Monday, October 7, 2019

I have been to the Commons

‘I have been to the Commons and found the interior so rich and beautiful as the exterior - the House itself tho’ not over large - of fine carved wood and full of members.’ This is from the diaries of Alfred Deakin, the second prime minister of Australia, who died a century ago today. He served three relatively short terms as PM, and is considered a pivotal figure in the history of the country. He left behind a wealth of autobiographical material including diaries which a recent biographer, Judith Brett, found very useful in terms of revealing Deakin’s inner world.

Deakin was born in 1856 in Melbourne, his parents having immigrated from Britain in 1850. His father was involved in the carrying and coaching trade, later becoming a manager with a decent salary. From an early age, Deakin was schooled with his sister at a girl’s boarding school, however by early 1864, he was enrolled at Melbourne Grammar School as a day boy. Aged 15, he matriculated to enter the University of Melbourne, by evening attending lectures on law, by day earning wages as a schoolteacher and private tutor. He spoke frequently at the university debating club, and was a keen spiritualist. In 1877, he was admitted to the bar, but was more interested in literature and writing (publishing Quentin Massys: A Drama in Five Acts, for example, and A New Pilgrim's Progress). He also wrote for the leading Melbourne newspaper, The Age, after meeting its editor, David Syme, in 1878. Syme proved influential in drawing Deakin into politics, and encouraging him to take on policies of protectionism.

After a turbulent year of elections, Deakin entered the legislative assembly in Victoria in 1880, where he would remain for 20 years. Despite his youth and inexperience, he was a prominent force in negotiating a compromise to secure the Council Reform Act of 1881. The following year, he married Elizabeth Martha Anne, daughter of a prominent spiritualist, with whom he had three daughters. Deakin went on to sponsor an important irrigation bill, as well as measures to protect factory workers; he was also a leader in the federation movement. He attended the conferences that drafted the constitution bill making Australia a commonwealth, and then went to London in 1900 to guide the bill through Parliament.

After serving as attorney general under Sir Edmund Barton, the Australian Commonwealth’s first prime minister, Deakin himself became became prime minister in 1903 as leader of the Liberal Party, in coalition with the Labor Party. A second coalition (1905-1908), also with Labor, passed a series of important nation-building acts - concerning, for example, an Australian currency, copyright, the judiciary, tariff protection, military service. A third coalition (1909-1910) with the Conservatives soon proved unpopular. He retired from Parliament in 1913 but went on to chair the 1914 Royal Commission on Food Supplies and on Trade and Industry. He died on 7 October 1919. Further information is readily available online at the Australian Dictionary of National Biography, Wikipedia, Deakin University, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and National Archives of Australia.

Deakin left behind a large amount of autobiographical material, all held by the National Library of Australia. He seems to have kept diaries for much of his life, though he destroyed some early ones (particularly after completing an autobiography The Crisis in Victorian Politics) or digested them into edited versions. He also kept prayer diaries, travel diaries, and a series of diary-type notes called ‘Clues’. Although there are no published versions of any of this diary material, the National Library of Australia provides a substantial amount of information on Deakin’s archives, including his diaries along with images of the pages.

Judith Brett, who recently published an important biography on Deakin, says in her Sources and Bibliography, that ‘Deakin’s inner world is well documented in the many private notebooks he kept during his life.’ She also says that she found all the autobiographical writing, ‘very difficult to navigate.’ Nevertheless, she does quote extensively from the diaries, notebooks etc. in The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (The Text Publishing Company, 2017). See Googlebooks to preview some pages and The Sydney Review of Books for a review.

Here is a paragraph from Brett’s text which includes quotations from Deakin’s diary dated 24 and 31 March 1887:
‘With so many friends to show him round, Deakin felt immediately at home in the great metropolis, which he judged to be just a vastly scaled-up Melbourne: “Put only one story on the houses, have the streets not quite so clean and a good deal older and twist and tangle all the straight ways and you have London.” Society too was familiar, dinners. At Homes, balls and banquets. Deakin’s debut in London society was at a dinner at Sir Henry Holland’s, the colonial secretary, followed by an At Home for three hundred or so, which “consists of a great crush in, spasmodic small talk in breaks of about five minutes each with a few of your neighbours, and then a great crush out again”. For an outsider looking in on the glittering crowd, with no friends to greet, no political business to transact, the titled men and women were but “faces in a gallery of pictures and talk a tinkling cymbal. . . Titles don’t grow out of a man or a woman - they are stuck on from the outside, and are always artificial and often ridiculous. Even a pallid aesthete with fringed hair, a despairing expression, and a crimson velvet gown did not move me.” ’

The following extract is transcribed directly from the diary page image found at the National Library of Australia website:
April 1887
‘I have been to the Commons and found the interior so rich and beautiful as the exterior - the House itself tho’ not over large - of fine carved wood and full of members. Heard no speaking of special note. Two feeble old Liberals moved an amendment and an aldermanish but capable Conservative made a good solid reply. Easter coming. Start for Scotland on Thursday.’

Finally, here are a few more short extracts from Deakin’s diaries as found in Brett’s book.

3 August 1890
‘Youth is past and manhood unfolded to its full but I find myself still feeble, still doubting, still uncertain of my life and part.’

4 August 1901
‘The web & woof of history discloses the Divine patter thro’ the dim light of understanding. The myriad unseen influences of individuals living or called dead & the myriads of unguessed agencies operating upon & among them without which the secret of life cannot be mastered.’

11 August 1901
‘Virtue is an ordering of the self - continuous, unflagging and ever wakeful to the best ends one sees.’

28 July 1903
‘Determined to resign re High Court.’

30 August 1903
‘I have this year for the first time realised age - the beginning of old age, enfeeblement, of withdrawal, of a spent force.’

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