Charming chronicle of companionship
Margaret and Gough: The Love Story That Shaped a Nation By Susan Mitchell Hachette, 352pp, $32.95 SHORTLY after Gough Whitlam’s dismissal by governor-general John Kerr in the afternoon of November 11, 1975, the deposed prime minister called his wife Margaret, who was at a luncheon in Sydney.
“How ridiculous,” she said. “You should have just torn it up. There were only two of you there. Or you should have slapped his face and told him to pull himself together.”
The temperaments of Margaret and Gough could not be more evident. Margaret would never have accepted the dismissal. Gough, who died on October 21 aged 98, never questioned the legality of it, even though he thought it was unjustified. He returned to the Lodge and ate a steak.
Margaret, who died in 2012, was a better judge of character. Indeed, she opposed Kerr’s appointment as governor-general. Gough often confided in Margaret but was never bound by her opinion, often to his detriment. While very different, they were united in their ambitions for Australia.
Although Gough described Margaret as “my most constant critic”, this belied the trust that defined their relationship as a couple, parents, friends and collaborators.
November 1-2, 2014
Margaret was much more than a prime ministerial spouse. Susan Mitchell, who has written extensively about Margaret in earlier books, has found an untapped area in the ever expanding genre of books that deal with the Whitlams, the Whitlam government or the dismissal.
“I realised there was still another story yet to be told,” Mitchell writes in Margaret and Gough: The Love Story That Shaped a Nation. “The story of their partnership and their love for each other is the key to the underlying strength of all they achieved both individually and together.” It is a persuasive argument.
“From the moment they entered the public stage together, the media and the Australian public became fascinated with them,” Mitchell writes. “It was hard to think of one without the other.”
They were tall, smart and witty. Yet they were also different. Gough was sometimes ill at ease and aloof; Margaret was always warm and engaging. He had a ferocious temper; she a more forgiving disposition. They often had blazing rows but still loved each other very much.
All of this makes for rich storytelling. But the focus on their personal lives often does not allow for a deeper explanation of political events, policies and personalities.
Mitchell succeeds in weaving together their lives against a backdrop of Gough’s political career. But how much in this book is new? After all this time and an avalanche of Whitlaminspired books, is there is still more to know about them?
The strength of this book is undoubtedly the hundreds of hours of Mitchell’s interviews with Margaret and the access to her diaries, kept intermittently. Clearly, Mitchell draws heavily on her previous books. Several interviews with Gough are used. Those looking for major revelations will be disappointed. Mitchell instead offers a lively and interesting account of Australia’s longest prime ministerial marriage.
Margaret and Gough met for the first time while university students. It was at the Christmas party for the Sydney University Drama Society in December 1939 that they first laid eyes on each other. “It was love at first sight,” Mitchell writes.
But later in the book, Mitchell challenges the fairytale beginning and concedes their relationship “evolved slowly”. Just weeks after meeting her future husband, Margaret confided to her diary a list of “possibles” with whom she could begin a courtship. A boy named “Goff” was mentioned.
In the following months, Gough and Margaret went dancing and enjoyed dinners together. They saw films and watched concerts. In July 1940, they kissed for the first time. “I got quite a shock last night,” Margaret wrote in her diary. The following year they were engaged. They married in April 1942.
This is a very personal account of the Whitlams’ relationship. The book is probably strongest when describing their private lives, the raising of their four children and the early years of marriage living in Sydney’s Cronulla and Cabramatta.
For those more familiar with
their public lives, it is surprising and unnecessarily prurient to read about Gough wanting to “know the joy of sexual pleasure before he was called up” for World War II or Margaret’s delight at achieving her first orgasm.
In 1952, Gough was elected as the federal MP for Werriwa, a sprawling electorate in the south and southwest of Sydney. In 1960, he became deputy Labor leader. By 1967, Gough was leader. Margaret travelled extensively with him and their relationship was an electoral plus. Margaret was dubbed “Gough’s secret weapon”.
When Gough became prime minister in 1972, his government unleashed a program of farreaching reform unseen since Federation. Margaret urged him to slow down. “I am, Margaret, I am,” he would reply. She regularly gave him advice. But as Mitchell writes, Gough “never discussed his important political decisions with” Margaret.
Margaret was always forthright and often surprised the media, and Gough, with her outspokenness. She found life as a prime ministerial spouse to be “restrictive” and “tedious”. Nevertheless, she wrote a diary for Woman’s Day and usually enjoyed entertaining and official travel.
Much of the book is presented from Margaret’s viewpoint, which has its advantages. During the 1974 election campaign, Margaret wrote in her diary about Gough referring to her scornfully as a “viperish woman”.
She mentions a car trip where “my car companion — life partner — call him what you will uttered not one word on the way to the airport”.