4. Sounds of History: Oratory and the fantasy of male power

Marilyn Lake

Table of Contents

In my wildest egotistical dreams
Independent manhood
He spoke so well they thought he was beautiful
The British Prime Minister trounced
In conclusion: only talk

In my wildest egotistical dreams

In 1907, Arthur Atlee Hunt, the sensitive and self-regarding Secretary of External Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, accompanied his ‘Chief’, Alfred Deakin, to the Colonial Conference in London. He reported on his experience, and that of the Prime Minister, in a series of confidential and detailed letters to his friend Bob Garran, in Melbourne, asking Garran to keep the letters as ‘a memento of these important doings’.[1] Central to Hunt’s reports to his friend were detailed accounts of Prime Minister Deakin’s speech-making, widely praised as exemplary in its oratorical power.

What also becomes clear in Hunt’s letters is the role of oratory as an indicator of masculine prowess in his Edwardian world. He was a keen analyst of the redeeming power of oratory and entertained fantasies on his own behalf. He wrote to Garran that he was sorely disappointed by Sir Wildred Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada, who was handicapped by ‘a weak voice and a foreign accent’. He was surprised: ‘Either he has faded from his former brilliancy, or else the standard of public speaking in the [Canadian] Dominion must be low, otherwise I cannot account for his reputation.’[2] He felt a nationalist pride in Deakin, who proved particularly impressive in the challenging role of after-dinner speaker. At the Pilgrims’ Dinner, he was preceded by the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who ‘in his curt, clear, incisive, cultured House of Commons manner was delightful to listen to, but there was no humour and no fire’.[3] In Deakin’s speech, on the other hand, there were both: ‘[H]is sarcasm was polished and keen, and his enthusiasm was earnest and infectious.’ Hunt judged it the best speech he had ever heard Deakin—or anyone else—ever make.[4] He was pleased to report to Garran that the Prime Minister’s renowned ability as a speaker meant that his ‘position as the most prominent and forcible of all the Colonial Premiers is greatly strengthened: not only is he infinitely the best speaker but he seems to be the only one who has the courage to say exactly what he thinks’.[5]

Deakin surpassed all other Dominion leaders in oratorical skill; the other speakers at the 1907 conference, Hunt noted, talked ‘platitudes of the commonest type’. ‘I have often felt I should like to have their chance,’ he confided to Garran, ‘and though in my wildest egotistical dreams I could never hope to approach even our Chief’s poorest efforts…yet I am confident that within five minutes’ notice I could have made a better speech than any other Colonial representative.’[6] In the cultured world of public men, oratory conferred power and prestige, hence their preoccupation and its place in their dreams.