married to John, I wanted a tutorship and I got one, but I did no research at all because they worked you very hard as a tutor but I also had no ambitions to do any writing or research. I really did see that as a higher kind of destiny I suppose and not one that I wanted.

Not one that you wanted or not one that you felt you could claim?

I didn't want it. I loved teaching. I had the two boys and found the most you have ever felt in that. Nothing seemed half as important as my extraordinary ability to produce these miracles, you know. I didn't want, I had no intention, I mean I had no interest in babies or having babies and people kept watching me for the full nine months waiting for me to develop a maternal instinct. I didn't until they actually appeared and then it was effortless. So I was leading a very happy, a very busy life and I had no interest in retreating, as it would have seemed to me, from the world to do research and I only began to write and to research in history when I saw the writing on the wall, when the boys were adolescent. We were away in America, John took them off to Big Bend, to camp in Texas, to Big Bend to camp for three weeks and I stayed home to write, that was the first decision taken that from now on - I mean, well I'd written an MA on, which turned into 'Ambivalent Conquests', but I'd done that very slowly and, but I had been to Mexico, which it mattered to me a lot.

Can you put your finger on what it was that shifted you from someone content with being a tutor to someone who actually wanted to do something on a bigger scale?

I found I liked writing but it really only was when I saw the hole opening up in my life, of the boys growing up, that I quite consciously shifted stride. You see it was '81, I think, that I had my first publication of an international article and Steve would have been, he was born in 1960, so 21. Gone. And then I was obviously going to have to be a different person, differently engaged.

So you do feel that this choice to, for those years that the boys were growing up, allowing yourself to be in this tutor role with your career, as it were, subordinate to your private life, that that was your choice and not something that arose, even unconsciously in you, out of the expectations of the department as you've described them?

They were also indulgent. If I'd said firmly, I'm going to stop tutoring because I want to do some serious research, I'm confident I'd have got, at least moral support, I wouldn't have got financial support, but I would have got moral support, I believe. I actually think it's a great nuisance and it's very hard on girls but I do think that it is important for quite a few years for there to be no doubt which parent is primarily responsible for the well-being of the children. You know I just - it worked out easily for me because it's what I wanted and I don't - I always had help in the house, I always kept a job, you know, I was tutoring. I would have hated to be home with the kids full time. As it was I paid for the services of someone who was a devoted aunt to them, you know, a loving hearted aunt who brought another family into their milieu. They didn't, I don't think they suffered for it, they don't say they suffered for it. But - and John at that point was the primary bread winner, because he had a more senior position and so he'd decide where we'd go on study leave and so on. I think it would have led to difficulties in our relationship if I had asserted a right to full equality in, say, choices of what place we went. In the same way it would have led to great strains on our relationship if he'd attempted to interfere too far in my basic care of the children, too far, I mean he was a great father but - and he knew quite well that if it came to a choice situation, I'd chose the children, which seems to me the way it ought to be.

You'd looked at your mother's life and you'd looked at your sister's life and you'd said, no way, and yet you married at 20. Very young. Why did you decide to get married so young?

We got sick of the back of the Peugeot. I liked him, I trusted him. I'd already had some relationships that I'd, you know, I'd escaped fairly unscathed but I'd done a lot of scathing. I didn't like that. And his parents, his mother, his father had died - he wanted to marry and to my surprise it made a difference to him. I didn't see why it should make any difference except to placate the oldies, you know, but to him it did. I think he felt a desire for that kind of security probably, you'd have to ask him to be sure, but it felt like that to me. I was taken aback that getting married wasn't just a sop to the others.

What do you think it was that he liked about you? You've told us what you liked about him.

I don't know and I really don't know. He has always said he's never fallen in love with anyone, so I keep threatening him, he'll get bowled over in another five years, he'll destroy himself. No, I don't know. He thought I was physically attractive I suppose.

You don't think it had anything to do with your style of mind?

Well he certainly had a lot of dim women, must have made a change. Possibly, I don't know. He has been of great help to me in cleaning up my thinking. You get sick of losing arguments with logicians and so you tend to think harder and more carefully and now I can probably hold my own. But for a long time I couldn't and that was very useful because historians aren't very careful about clear thinking, I don't think. So - and we've always talked a lot, you know, we've had rocky patches, as people always do, but it always seemed to each of us I think that the commitment to children is a very serious one and you don't rob children of their father or their mother for light reasons.

He's a philosopher. Did he ever teach you?

No, would have been the end of it if he had, wouldn't it? No, no, he was on the Philosophy staff, I never took Philosophy. No, I wouldn't have liked that I don't think.

How quickly did the children come?

Oh not for ages. We were married for five years before I got pregnant. And John, but not me, thought perhaps we'd have a problem when we wanted to have children because he couldn't understand how we'd hadn't managed to have one given our rather primitive contraceptive methods but in fact we got it on the knocker. We were extremely smug. Steve was born on the 19th of November in, just at the end of the examination period, so I could draw breath nicely and then dive into the papers. And Rich was born in Swot Vac, and, you see, you know, the huge privilege I had in having a university job which allowed, you know, had extended vacation periods or non-obligatory teaching periods. And where I had a father of six children, he was my senior lecturer and he would come up with the exam papers with Steve, when I had Steve at home in Eltham. And he would - he came in one boiling hot day and Steve was dying of heat in his little bassinet and this expert father of six rigged him up in a sling of a muslin towel in a flash. And so I had his expertise as practised father on how to deal with small hot babies and they were all pleased, you know. I mean I had no sense of anything - I taught until the last conceivable minute. I was in labour on both occasions before I left the university. It was good.

You said everybody was rather surprised to see you become maternal once the children were born, they hadn't quite expected it.

Well I hadn't shown any interest in children or liking for babies or children at all.

Were you surprised?

I was relieved. I was amazed at the clarity of the feelings, you know, they're - you know those little celluloid dolls used to be around, had lead in the bottom, so that if you bipped them they'd come back up. Well even though I'd obviously seemed quite forceful, I had no sense of being an entity, a moral being if you like, and when I saw Steve, I became one.

What do you mean by that?

Well, I mean that I had a role and a duty and a clarity of purpose I hadn't had before.

And what was that purpose?

To look after that little fella and to make sure he was happy. To make sure no one injured him. To make sure he did as much as possible what he wanted, you know, that I would have to be there, you know, all the usual things. The package deal of obligations. But I had no idea it would be such a delight.

You're somebody who has thought about things and intellectualised things in your life, you know, put sense to them, thought about them, brought the power of intellect to everything that happened to you. Was it harder to do that with the children? Did you find that the emotion...

Oh fascinating. You see I don't like the notion of intellectualisation which seems to leave emotion behind. That it isn't the way it seems to me. It seems to me that intellect is always infused by emotion, otherwise it's mere cerebral exercise, it's eerie stuff. I was astonished and delighted by discovering I was an animal, you know, I was amazed at how well I performed in labour, as if I was born to it. The feeling of athleticism as you produce the baby and help the baby out. It is like discovering that you can speak Chinese or something. You have no idea you could do it and you are doing it. I'd had, at that stage in Melbourne natural childbirth wasn't around but I sought out the one woman who instructed you in techniques and practised them and they seemed to me very good, gave you a sense of control and knowing what was happening. And that was also true with Rich who was born very quickly. And then I was fascinated, I'd be on a tram rushing to get home to Steve and a baby would cry and my breasts would squirt milk in the most ridiculous fashion and I'd be drenched, but I, you know, I found all that absolutely amazing. My body had - you discover your body, I know, through sex, that's true. But this was a whole different discovery of a maternal body that I didn't - and that when they suck at the breast the womb contracts. All those kinds of beautifully wired in things that make it all work, I was very impressed.

When you had raised these beautiful children and you decided that it was now time for you to become a more serious scholar, a more devoted scholar, how did you chose the area of interest that you were going to pursue?

Well the superficial story is the usual one of accident plus career choice plus teaching needs. You know, I'd been lucky, enormously lucky in the person I worked with at Melbourne, where I was first, because there was a man who was a particularly gifted teacher, a man called Laurie Gardiner. I've worked with other people earlier to great advantage but Laurie took me into first year teaching and taught me how to teach and taught me how to examine and to understand that the two activities are absolutely distinct. And he was teaching a course on the expansion of Europe, or the creation of Europe, if you like, and I was allocated an honours segment on the expansion of Europe so there I was with Spaniards heading towards the Americas and I accidentally - John was going on leave, I needed to research a topic to keep me occupied part time while the kids would be at kinder and whatever, first year school. And I began to research on a particular - no, I began to do a man who should have been interesting, was terribly dull - but after four o'clock, every day I would read on Yucatan. Just for an hour, because I'd always liked it, just liked reading about Yucatan. And then I stumbled across this man called Diego de Landa who - I thought there were two of them at first because one man called Diego de Landa had written a marvellously tender recollection of the things of Yucatan describing above all the Maya Indians with such insight and domestic affection for them as well as, you know, he was impressed with their intellectual achievements and so on, but so much of it had to do with the close observations of daily life. How mothers treated their children, for example, and how marvellously plump and pretty the babies were. And then there was this other Diego de Landa who'd led a reign of terror through those provinces when the Franciscan friars who'd been working in the territory thought they discovered evidence of human sacrifice with some periodic Christian additions, like preliminary crucifixion of victims, after these Indians had been officially converted. So they proceeded to punish them, to torture them, to get confessions out of them at any cost. So much so it became a scandal in Spain and was stopped, you know, they, it was a great scandal and a great cruelty. And they were the same men. He had written the tender account after he had left Yucatan having done that and yet he had suppressed all reference to that recrudescence of so called idolatry and to his own role in torturing, leading the campaign of torture against the Indians. So naturally there it was. So it was serendipity but also clearly, as I now know, I've always been interested in extreme behaviour under conditions which can be defined as a kind of war, because these were militant Christians. It was a war against the devil they were waging, and therefore when the chips came down no holds at all were barred. So, it was very seductive and I wrote about Landa and his missionary friars and got my MA from that but one of the examiners, who was an old friend of mine who'd trained in anthropology at Harvard - I'd said, "You know, I've written a paragraph or two on why it was impossible to penetrate the Indians when all we had was Spanish sources" - and he said, "Well I don't see why". And I thought, my golly, perhaps it isn't. So I proceeded to do that.

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