Page 1: Biography
Kenny, Alice Annie
Poet, short-story writer, novelist
This biography, written by Nancy Swarbrick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Alice Annie Kenny, one of New Zealand's most assiduous but least-remembered writers, was born on 31 August 1875 at Newcastle (Ngaruawahia), the third of eight children of Annie Edgecumbe and her husband, Thomas Nepean Edward Kenny, a sub-inspector in the Armed Constabulary, formerly an officer in the British Army. By 1880 the family had moved to Thames, where Alice attended Miss Hume's School and Parawai School. In 1887, with Nepean Kenny's appointment as clerk for the Ohinemuri County Council, they settled in Paeroa. The Kenny children were sent to Paeroa School, but because her help was needed at home Alice left in late 1888.
Self-educated from this time, she began to write 'anywhere, everywhere, on anything to hand'. At the age of 15 she won second prize in a story competition run by the Auckland Star; this was followed by a consolation prize in a similar competition in the New Zealand Graphic in December 1893. By the mid 1890s she was contributing short stories and poems to New Zealand and Australian periodicals.
With her siblings, Alice took part in community activities. She became captain of the Paeroa ladies' hockey team and for a time ran a nursery school. However, home and family were evidently the centre of her life, perhaps more so after the deaths of a brother in 1895 and a sister in 1896. In July 1909 Alice's beloved mother died; six months later her father remarried and left Paeroa for good; thereafter Alice kept house for her brothers and sister.
About this time she began to write for the Triad. After the publication of a poem, 'The changeling', in July 1910, Dick Harris, one of the Triad's favoured contributors, declared, 'It is a weary while since I have read anything of Australasian origin so delicate in mood and expression, so finely conceived in imagination, and so tender and subtle in feeling.' The Triad's editorial staff clearly agreed, for soon Alice Kenny was one of the regular writers.
Alice Kenny's poems, at their best lyrical and wistful, were often based on Gaelic legends, and reference was sometimes made to their 'Irish quality'. Many had themes of loneliness and lost love. The stories, on the other hand, were firmly rooted in New Zealand soil and were often humorous or ironic in tone. Some related incidents from the period of colonisation; others dealt with Maori subjects in the manner of A. A. Grace.
In 1911 the Triad boasted that Alice Kenny had won 'thousands of hearty admirers'; one of the more unlikely was the poet and iconoclast Ezra Pound. Charged with the task of seeking out new talent for the American magazine Poetry, Pound had read her Triad poems and found in them 'the faint beginnings of salvation'. He wrote to Kenny, inviting her to submit her best work to Poetry. It appears that she was not tempted by the offer, and indeed she was eventually drawn into the slanging match between Frank Morton, deputy editor of the Triad, and Pound on the subject of modernism in poetry. While Morton resorted to insults, Kenny presented her criticism in a humorous article, 'Whitman out-Walted: words in appreciation of "Poetry" ', in which she parodied the poems of 'Mr Isaiah Ounce' and others.
During a seven-year association with the Triad, Kenny produced some bold experimental work including a 'poem-play' called 'Sheila's child', and a novel, Alan McBretney, both of which were serialised. Alan McBretney was one of the first New Zealand novels to attempt to cross the boundary from melodrama to tragedy; it also, like much of her fiction, evokes the Coromandel landscape and the distinctive voices and mores of small-town New Zealand.
Other journals and newspapers published Alice Kenny's work, including the Christchurch Sun, the Auckland Star, the New Zealand Herald, Aussie, the Mirror and the New Zealand Artist's Annual. After 1925 an additional source of income came from her job as librarian at Paeroa Public Library. She achieved a small measure of literary success – her poems appeared in anthologies, including Child verses from Punch (1925), the second edition of A treasury of New Zealand verse (1926) and Kowhai gold (1930) – but greater recognition eluded her, perhaps because of her fondness for light verse and fiction. Two unashamedly popular novels, The rebel and The Elmslie mystery, were published in Sydney in 1934.
By then Alice Kenny was approaching 60. She remained single, but her household included the family of her younger married sister. When in 1937 her brother-in-law obtained a position in Auckland, Kenny moved there too. A serious bout of influenza impaired her health, but nevertheless she published an illustrated story and a book of verse for children in the late 1930s.
The focus on children's literature proved timely. Her work came to the notice of the publisher A. H. Reed who, perceiving a gap in the local market, commissioned her during the 1940s to write junior novels. Kenny employed a wide range of settings and genres, and wrote some books specifically for boys under the pseudonym 'Alan Armitage'. As she was often ill during these years her sister and niece would assist with background research, and gather in her bedroom each evening to hear the latest chapter read aloud.
In 1947 Kenny republished many of the poems of her youth in a collection, The witch's daughter, but she had been long overtaken by a new generation of poets. Undaunted, she turned to playwriting, and was placed in several British Drama League (New Zealand Branch) competitions when in her 80s. She was a member of the New Zealand centre of PEN from 1946 until her death on 15 May 1960 in Auckland.
Charming, self-willed and tenacious, Alice Kenny loved conversation and was interested in everyone she met. She corresponded freely with writers she admired. Spiritualism, astrology and palmistry fascinated her, and she became a strict vegetarian and a member of the Theosophical Society. She rose above whatever disappointments she may have had with a hopeful philosophy, voiced while she was still a young woman: 'Life may starve one on many sides, but who shall say it is not sweet while it contains a cat, a garden, a book, and a good friend?'