Cover of book: The Enigmatic Mr Deakin

Judith Brett
The Enigmatic Mr Deakin

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 life-and-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

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2017 as "Judith Brett, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin".

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