Portrait of the nun as a larrikin activist

Larrikin Angel: A biography of Veronica Brady, by Kath Jordan. Round House Press, South Fremantle, 2009. ISBN 9780980610802

Larrikin Angel, Veronica Brady,ISBN 9780980610802 I have only known Veronica Brady through her public appearances. But she has always intrigued me. A slight woman who took on the ABC, the Howard Government over its treatment of Indigenous Australians, the Pope and Australian Church leaders over their treatment of women, and Australian society over its materialism, she belongs to the long tradition of Australian stirrers.

What is unusual is that she is a woman and a Roman Catholic religious sister who teaches in a university. So when I picked up Larrikin Angel, written by Kath Jordan, her colleague at the University of Western Australia, I hoped to find illumination on how these disparate commitments come together in a remarkable woman.

The biography is engaging. It offers a chronicle of her life from a happy Catholic childhood to her university days and to her decision to join the Loreto Sisters — a decision that surprised many of her friends.

The biography follows her time teaching in schools, post-graduate study in Toronto and her appointment to the English Department at the University of Western Australia. With her colleagues there she promoted the study of Australian literature, and began her contacts with Indigenous Australians.

She spoke at demonstrations against the Federal and State Governments, particularly on Indigenous issues. She spent some years on the Board of the ABC, characteristically in opposition to the directions in which the organisation was being led. She was in demand as a speaker, and found time to write the official biography of Judith Wright.

Kath Jordan describes these commitments in detail. Their breadth seems to derive in part from Brady's generosity in accepting invitations. It led her to march, to speak, to be on boards and to write.

From the autobiography I hoped to learn how this unusual woman gave order to such diverse commitments, and to know the centre that unified them. In particular, as an outsider, I hoped to understand how her religious faith and membership of her religious congregation nourished or stood in tension with her public activities, and how she reconciled scholarly attention to texts with the broad brush rhetoric of political agitation.

It may have been unreasonable to hope for such illumination from the biography of someone still living. As  Jordan remarks more than once, Brady is a private person and does not speak readily of her personal life. So the biographer could rely only on a few poems, a paragraph or two from talks and some precious reminiscences of childhood. The reflective personal correspondence biographers usually draw on to locate the centre of their characters is lacking.

But the opacity of this subject may also owe something to Jordan's slight lack of ease when speaking of religious faith and religious congregations. She is an outsider and seems a little overawed by this world. She speaks collectively of Brady's fellow religious as supportive, conservative or elderly. But we do not learn how the commitments and practices of the convent may have contributed to her public life.

Although the reticence about personal lives is commendable, nevertheless in the biography of any person in public life it is helpful to describe sensitively the structure of their home life and the places where they find energy. These things point to the centre of their lives.

The life of a religious community may be mysterious to us outsiders, but it presumably has an order of time, shared meals, changing preoccuptions, prayer times, and perhaps even ways of praying distinctive to the congregation. How someone negotiates these things may take us close to their centre. In Larrikin Angel we see this negotiation only in the most general terms.

I would also have liked to understand the way in which the intellectual and activist life are joined in Veronica Brady. In her activism she uses large generalisations and striking statements. No problem with that. The difficulty is to reconcile this expressionist use of language with the fastidious attention to words that is the gift of people who focus on texts.

Perhaps this was looking for too much, and indeed that the notion of a personal centre is not helpful. At all events, this biography offers an attractive picture of a courageous woman who responds passionately to the issues of the day.

2004 interview with Veronica Brady (ABC)

Andrena Jamieson is a Melbourne writer.

Topic tags: Andrena Jamieson, Larrikin Angel, Veronica Brady, Kath Brennan, ISBN 9780980610802



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