Stories from the dustbin - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Peter Cochrane
I WAS COMPELLED TO THINK HARD about political biography and writing for a general readership when, in 2003, I signed a contract to write a history of the transition to responsible government and democracy in the colony of New South Wales. What was eventually called Colonial Ambition (Melbourne University Press, 2006) was to be part of the Carr government's celebration of the 150th anniversary of responsible government three years later. My subject, colonial politics in the 1840s and '50s, was considered deadly dull. I could not find one book in colonial political history that I could use as a model – a light on the hill, you might say, for the history I had dimly in mind. Nor did the subject seem inspiring, although Sylvia Lawson's history of journalism, The Archibald Paradox (Penguin, 1987), was a beacon – elegant, passionate and inspiring.
There were no revolutionary uprisings, no wars of independence, no fields of battle, no mud and blood, no great conspiracy or treason trials, no universe of practices and understandings swept away in a political whirlwind, and none of the attendant heroism called forth by such things. We were told that we were handed self-government on a plate. How could our political beginnings compare with those of modern France, the United States, England, Scotland or Ireland? There political change was a vortex, here a pedestrian trundle.
And yet, as Chekhov or Shakespeare show us, or Manning Clark writing about Governor Phillip, or Tim Bonyhady on colonial landscape, you do not need mud and blood to have an alluring narrative. You need great characters in tandem with a richly informative story. The self-evident sometimes has to be restated: Australian history is loaded with fascinating characters and questions about them and their world. You have to want to find them.
The big question for me was how to combine the critical academic tradition with storytelling as character-driven narrative. My solution was to write Colonial Ambition as a political history centred on William Charles Wentworth.
There were several reasons for choosing Wentworth as my ‘leading man'. He was a colossus in the struggle for civil freedoms and self-government in the colony – for almost half a century he was central to institutional change and public life. He was immensely talented, ferociously driven and deeply flawed – an intriguing Australian. And the documentation of Wentworth's private or family life was rich enough to permit a dialogue between the public and private Wentworth – an extremely valuable means of understanding his political ambition. Wentworth was big enough, complex enough and fascinating enough to fit the bill. That was both an historical judgement and a literary decision.
COLONIAL AMBITION IS NOT A BIOGRAPHY. It is political history written as narrative. The story turns like a double helix winding through the book, political history curving into and around the biographical thread of Wentworth and his family, a thread that gets thicker as we go, knitting in other key players in Sydney and London: Henry Parkes, Sir George Gipps, Earl Grey, Robert Lowe, Charles Cowper, Herman Merivale, Lord John Russell at the Colonial Office, and numerous others including the women whose political influence was a much neglected and elusive part of the story.
A dialogue between the public and the private spheres is an important part of good biographical narrative, and great biographers have set the standard in searching for a deep reading of the ‘humanity of the lived life', and a vivid sense of the life once lived. What drives us? What drove Wentworth? That was the great story within the story, crucial to an understanding of political ambition. It was the reason I thought biographical narrative was the way to explore the vast and irreconcilable ambitions that shaped the political foundations of the Australian colonies.
There has to be a starting point – a single image, a line in a letter, a speech or a mere phrase – rich with symbolic meaning. With Wentworth, it was a wedding in 1844. In January that year, his eldest daughter Timmie married a recently arrived merchant, Thomas Fisher. No sooner had they wed than Fisher commanded his young wife to have no further dealings with her father and mother. Fisher was a most severe ‘exclusive' -– he would marry the daughter, but have no social contact with her parents, William and Sarah, who were tainted by convictism. William's father was an exiled highwayman and William himself had long been a spokesman for emancipists' rights, while Sarah's parents were both convicts.
Further research revealed that this was merely one of many wounds inflicted on Wentworth and his family by the exclusive set in Sydney – the great landowners, the imperial officials and the officer class whose standing and social purity, it seemed, could brook no social contact with convicts, emancipists, or their offspring.
An extraordinary situation came into view. In the private sphere, loving parents were denied access – in perpetuity, it seemed – to their daughter, while in the public sphere an even more astonishing situation was in place: in the political struggle for colonial independence, Wentworth was aligned with many of the great merchants and landowners who shared his son-in-law's values. Wentworth was a leader of men who treated him, socially, as a pariah. From his youth to middle age he suffered their snubs and insults. Now his beloved Timmie was lost. His wounds were many. Publicly, he and Sarah showed nothing of the pain they suffered. Privately, Wentworth scratched at those wounds to keep them raw and hurting. They became part of his life force and leached into his political purpose.
There he was in 1844, the most ferocious, talented and indispensable of politicians, working with men who, as I wrote, ‘would not cross his threshold, not break bread at his table nor have him to theirs, and who would cross the road rather than tip their hat to his wife or his daughters'. More than once, Wentworth vowed he would have revenge over his ‘colonial oppressors', not just the men in London who denied self-government, but also the men in Sydney who denied Wentworth and his family the ‘honour' they deserved. He was reflective about this, and late in life publicly described himself as something of a volcano, in whom ‘the flood of lava' wouldn't stay down. This was a reference to a disposition that marked his entire political career, to language and oratory that was thick with grievance and anger, to a life loaded up with resentments: ‘He was, in a way, like Philoctetes, the warrior whose putrid wound never healed, yet he seemed intent on scratching at his wounds until his dying days, as if he needed the pain to drive him on.'
Revenge is one of the great themes in literature and narrative historians with themes wider than biography should take inspiration from literature. Great novelists intuitively grasp the dramatic and often tragic quality of vindictively driven characters: Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and the list goes on. The significance here resides in Wentworth's potential to be realised as one of the great dramatic characters in Australian history: angry, arrogant, visionary and vindictive, destined to play a dynamic part in hammering out the nation's political foundations. He had to be my ‘leading man'.
I use the phrase ‘leading man' deliberately because if we are writing narrative history we should be thinking how best to tell the story; crossing boundaries and borrowing from fiction, from those writers who think out loud about what they're doing, in terms of rendering character and structuring a story. Surely the historical record is as amenable to select literary considerations as the fictional imagination? I suspect that very often the great plots work in fiction because their movement mimics the historical process, so we know when they are right.
Wentworth's story has dramatic power that resonates as much with Ibsen's Doll's House as anything in Australian political history. There is an affinity with Chekhov too, in the sense of entitlements lost, of power and grandeur slipping from the grasp of an establishment – in this case the landed oligarchs of Sydney and surrounds, mired in their own dramatic internal contradictions. A rewarding sub-theme was Wentworth's growing sense of a lost cause as the years went by – not just the menacing rise of radical politics, but the unremitting snobbery and exclusivism of his own class. It was slow-brewing, a gradual realisation that so much he had hoped for and fought for confidently in the early years – the honour of his family restored, political power in his own hands – might crumble.
I set up a dialogue between the public and private life of William Charles Wentworth, the revealed self and the concealed self, to draw his family into the picture (for his wife and his children are an important part of the political story), and show how the private dimension influenced his political persona, his ambition and ultimately his political direction – to abandon the colony. In our colonial history, Wentworth is one of the great anti-heroes; the great opponent of democracy who fails.