11 minute read

Thomas (Michael) Keneally Biography

Thomas Keneally comments:

Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 1935. Education: St. Patrick's College, Strathfield, New South Wales; studied for the priesthood 1953-60, and studied law. Military Service: Australian Citizens Military Forces. Family: Married Judith Mary Martin in 1965; two daughters. Career: High school teacher in Sydney, 1960-64; lecturer in drama, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, 1968-69; lived in the U.S., 1975-77; visiting professor of English, University of California, Irvine, 1985; Berg Professor of English, New York University, 1988. Member: Australia-China Council, 1978-83; member of the advisory panel, Australian Constitutional Commission, 1985-88; member, Australian Literary Arts Board, 1985-88; president, National Book Council of Australia, 1985-89; chairman, Australian Society of Authors, 1987. Awards: Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1966, 1968, 1972; Miles Franklin award, 1968, 1969; Captain Cook Bicentenary prize, 1970; Royal Society of Literature Heinemann award, 1973; Booker prize, 1982; Los Angeles Times award, 1983;. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1973, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993; Officer, Order of Australia, 1983. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Rogers, Colleridge and White, 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.



The Place at Whitton. Melbourne and London, Cassell, 1964; NewYork, Walker, 1965.

The Fear. Melbourne and London, Cassell, 1965; as By the Line, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989.

Bring Larks and Heroes. Melbourne, Cassell, 1967; London, Cassell, and New York, Viking Press, 1968.

Three Cheers for the Paraclete. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1968;London, Angus and Robertson, and New York, Viking Press, 1969.

The Survivor. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1969; London, Angus and Robertson, and New York, Viking Press, 1970.

A Dutiful Daughter. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, andNew York, Viking Press, 1971.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Sydney and London, Angus andRobertson, and New York, Viking Press, 1972.

Blood Red, Sister Rose. London, Collins, and New York, VikingPress, 1974.

Moses the Lawgiver (novelization of television play). London, Collins-ATV, and New York, Harper, 1975.

Gossip from the Forest. London, Collins, 1975; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1976.

Season in Purgatory. London, Collins, 1976; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1977.

A Victim of the Aurora. London, Collins, 1977; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1978.

Passenger. London, Collins, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1979.

Confederates. London, Collins, 1979; New York, Harper, 1980.

The Cut-Rate Kingdom. Sydney, Wildcat Press, 1980; London, AllenLane, 1984.

Schindler's Ark. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1982; as Schindler's List, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982.

A Family Madness. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985; NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1986.

The Playmaker. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Towards Asmara. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989; as To Asmara, New York, Warner, 1989.

Flying Hero Class. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Warner, 1991.

Woman of the Inner Sea. N.p., Doubleday and Hodder, 1992; NewYork, Plume, 1993.

Jacko. N.p., Heinemann, 1993.

A River Town. London, Reed Books, 1995; New York, N. A. Talese, 1995.

Bettany's Book. New York, Bantam, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Performing Blind Boy," in Festival and Other Stories, edited by Brian Buckley and Jim Hamilton. Melbourne, Wren, 1974; Newton Abbot, Devon, David and Charles, 1975.


Halloran's Little Boat, adaptation of his novel Bring Larks and Heroes (produced Sydney, 1966). Published in Penguin Australian Drama 2, Melbourne, Penguin, 1975.

Childermass (produced Sydney, 1968).

An Awful Rose (produced Sydney, 1972).

Bullie's House (produced Sydney, 1980; New Haven, Connecticut, 1985). Sydney, Currency Press, 1981.

Gossip from the Forest, adaptation of his own novel (produced 1983).


The Priest (episode in Libido), 1973; Silver City, with Sophia Turkiewicz, 1985.

Television Writing (UK): Essington, 1974; The World's Wrong End (documentary; Writers and Places series), 1981; Australia series, 1987.


Ned Kelly and the City of Bees (for children). London, Cape, 1978;Boston, Godine, 1981.

Outback, photographs by Gary Hansen and Mark Lang. Sydney andLondon, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.

Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime, with Patsy Adam-Smith andRobyn Davidson. London, BBC Publications, 1987; New York, Facts on File, 1989.

Child of Australia (song), music by Peter Sculthorpe. London, FaberMusic, 1987.

Now and in Time to Be: Ireland and the Irish, photographs by PatrickPrendergast. N.p., Panmacmillan, n.p., Ryan, and n.p., Norton, 1992.

The Great Shame: A Story of the Irish in the Old World and the New. Milsons Point, New South Wales, Random House, 1998; published as The Great Shame, and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-speaking World, New York, Nan A. Talese, 1999.


Manuscript Collections:

Mitchell Library, Sydney; Australian National Library, Canberra.

Critical Studies:

Thomas Keneally by Peter Quartermaine, London, Arnold, 1991.

Theatrical Activities:

Actor: FilmsThe Devil's Playground, 1976; The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, 1978.

(1972) I would like to be able to disown my first two novels, the second of which was the obligatory account of one's childhood—the book then that all novelists think seriously of writing.

I see my third novel as an attempt to follow out an epic theme in terms of a young soldier's exile to Australia.

The fourth and fifth were attempts at urbane writing in the traditional mode of the English novel: confrontations between characters whose behaviour shows layers of irony and humour, in which all that is epic is rather played down.

For A Dutiful Daughter, the best novel I have written (not that I claim that matters much), I have turned to myth and fable, as many a novelist is doing, for the simple reason that other media have moved into the traditional areas of the novel.

(1986) I can see now that a great deal of my work has been concerned with the contrast between the new world—in particular Australia—and the old; the counterpoint between the fairly innocent politics of the new world and the fatal politics of Europe. One of the most remarkable phenomena of my lifetime has been the decline of both the British Empire and the European dominance in the world. As a colonial, I was just getting used to these two phenomena and adjusting my soul to them when they vanished, throwing into doubt the idea that artists from the remote antipodes must go into the northern hemisphere to find their spiritual source and forcing me to reassess my place in the world as an Australian.

Blood Red, Sister Rose, for example, concerned a European aboriginal, a potent maker of magic, Joan of Arc. Gossip from the Forest concerned the war, World War I, by which Europe began its own self destruction. These books are characteristic of my middle period, the historical phase, when in a way, coming from a fairly innocent and unbloodied society, I was trying to work Europe out. There was some of this too in Schindler's Ark. In my last book, A Family Madness, you have Australian ingenuousness and the ancient, complicated and malicious politics of Eastern Europe standing cheek by jowl.

I feel it is significant that A Family Madness is set in 1985. I believe the historic phase is nearly over for me and was merely a preparation for the understanding of the present. Time—and future work—will tell.

* * *

Within the past two decades, Thomas Keneally has evolved from one of Australia's best-known and most prolific writers to a novelist with a worldwide following. Even before The Great Shame, his recent historical work, Keneally had worked extensively with material from Australia's past. But his body of work is noteworthy for its range of material. He has written on subjects as varied as Joan of Arc, the American Civil War, the Holocaust, and contemporary Africa. However diverse the material, Keneally brings a consistently humanistic point of view, an eye for accuracy of detail, and a knack for engaging storytelling, all of which account both for his wide readership and critical acclaim.

The novels set in colonial Australia are built around cultural conflict. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a fictional meditation on a real event in Australian history, is about the ritualistic murder of a white woman by the title character, an aborigine desperately trying to resist the imposition of European ways. Keneally resists the temptation to make Jimmy and his rage understandable to his readers; instead he takes pains to distance reader and character, an effect that is discomforting but true to the material. Australia's relation to Britain provides the setting for The Playmaker (adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker for the stage as Our Country's Good). Keneally uses a seemingly insignificant detail from the history of the Sydney Cove prison and converts it into a compelling metaphor for his country's birth. When an idealistic British officer is asked to stage Farquhar's restoration comedy The Recruiting Office with a cast of convicts, he, they, and we come to a new understanding of the meaning of human dignity and freedom. The Australian setting is also dominant in Woman of the Inner Sea, whose sophisticated heroine, having lost her two children in a fire, finds in the basic values of the Outback the strength to confront her grief and throw off her unwarranted guilt. Again in A River Town, Keneally uses the origin of a rural settlement to convey the essential identity of Australia: outcasts coming together to form a community and, through their diversity, to define a national character.

When it is not his primary setting, Australia is often involved indirectly in Keneally's novels, as in Passenger, in which the story of an Irish girl's pregnancy is narrated by her unborn child. While living in London, she is writing a historical novel about a group of Irish prisoners being transported to Australia for their part in the Rebellion of 1798. The determination of the fetal narrator to survive parallels that of the Irish rebels, and, in fact, the birth eventually does take place in Australia. The influence of history is also apparent in A Family Madness, in which an Australian worker falls in love with his boss's daughter and becomes involved with their haunted past in Byelorussia during World War II. Keneally uses the double plot structure again in To Asmara, in which the Eritrean guerrilla war against Ethiopia mirrors the prior struggles of the main character, the journalist Darcy, to reconcile his European heritage with his determination to help the Australian tribes. In all these novels Keneally's native Australia is a vital presence regardless of where the story takes his characters.

When Keneally chooses historical material from foreign sources, the effect is usually less engaging. Blood Red, Sister Rose, his version of the Joan of Arc legend, and Confederates, set in Northern Virginia during the summer of 1862, both feature typical Keneally heroes—realistically earthy characters caught up in the historical moment—but despite a wealth of historical detail, neither the Maid of Orleans nor the Virginian farmer-turned-soldier really seem to live in their respective worlds. Even Stonewall Jackson, who figures prominently in Confederates, has more Australian pluck than Southern grit in him.

Two novels dealing with twentieth century world wars, on the other hand, display considerable insight and power. The diplomats in Gossip from the Forest, gathered at Compiegne in the fall of 1918 to negotiate an armistice, are compelling characters. The cultured German delegate, Matthias Erzbergen, finds himself in an impossible political bind as he tries to deal with the imperious Marshall Foch, who takes full advantage of his superior position. The tenuous political alliances of the period are reflected in the negotiations at Compiegne, with the tragic realization that an opportunity for lasting peace is lost and another war becomes inevitable. Of greater scope is Schindler's List, the story of a Catholic industrialist who ran an arms factory using Jewish workers from concentration camps. The Oskar Schindler of Keneally's novel is as enigmatic as the man seems to have been in life, conveying no sense of high moral principle even though he was saving hundreds of Polish Jews by convincing the gullible Nazis that his factory's productivity depended on their labor. The narrative voice in Schindler's List, like that of Jimmie Blacksmith, is detached and distant, as if Keneally is determined to allow Schindler to maintain his privacy, a hero we need not like or even understand. This fascinating ambiguity of character was lost in Stephen Spielberg's popular film based on Keneally's book.

The clash of cultures, a recurring theme in Keneally's work, dominates Flying Hero Class, in which an airplane carrying Barramatjara tribal dancers from New York to Frankfurt is hijacked by a group of Palestinians. The hijackers try to convince the aborigines that theirs is a common cause, but without much success. The danger is averted by the courage of the troupe's Australian manager and supposed exploiter. Although contrived, the novel summarizes Keneally's ambivalence toward cultural assimilation. Rejecting the comforting liberal assumption that cultural diversity is to be cherished and celebrated, he more often shows the inevitability of misunderstanding and conflict when cultures collide, whether it be as direct as the murderous outburst of a Jimmie Blacksmith or as subtle as the Australian journalist's inability to express his emotions to an Eritrean woman in To Asmara.

With The Great Shame, his exhaustively researched treatise on the plight of the Irish exiled to Australia's penal colonies for petty crimes or political resistance to British rule, Keneally crosses from historical fiction into history, but the epic scope of the material relies on the human stories he finds hidden in the official documents. With hundreds of characters, some of historical significance, others not (including his own and his wife's ancestors), Keneally conveys through multiple narratives the same virtues of determination, redemption, and survival as in his novels. The material he had used for background in the earlier works, especially Passenger, The Playmaker, and A River Town, emerges again in a seemingly different form. In reality, despite its extensive index, notes, and bibliography, The Great Shame reads like Keneally's best fiction.

Given his steady output and his often-risky choices of material, Keneally has maintained a remarkable level of quality in his work, a testament to the power of the historical imagination and to the novelist's craft.

—Robert E. Lynch

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal