Book Reviews

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'The Enigmatic Mr Deakin' - a review

Bill Barlow
20 April 2018
Book Reviews

Alfred Deakin was Australia's second Prime Minister (1903-4) and a founding father of Federation in Australia (with Edmund Barton). He also served as PM for two subsequent terms, 1905-8 and 1909-10. Leonie Loveday reviews the latest biography of Deakin, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin by Judith Brett (Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017, ISBN 9781925603712 Pbk).


History is the stage on which our ancestors played out their lives however humble or ordinary. An understanding and appreciation of history is the context in which we may view the lives of each generation. For those of us who have ancestors in late 19th century Australia and the post-gold boom of Victoria, Judith Brett has mined for us a deep vein of historical pay dirt in the life of Alfred Deakin (1856–1919).

Brett’s latest work The Enigmatic Mr Deakin has been critically acclaimed particularly by her peer - Professor Mark McKenna in The Monthly (Sept. 2017) described it as 'the fifth and best biography on Deakin to date'. Brett is a professional historian and author of previous works on Australian politics, notably Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (1992) and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class (2003).

This is not a stodgy historical treatise written in inaccessible academic prose. Brett provides the reader with a compelling and engaging book on the life and times of Alfred Deakin. But it is more than that because she skillfully weaves the family story of the Deakin and Browne families into the period of Australian political history that has most influenced the way we live today. She doesn’t miss a trick when she opens her introduction, placing Alfred Deakin’s birth two years after that of Ned Kelly in the 'colony of Victoria'. But we learn that the comparison stops there because 'Deakin was the only son of respectable goldrush immigrants'.

And enigmatic, Deakin certainly was: a spiritualist, teacher, journalist and anonymous contributor, lawyer, orator, independent thinker, parliamentarian, prime minister, and a knighthood refuser. He was a man of vision and deep, philosophical and religious ideas, but plagued by self-doubt, a fear of conflict and sometimes an indecisiveness that would affect his health. However this is not a work of hagiography and Brett is always frank in criticism of Deakin when the record clearly shows his shortcomings.

Deakin, like a growing number of his contemporaries in the middle class at the time, became interested in spiritualism in his youth. A local interest in spiritualism was one of popular curiosity that had spilled over from the movement in Britain and a symptom of a progressive move away from conventional religious thinking. Pattie Browne, who later became Deakin’s wife, and her family were actively engaged in the practice and regularly hosted meetings and séances at their home. Deakin later moved away from practice but he regularly recorded his spiritual life in his writing of ‘prayers’ and read widely in philosophy, which guided his decisions and choices.

Deakin entered the Victorian parliament in 1879 at age 23 and was a popular politician. He was an active and sometimes controversial member because he was reluctant to be influenced by the powerful and landed members in the Upper House. However, when it came to issues relating to the local aboriginal peoples, he was 'not unsympathetic' but Brett adds succinctly, 'he was not a fighter, and he had no emotional capacity for lost causes, not matter how just'. Candidly damning indeed.

Later his involvement with the ANA (Australian Natives Association) and the Movement for Federation led him to work together with Edmund Barton in campaigning for the Federation Bill and referendum. He accompanied Barton and others to London to support the bill for federation through the Imperial Parliament in Westminster. Such was the impression he made and the respect won in Britain during this time, that he was offered a knighthood, which he rejected. Deakin was his own man.

From spiritualist to Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin inspired a nation and with persistence and firm beliefs shepherded its people through some of the most controversial issues and events. He was not always successful or right but Brett leaves the reader with a deep respect for Deakin and his legacy – a legacy not wholly or generally appreciated.


Leonie Loveday

Abbotsford, 11 April 2018.

Book review: 'A Woman of Importance' by Jean Uhl

Bill Barlow
21 April 2017
Book Reviews

Review by Mary Holmes, April 2017

A Woman of Importance: Emily Childers in Melbourne, 1850–1856

Author: Jean Uhl

Publisher: Jean Uhl, Blackburn, Vic. 1992.

ISBN 0 9596631 4 2. Hardback copy. 340 pages.

Purchased at the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

Emily Childers became a woman of importance in the social life of the colony of Victoria and she knew many who impacted on Melbourne’s early history. This book gives an account of the six years Emily Childers spent as a young married woman in the rapidly growing Melbourne until she returned to England.

We read of her daily life, her motherhood joys and sorrows and also of a time when she acted as First Lady to Sir Edward Macarthur, the Acting-Governor. The reader will enjoy accompanying Emily to Hobart, Geelong, Queenscliff, Portland and The Heads and reading about the houses in which she lived in St Kilda, Jolimont, Collingwood, Hawthorn and St Heliers in Abbotsford; some of these houses are heritage-listed today. Uhl quotes extensively from Emily’s diaries and letters so we see Melbourne very much through Emily’s eyes. She provides excellent context and background information and the narrative and the diary entries flow comfortably. Uhl’s analysis and commentary enrich the original texts.

The structure of the book would be of particular interest to those who are writing a family history and are fortunate to have access to diaries, letters and journals. Uhl has organised the book into chronological chapters covering the years 1850 to 1856.

The comprehensive notes at the end of each chapter are interesting references and may give new directions to explore for a writer interested in Melbourne during this time. As well, the book has an extensive index of names and a general index. Biographical information of the people mentioned in the diaries is comprehensive and covers people well-known and not so well-known, including church leaders, squatters, medical practitioners, stockbrokers and friends of Hugh and Emily Childers. A few photos of the Childers family are also included.

Emily’s diaries provide a glimpse of life in Melbourne at this time – the everyday chores and trials as well as the sophisticated and stylish. This is a book that will appeal to researchers and historians as well as general readers.



Review of 'Evernote for Genealogy' guidebook

Bill Barlow
31 March 2017
Book Reviews

How to use Evernote for Genealogy: A step-by-step guide to organise your research and boost your genealogy productivity

Author: Kerry Scott

Publisher: Family Tree Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2015

Review by Penny Mercer, March 2017

This is a well-written and easy to follow book on how to use this note-taking and information-organising software. The author uses Evernote to organise and classify information found, information needed, research plans according to repository and even DNA data matching.

The twelve chapters cover a basic introduction, how to input data, how to find data, how to tag data, different types and formats of data, sharing and collaborating, syncing, backing up and troubleshooting. Throughout there are screenshots, clear explanations and family history relevant examples. The appendices include a series of suggested templates for use by family historians.

Even though I have not yet tried the software, I found this book to be easy to follow. While clearly a fan and heavy user of the software, the author explains a few limitations, and is fair in assessing the features. One criticism I have is that the author doesn't mention how this might, or might not connect with the use of traditional family history software.

I was about to download the software when I discovered that the company has made some changes since this book was published, particularly to pricing of the premium version. So before you invest a lot of effort in one version, you need to check the relative costs and benefits of the program options for your needs.