The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents -

Ju­dith Brett’s The Enig­matic Mr Deakin.

Robert Drewe’s Whip­bird.

Matthew Quick’s The Rea­son You're Alive.

When he was 22 and a mint-new mem­ber of the Vic­to­rian par­lia­ment, Al­fred Deakin won wild ap­plause with a maiden speech in which he ten­dered his res­ig­na­tion. In a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer span­ning al­most 40 years, Deakin would nearly al­ways be on the verge of re­sign­ing.

Born into an age in which Dar­win­ism un­der­mined the old cer­tain­ties of heaven and hell, Deakin sought guid­ance from spir­i­tu­al­ism and an “in-dwelling God know­able through prayer and in­tu­ition”. He be­lieved him­self the in­stru­ment of a higher power, and his life and ca­reer to be shaped by divine providence. His pri­vate pa­pers re­veal a dis­po­si­tional dis­taste for pol­i­tics yet his be­lief that he had been cho­sen to serve a great cause would not re­lease him.

It’s in­dis­putable that Deakin was cho­sen by a higher power to serve a cause. From his teens, he was men­tored by a se­ries of pow­er­ful older men, the most in­flu­en­tial be­ing The Age edi­tor, David Syme. Ju­dith Brett writes that, hired to write for The Age, Deakin “learned his pol­i­tics with his pen as he took up the causes of his em­ployer and in per­suad­ing others he per­suaded him­self”. Syme groomed him for po­lit­i­cal of­fice as a Lib­eral pro­tec­tion­ist and would re­main his pa­tron well into Fed­er­a­tion. Were it not for Syme, Deakin would likely have made a ca­reer in law – for which he was trained – in academia, or even on the stage. But for all his mis­giv­ings about pol­i­tics, and in spite of him­self, he seems to have rel­ished be­ing a player.

Most Aus­tralians know Deakin, if they know him at all, as one of the chief ar­chi­tects of Fed­er­a­tion. He served as prime min­is­ter three times in six-plus years dur­ing the mu­si­cal chairs era that pre­vailed un­til the shake­down into two main par­ties made sta­ble govern­ment a pos­si­bil­ity. Al­ready a prom­i­nent fig­ure in Vic­to­rian pol­i­tics, Deakin stood out in the Fed­er­a­tion move­ment as a vig­or­ous, youth­ful fig­ure. Prover­bially tall, dark and hand­some, he was a man of spir­i­tual and in­tel­lec­tual depths, as well as a mes­meris­ing or­a­tor and charmer. He re­fused a knight­hood at 30 – and, later, nu­mer­ous other hon­ours – skipped rope back­wards each morn­ing and, as prime min­is­ter, rode to work by bi­cy­cle.

Deakin’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Fed­er­a­tion, and so with the White Aus­tralia Pol­icy, goes a long way to ex­plain­ing why, de­spite his his­tor­i­cal stand­ing and personal al­lure, more than 50 years have passed since he was the sub­ject of a ma­jor bi­og­ra­phy. In ad­dress­ing the na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment that drove Fed­er­a­tion and shaped the Australian con­sti­tu­tion, Brett stresses the “need to ex­er­cise our his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion” if we are to grasp why, at the close of the 19th cen­tury, na­tion­al­ism could and did appeal to a so­cial pro­gres­sive such as Deakin as a pos­i­tive, uni­fy­ing force.

Brett is a gifted in­ter­preter of pol­i­tics, past and present, and a sen­si­tive reader of peo­ple, in­di­vid­u­ally and en masse. That she has been able to en­com­pass The Enig­matic Mr Deakin in fewer than 500 pages, com­pared with dou­ble that of most “land­mark” bi­ogra­phies, at­tests to a rare kind of writerly judge­ment: for dis­cern­ing where the story lies and, cru­cially, for know­ing what can be left out. Brett deftly sketches the po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and in­tel­lec­tual cur­rents that shaped Deakin’s life and think­ing, but, as she states at the out­set, “The book is a life, not a life­and-times; its start­ing questions are what events meant to Deakin, rather than what he con­trib­uted to events”. Ex­plor­ing such questions is made pos­si­ble by the avail­abil­ity of Deakin’s let­ters, jour­nal­ism and speeches, as well as an ex­ten­sive cache of his most pri­vate, in­tro­spec­tive writ­ings – note­books filled with prayers, po­ems, spir­i­tual and philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings, soul-search­ing and div­ina­tion.

Deakin kept his note­books locked away, but early-on­set de­men­tia over­took him be­fore he could de­cide their fate. Their sur­vival means that Brett, and her read­ers, can hold him to his own mea­sure, judg­ing his ac­tions against the val­ues and be­liefs he held sa­cred. Sub­jected to such a reck­on­ing, who among us could mea­sure up? And, since Deakin’s note­books were “not in­tended to be read by others”, should we feel a twinge of un­ease?

Brett’s his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion slack­ens some­what when she comes to judge her sub­ject’s per­for­mance as a hus­band and a father of daugh­ters. Even one as en­light­ened as Deakin was in­escapably a man of his times. A his­tor­i­cal bi­og­ra­pher has to ne­go­ti­ate a gulf of gen­er­a­tions – as well as, in the case of The Enig­matic Mr Deakin, of gen­der – which she can never hope to fully fathom. Be­sides re­search, in­sight and imag­i­na­tion, the enterprise calls for ac­knowl­edge­ment that, even when a locked cup­board spills its se­crets, some as­pects of an­other’s life must re­main un­know­able.

In soli­tude, Deakin sought “to solve the rid­dle of him­self ”, and his pri­vate, ex­ploratory writ­ings en­rich Brett’s “life” be­yond mea­sure. But to what ex­tent can we trust that they re­veal the “real” man? One’s self-sound­ings are taken in an echo cham­ber, after all. Recog­nis­ing that “we have to judge a man’s life not just by what he says but what he does”, Brett weighs Deakin’s ac­tions against his self-as­sess­ments and moral frame­work and, play­ing the part of a ret­ro­spec­tive con­science, points out in­stances in which they failed to mesh. Thus are his van­i­ties and self-de­cep­tions laid bare, leav­ing us with a por­trait of a good – let’s say ex­cep­tional – man who, had he been true to his ideal self, could have been a better one.

The book’s ti­tle orig­i­nated from Deakin’s own pen. Writ­ing in his (anony­mous) ca­pac­ity as colo­nial cor­re­spon­dent for a Lon­don news­pa­per, he claimed to find his prime-min­is­te­rial self im­pen­e­tra­ble. And speak­ing of enig­matic, take a look at the book’s photo sec­tion: Deakin’s eyes be­tray in­tel­li­gence and hu­mour, but the pelt-like beard he wore all his adult life hides his mouth en­tirely. Can this mute phys­iog­nomy re­ally be­long to the elec­tri­fy­ing or­a­tor who wooed Fed­er­a­tion into be­ing? Half-hid­den in plain sight, you’d swear this was a man who meant to keep some­thing to him­self. FL

Text, 512pp, $49.99

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