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Wren-Hardy stoush exposes sectarian bigotry


Power Without GloryWhen the sons of Melbourne Catholic sports promoter and businessman John Wren took communist author Frank Hardy to court in 1951 over the portrayal of their mother in the novel Power Without Glory, it set in play a sensational nexus of political and cultural issues that still captures popular and academic imagination.

Debate ranges across many disciplines from literary questions about representation and reality in fiction, to political issues such as the Cold War and the ALP split, to moral issues such as free speech and artists' rights.

The novel's merit is still hotly contested. Popular opinion is diverse and skeptical. Academics conversely betray shades of indulgent affection towards Hardy as a working class 'genius', given the longstanding de facto segue between Marxism and Australian cultural production, and bestow upon Power Without Glory a mythic credibility.

It was recently cited as 'evidence' about the ALP and Wren, rather than as fiction, in a major Australian refereed political journal.

Hardy was no victim. He coasted for the rest of his working life — later, more creatively adept novels and his commitment to land rights issues notwithstanding — upon the impetus of the 1951 trial. The only losers were Wren and his family, as Hardy's acquittal ensured his narrative stuck to Wren, despite all major archival sources refuting the charges of murder, armed robbery and so on that Hardy freely and casually attributed to Wren.

The Wrens lacked the profile and presence of the author and remain marginalised.

A 1961 letter published in Patrick Morgan's 2007 collection of B. A. Santamaria's correspondence casts new light on Power Without Glory, but has not been used by present day advocates of either Wren — James Griffin — or Hardy — Jenny Hocking, nor has it informed any academic publications so far.

The letter to Father Courtney, a priest based in New Guinea, who enquired about Church policy on the novel, explains the trial in some detail. Given that Archbishop Mannix was still alive and in close contact with Santamaria, the letter may also reflect the Archbishop's position.

Santamaria stated that the Archbishop 'or anybody else who was libelled in the course of the writing' was unable to successfully issue a writ for defamation as Hardy would be able to plead 'fair comment' and the jury would have to be convinced that Hardy acted out of malice.

Santamaria is not a neutral commentator, but certainly understood the strategic implications of the trial better than the Wrens. As masters of using new electronic media for their own ends, Santamaria and Hardy were evenly matched opponents. Conversely John Wren junior's preface to Hugh Buggy's personal recollections of Wren's life is riven with despairing incomprehension as he seeks to talk down the authority and allure of the moving image in the guise of the 1976 Power Without Glory television series.

Wren's son saw the family's reputation publicly crucified again in suburban households across Australia and seemed unable to rise to defend his father against the charisma of Hardy's interpretation.

Santamaria demystifies several features of the case. The unusual charge of criminal libel was chosen because of the difficulty in proving malice and the likelihood of a failed case creating greater publicity for the novel. At the same time 'the attack which was made upon Mrs Wren' was considered to 'go beyond civil libel'. Ironically the criminal libel case had the same effect as had been predicted for a civil case.

Nationwide publicity in 2006 for Jenny Hocking's biography of Hardy made much of the 'discovery' that Hardy sourced his descriptions of the Wren household and family life from Angela, Wren's youngest daughter. Santamaria's letter showed the Wrens and church circles already knew at the time that one of Wren's children had passed 'a good deal of information' to Hardy, feeding him 'a grossly garbled version of 'facts''.

The most compelling aspect of Santamaria's letter is his foregrounding of sectarianism as a driver of the trial and Power Without Glory's scandalous success.

He claims that the family hesitated in pursuing the case because they feared that sectarian bigotry would derail it. Wren would be identified as guilty, whatever his actual character and deeds, in order to attack Catholics both personally and institutionally. Hardy would be acquitted not because of his communism or to defend civic freedoms, but because he was attacking a prominent Catholic and, by implication, the Church itself.

Given this tangible danger, with misguided chivalry, Wren's sons, middle-aged men in the 1950s, a decade steeped in polarised visions of female sexual proprietary (shared by Catholics and Protestants), could not overlook the insult to their loved and highly pious mother. They went into court for her, pursing a cause that they suspected may have little chance of success.

The letter complicates the link made recently by Jeff Sparrow, Frank Brennan and others between the Irish Australian Catholic community of the 19th and early 20th century and present day Islamic communities. This argument states that, in different eras, Muslims and Catholics have been maligned and accused of working by violent means against the interests of the Australian state.

If one advocates natural justice for wrongly-pilloried ethnic groups, then the Power Without Glory trial ought to be read, at least partly, as a high-profile, effective and long lasting punishment meted out to traitors to a so-called Australian normality. Santamaria claims that 'the press wrote up the case in a way designed to excite public sympathy for somebody attacking Catholics. The jury did the rest.'

To question whether bigotry lent popular credibility to Power Without Glory and drove the jury's decision to acquit Hardy, to reposition the trial as a concrete expression of sectarianism, means that Hardy's acquittal and the campaign to defend the novel partly belong to mid 20th century Australia's strong anti-Catholic undertow.

Thus ironically the movement to defend Hardy, free speech and creative rights, which became a de facto birth moment of the expanding postwar Australian cultural and intellectual schist, also reveals a desire to silence an unwanted Other.

As well as supporting Hardy's exposure of social and political corruption, the campaign to ensure Power Without Glory's free circulation simultaneously belongs to the world of the oppressive conformity that upholds discrimination against those not deemed as belonging to 'Australia'.

Juliette PeersJuliette Peers is an art, design and cultural historian and lecturer in the School of Architecture and Design and School of Fashion and Textiles, RMIT University.

Topic tags: Juliette Peers, Power Without Glory, Frank Hardy, John Wren, B. A. Santamaria



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Existing comments


Cassandra | 06 August 2010  

One big factor that Hardy had working for him was the Communist Party of Australia propaganda appartus. In the late 1940s/early 1950s the CPA had influence within many, what they called, mass movements. The movements themselves may not have had many members, eg the Union of Australian Women, the Fellowship of Australian Writers, but they were a valuable source of contacts into other areas of Australian social and cultural life. The Wren boys (?) had no idea what they were up against. They were badly advised legally. But as a solicitor friends said to me once: "Your barrister will always tell you you have a strong case. What he won't tell you is, your opponent has an even stronger one."
Of course Hardy was malicious. The party he belonged to was malicious. But there were enough people other than communists who resented the rise and rise of a predominantly catholic middle class that they were not too fussed if one of its colourful parvenus met his comeuppance.

Uncle Pat | 06 August 2010  

I was a teenager in high school in the 1950s, and vividly remember the bitter sectarianism of those years. While there have been numerous academic studies of Santamaria and the NCC, there is a dearth of independent research into Communist activities within the ALP, and the activities of other Christian denominations. To take this further, where are the academic studies of the influence of the Masons and of the Orange Order throughout the history of European settlement in Australia?

I'm very happy that the old enemities have been largely put to rest, but the historical record needs to cover all groups that had a significant influence in the making of the modern nation.

Anne | 06 August 2010  

I read with interest - have a connection to the Hardys, and can leave Power without Glory where it is, despite the controversy it was a great story, the writing is great as is all Frank's writing, stories, poems and his involvement with the Lingiari clan, keep reading, margaret

margaret o'reilly | 06 August 2010  

Interesting history but appalling equivalence between Catholics and Islam. The author odiously implied the concern about Islamic violence is as disproportionate as sectarian ones in the 1950's. Perhaps a thorough accounting and quantification (a tool of a rigorous historian) of real and imagined violence of these kinds would be salutary. In the age of Google lists are easy to come by.

It is obscenely ignorant of Muslim uniqueness, to apply this equivalence given the Quran is 'an eternal word,' in the way the living person of Jesus is to Christians. It suggests Muslims are really just like Christians really and should read the Quran as we do the Bible. That their cultural distinctiveness does not flow from their religious commitment and interpretation of the Quran but is a perversion of their religion. That denunciations of democracy, human rights, and Jews together with its traditions of Jihad are all just figments of a xenophobic Australian imagination. Attempts to contextualise the violent passages and totalitarian nature of the Quran have been tried and failed. The Mu'tizilites lost.

I prefer to read how Muslims interpret their own religion as examined by an expert on Islam, Dr. Mark Durie below.


Martin Snigg | 06 August 2010  

it would have been helpful if Santamaria's letter had been quoted or hyperlinked so the reader could see these instances of bigotry

Walter P Komarnicki | 07 August 2010  

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