Like many biographers, I have a list of possible future subjects. One of my ten names has been Australia’s second prime-minister, Alfred Deakin (1856-1919). While researching his interactions with Katharine Susannah Prichard, I found him a fascinating character. I was surprised that the only comprehensive biography appeared fifty years ago. But I’ve removed Deakin from my list because Judith Brett has written a superb account of his life in The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, out this month.
Brett begins her biography with a comparison to a more famous Victorian born two years earlier, Ned Kelly:
Deakin is remembered too, but not so vividly, more as a bearded worthy than a national icon. He was Australia’s most important prime minister in its first ten years after federation, but he sits uneasily as a representative Australian figure. He is too intellectual, too respectable, for the larrikin masculinity of the Australian legend… Deakin was never a mate. He didn’t swear and rarely drank. He didn’t play organised sport nor fight in the Great War…. In short, he was middle-class, well-educated, urbane and supremely self-confident, like the city and the colony in which he grew to manhood. (3)
Australia needs more heroes like this, and Brett lays out a strong case for his significance and his achievements, while always alert to the ambivalence which marks him and his legacy. Continue reading