‘The Most I Could Be’ by Dale Kent

2021, 456 p

The name ‘Dale Kent’ seemed familiar. At first I thought that she might be an expatriate feminist that I had heard of sometime, but on learning more about this book I realized with a little jolt of recognition that I had been one of her undergraduate students at La Trobe University.

It was back in 1976 and I did two half-units of Renaissance History- one on Florence and the Italian Renaissance, the other on Medieval Italian Communes. To be honest, I have little memory of the content, but I do remember seminars in the rather-pretentiously named West Peribolos building, with the west summer sun slanting through the edges of the holland blinds drawn against the narrow full-length windows at afternoon seminars. I remember Dale Kent who struck me at the time as quite beautiful, vivacious, theatrical and rather awe-inducing, and I regretted that I did not have her as my tutor, having instead an M. Billington of whom I have no memory at all (I had to consult an essay I had kept from the subject, to find out her name). So I was attracted to this book because, not only is La Trobe “my” university but I expected that, as a historian, she would structure a good memoir. After all, Inga Clendinnen who was a colleague of Kent’s at La Trobe at the time, wrote Tiger’s Eye, one of the best memoirs I have ever read (see my review here) and I hoped that this might be similar.

For me, a memoir is a creative re-construction of a life structured and shaped around a motif. Despite the phrase ‘the most I could be’ which was repeated both as boast and self-exculpation in several places, this is pretty much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end sort of autobiography. At the end of the book she says “As a historian, I have kept the record” (p. 406) and this is the way that it read: as an act of recording rather than creating. I admit to being disappointed.

I found myself wondering who might be the intended audience for this book, beyond other historians (many of whom may be checking the index, because in all but one case she uses the full names of her colleagues). The history field in Melbourne is not large, and there were many familiar names. Her area of expertise was patronage during the Renaissance, with a particular focus on the Medici family. Certainly she led what now seems like a charmed academic life: scholarships to undertake her PhD at Oxford University, positions at Berkeley and Princeton, sufficient tenure at admittedly lower tier universities that nonetheless provided a salary and sabbatical and other leave to travel to conduct her research in Italy; and a string of prestigious just-in-time fellowships and projects that sustained a career of over 20 years in America.

All this was a long way from her childhood in Moonee Ponds, East St. Kilda and then Caulfield, as the daughter of Christian Scientist parents. Her father was an engineer, while her mother had left school early. Her working-class grandparents, Nell and Horrie came from Footscray. She was overweight (something that is hard to believe because she is absolutely beautiful in the photographs included in the book), she wet the bed as a child and had few friends at school. A whole new world opened up for her when she enrolled at Melbourne University, and she left Christian Science behind. She met her husband, Bill, who shared her academic interest in Renaissance Italy, and they built their careers together. As a young mother herself, at the age of thirty, she decided to ‘divorce’ her parents because they were too intrusive, and eventually left her husband Bill too, and embarked on her peripatetic international academic career. Her relationship with her only daughter was the price, and one that I hope has not been inflated by the publication of this book. Ironically, her comment about why she ‘divorced’ her parents – “they didn’t love me enough to make the slightest adjustment of their expectations to my needs, so that we could continue to be part of each other’s lives” (p.156)- could conceivably be said by her own daughter about her.

This is a long autobiography at over 400 pages, and it is very detailed, especially when it came to describing the clothes she wore and the food she ate (something that I usually view as the kiss of death for an autobiography/memoir). There were some small factual details that I found myself eying rather skeptically. A Unitarian Church in Collins Street ?(Uniting Church, yes, but not Unitarian). Flamingos in the lake at La Trobe University? (geese, ibis yes, herons maybe, but not flamingos). Small details, I know, but I wonder how many others there were that passed me by.

She is laceratingly honest about herself, her sexual neediness, her alcoholism. I was drawn to keep reading the book, but it was almost as if I was reading with my fingers over my eyes, apprehensive over what she was going to do or reveal next. Too much sex, too many unavailable or unsuitable men, heedlessness to boundaries, a sense of grievance, a quixotic and unrealistic search for a ‘soulmate’, a bewildering lack of insight – why would she want to publish this, thus inviting her readers to sit in judgment on her? There have been quite enough other people doing that : her colleagues, her ex-husband, her daughter, friends who eventually tired of having her sobbing on the telephone to them. She is speaking and telling her story, but it is not hard to see her through others’ eyes. The mismatch between the professional and the personal is stark.

I was interested in her early life, and the effect of her family’s Christian Science religion on her social and intellectual development. She gives an insight into the life of the young academic, particularly when she and Bill were writing their doctoral theses, and she describes the hierarchies and power games within university faculties. She captures well the arid suburban life for bright women in the 1950s and 1960s, and the testosterone-fueled arrogance and combativeness of the scions of Ivy-League and Sandstone Universities. What fails to come through at all is the love that she clearly must have for her interest in Renaissance Florence after all these decades: not in the visual sense (which any tourist could have), but as an historiographical challenge. She has published widely in her field, contributing books, chapters and reviews over many years. Her work sustained and saved her, as she herself admits, but you get little indication of it at an intellectual or emotional level. I’m a little tired of reading of historians emoting about their adventures in the archives, but there is little evidence of a passion of the mind here at all. The body – yes; and appetites for food, drink, new places, and the next project – but no curiosity, or obsession or joy. I wish that I had seen some of that.

My rating: 7

Read because: I realized my connection with her, and because I like reading historians’ biographies.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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