September 2017

Arts & Letters

Success dogged him

By Mark McKenna

Alfred Deakin at Point Lonsdale front beach, Victoria, in 1910. Image courtesy of Brookes family and Deakin University library. 

Judith Brett’s ‘The Enigmatic Mr Deakin’ is a skilful portrait of Australia’s second prime minister

“Writing biography,” as Judith Brett confides in the opening pages of The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text; $49.99), “is an invasive business, and perilous”. Sifting through the “surviving evidence” for “plausible paths”, the challenges are daunting: separating myth from fact, establishing intimacy and retaining distance, liberating and controlling the subject’s voice, being fearless in judgement while maintaining fairness and compassion, embroidering the private and public lives, retrieving life both as it was lived (a phantom) and as it was remembered – and, finally, deciding whether or not to break free from the tidal force of chronology. There are as many ways to write biography as there are to live.

In 1992, when Brett set out to shatter the “frozen representations” of former Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies, she seemed both more certain of the biographer’s task (“the public man is the real man and the task is to read his life and character where we find it – in the shape of the public life”) and more willing to take risks (“John Stuart Mill and Lady Macbeth can be taken to represent the two poles of Menzies’ political imagination”). Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People broke new ground in Australian biography. By using Menzies’ 1942 radio broadcast as her lens, and exhuming the “psychological structures of its arguments and images”, Brett showed how Menzies’ “public language” was intimately connected to his “own emotions and biographical experience”. It was imaginative, daring and, as it turned out, even capable of alerting the Liberal Party to its own traditions. Before Brett highlighted the importance of Menzies’ eulogy to the middle class and their “homes material, homes human and homes spiritual”, the Liberal Party paid his speech little attention. Now ‘The Forgotten People’ is the cornerstone of the party’s philosophy and commemorated as a sacred text.

More than any other scholar, Brett has shown that liberal and conservative political ideas are just as “deeply rooted in Australian experience” as Australia’s radical egalitarian traditions. Her analysis became even more sharply defined with the publication of Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard (2003), which continued to explore her understanding of the middle class as “a projected moral community”. It was here (and in her 2005 Quarterly Essay ‘Relaxed and Comfortable’) that she revealed how Howard had “raided” the radical “Australian Legend”. Befriending the “battlers” and exalting mateship and the Anzacs, Howard had “captured the language of nationalism for the Liberals”. It was an interpretation that quickly became conventional wisdom among political commentators.

Brett has long been drawn to Alfred Deakin. In 2003 she had already identified him as “a remarkable figure in Australian politics”. The “first native-born politician of any stature” was “a gifted orator, a skilled and charming politician, and a deeply though unconventionally spiritual man with a lifelong interest in theology”. It’s not hard to understand her fascination. Few Australian prime ministers can match the allure of Deakin. A three-time prime minister (1903–04, 1905–08 and 1909–10), he was also a commanding presence for over two decades in Victorian politics and one of the prime architects and “movers” of Federation. As Deakin modestly described his role in 1910, “a continent was strapped to my shoulders”. More than anyone of his generation, Deakin persuaded the people of six colonies, each reluctant to cede power and influence to the others, to think and act as Australians.

With his attractive physique – “tall and strong, with thick dark hair and mesmeric brown eyes” – his exceptional political talent and his restless, tortured inner life, all of it meticulously documented in personal diaries, Deakin has proved irresistible for biographers. Brett’s is the fifth and by far the best major biography to date, following in the steps of Walter Murdoch, John La Nauze, whose two-volume work she generously describes as “magisterial”, Al Gabay and John Rickard.

The man she describes throughout is a bundle of glaring contradictions, not all of them easily resolved. Highly strung, Deakin suffered from performance anxiety – heart racing, mouth drying, palms sweating – before nearly every public appearance. Yet, as Brett vividly explains, he somehow managed to put this surfeit of nervous energy to good use: “With rapid delivery, words, phrases, images, arguments, quotations and examples streamed from his mouth in complex, well-shaped sentences as he strode around the platform, gesturing for emphasis, his voice rising on crescendos of fervour and gliding down to quiet appeals.” After each bravura political performance, Deakin felt drained and exhausted, longing for retreat into the sanctum of his family life and his private literary world.

Deakin longed for solitude yet complained constantly of loneliness. Helped at every turn by influential figures such as his mentor David Syme, and aided lovingly by his wife, Pattie, whom Brett fleshes out perceptively, he could nonetheless appear convinced that there was no one to whom he could turn: “I act alone, live alone and think alone.” If his own account is to be believed, Deakin was never certain of his life’s direction – teacher, lawyer, journalist, poet, preacher or politician? He lived his entire life believing that an alternative one was just around the corner. As the late John Hirst tellingly observed (and to whom, together with Alan Davies, Brett movingly dedicates her book), despite Deakin’s prayers for political obliteration, “success dogged him”.

After many political triumphs – for which he was lauded both in London and at home – he lamented in his notebook in 1903, “All life is failure.” Eternally reluctant to claim full responsibility for the choices he made – he fell into the law, was invited into journalism and found himself “whirled” into politics – Deakin cultivated the illusion that he passed through life following the star of “divine purpose” (of which his devotion to the cause of Federation was the supreme example). His voluminous prayer diaries, which he kept from the age of 28 until a few years before his death (in 1919, aged 63), have cast a saintly aura over his legacy, encouraging the image of a man who felt himself “aloof” from the grubbiness of everyday politics and passed through life as the brilliant, fey mystic of the Antipodes. Buried not far beneath the halo is the sheer political cunning and occasional duplicity that ensured his success.

Few biographers could have navigated this rocky terrain without coming to grief. That Brett has managed to write such a compelling and rewarding biography – alive to every fibre in Deakin’s being – is testament to her literary skill. The Enigmatic Mr Deakin stands as the culmination of her work on the history, politics and philosophy of Australian liberals, and it is the one biography of Deakin to which we will repeatedly return. Brett’s writing is capable of extraordinary clarity, insight and compassion. The text is scattered with passages of luminous prose – “a small stone of unhappiness … ground away inside [Deakin], carving out the space for his richly lived inner life”. Perhaps it is impossible to write like this unless you have lived with your subject for many years.

Brett insists that her traditional cradle-to-grave narrative is “a life, not a life-and-times” and that she wants to explore “what events meant to Deakin rather than what he contributed to events”. But it becomes clear that she can’t entirely disentangle these objectives: she rightly spends much time explaining the shifting political context of both Victorian and federal politics. In some chapters, all of which are kept noticeably short, Brett’s scholarly instinct to contextualise means that events can overwhelm her intention to focus on Deakin the individual. Yet how is it possible to write political biography without writing both a life and a times – at least the times of high politics?

We see Deakin swept up in events, occasionally uncertain of his next move, desperately seeking advice, rather than as the heroic seer who effortlessly dictates the flow of history. There is “Mr Deakin” the young MP who introduces landmark legislation to protect factory workers and establish an extensive irrigation system; the “Chief Secretary” who uses police and a voluntary militia to break the great Maritime Strike in 1890; and the passionate “awakener” of Australian national sentiment who stuns British politicians at an imperial conference in London with his eloquence and fiercely independent spirit, so much so that he was offered a knighthood at the age of 30, which he immediately declined.

Deakin not only had the British suggesting he enter Westminster but also wrote for London’s Morning Post for 15 years, “offering an anonymous commentary on political events in which he was a major player”. As prime minister, he continued his independent stance on foreign affairs.

Brett is clear-eyed about Deakin’s status as a progressive liberal, explaining his belief in “the capacities of an active state to improve the moral and material lives of ordinary people” at the same time as she details his failure to see women as “political agents”, his commitment to the ideal of racial purity and “White Australia” as the bedrock of the new Federation, and his unwavering idealism – sustained partly by his commitment to spiritualism – and determination to promote what he called “the elevation of national life and thought”. Somehow, he defied his lifelong struggle with depression, which Brett describes with great sensitivity.

As early as 1904, Deakin – already battling insomnia and “failing memory” – felt himself receding “inwards”. Some of the passages Brett quotes from his diary are genuinely distressing, such as this entry from November 1915: “To live among the scores of books one has forgotten, after a public career that now remains wrapped in clouds … No banishment was ever more complete – No collapse could be ghastlier … A stranded mariner, in a deep sense a solitary, without a memory or the flow of speech that once ran always free and sometimes shot higher than I can now realise.”

As dementia takes its final toll and the tragedy of his all-too-early decline emerges, Brett resists sentimentality, never losing sight of her reasons for writing: “to bring Deakin back into Australia’s contemporary political imagination, to understand how he shaped the country we live in today, and for the lessons he could teach us about how to handle unstable parliaments”.

Deakin “laid down the contours of Australia’s defence and foreign policy”, and, as Brett persuasively argues, by linking “tariff protection to a fair and reasonable wage for workers”, he sketched out “the middle ground for Australia’s mixed economy”. His was a “pragmatic” rather than an “ideological” approach to public policy, a position now widely accepted as the “practical centre”. No other book has so powerfully revealed Alfred Deakin’s centrality to Australian political culture.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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