He spoke so well they thought he was beautiful

For Deakin, oratory was a key weapon in the political battle in the imperial capital for recognition of the rights and equality of Australian manhood. He had learnt about the power of speech-making in the Empire in 1887, when, as a young man of thirty, he first journeyed to London as a member of the Victorian delegation to the first Colonial Conference, called to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. There, with ‘unrestrained vigour’ and ‘powerful retorts’, he had, by his own account, trounced the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. But he had been prepared for this performance many years before—in the Deakin family home, at Melbourne Grammar School, in the university debating club and in the Eclectics Society.

Nature favoured Deakin as a public performer: he was bright, charming, tall, dark and handsome, as Gustafson had noted, and a voracious reader with a capacious memory. He was also, no doubt because of these traits, favoured by male patrons: at school, by the headmaster, Dr Bromby, and a young master, J. H. Thompson, ‘a handsome athlete whom [Deakin] was not alone in worshipping’, in the words of biographer La Nauze; at university, by Charles Pearson, erstwhile Professor of Modern History at King’s College, London, who convened the Debating Club; in journalism, by David Syme, the influential proprietor of the Age, who gave him work and supported him as a twenty-two-year-old candidate for election to the Victorian Parliament, and by James Service, Victorian Premier, his patron in Parliament.[17] His biographer also found him attractive. ‘His physical endowments,’ La Nauze wrote with manly appraisal, ‘lay in his appearance, his bearing and his voice.’ Deakin’s eyes ‘gave vivacity to his handsome features. His voice, a light baritone in quality, had a rich timbre and a wide range. His quick gestures were adapted unconsciously to express rhetorical emphasis as he gained experience in speaking.’[18]

As a young man, Deakin was an orator in the making. His ‘Notebooks’ from the 1880s report his interest in studying technique and effect. From English constitutionalist Walter Bagehot, he noted the importance of constructing an argument: ‘Of all the pursuits ever invented by man for separating the faculty of argument from the capacity of belief, the art of debating is probably the most effectual.’ From American writer Walt Whitman, he learnt the charismatic effect of the ‘right voice’:

Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice

Him or her I shall follow

As the water follows the moon silently with

Fluid steps, anywhere around the globe.[19]

Deakin had travelled part-way round the globe in 1885, on a voyage that took him across the Pacific Ocean to California to investigate irrigation, and then on to the east coast to New York and Boston, a trip whose main objective was a pilgrimage to the grave of Whitman’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Two years later, in London, in 1887, Deakin had the opportunity for the first time to speak as a statesman on the world stage and he found exactly the ‘right voice’. He wooed British statesmen and leaders of society with an ‘oratorical power’ that the Liberal politician Sir Charles Dilke found ‘remarkable’. Dilke quickly came to the view that Deakin was ‘the man of greatest promise in all Australia…a great administrator, a man of extraordinary charm and eloquence’.[20] Dilke, like many of his countrymen, seemed to find Deakin’s eloquence especially surprising in ‘a native born Australian’, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Sir William Hillier Onslow, who shared Holland’s duties as president of the 1887 conference, referred to him.[21]

Shortly after Deakin’s arrival, Onslow, a former governor of New Zealand, sent him an invitation to join him for dinner at Richmond Terrace, Whitehall: ‘I was delighted to hear of your safe arrival. Lady Onslow is still abroad but returns this week. If you are disengaged will you give us the pleasure of your company at dinner here on Thursday 22nd at 8.15?’[22] By the time Deakin left England that year, Onslow, like so many others, had concluded that Deakin was no ordinary colonial. While other British subjects delivered themselves of platitudes and pledges of loyalty to the Mother Country, Deakin struck an entirely different note. In Deakin, they had ‘a real live man’.[23]

At a dinner hosted by the Imperial Federation League, Deakin was provided with his first opportunity to speak on political matters in London, when his colleague Sir James Lorimer was unable to attend. ‘I ought to have been better prepared & to have done better,’ he wrote home, ‘but it was not altogether a failure. Some thought it the speech of the evening.’[24] The Age report—from its anonymous correspondent (was it Deakin himself?)—echoed this judgment: ‘[I]n the unanimous opinion of all present [it was] the speech of the evening.’ His theme was the imperative of Australian independence: the colonies ‘were too proud to remain in such a dependent condition when they had been so amply endowed with the privileges of self-government’. The Duke of Cambridge responded with ‘a warm eulogium on the ability of Mr Deakin’s speech’.[25]

Deakin spoke so well they thought he was beautiful. English public men adored him and showered him with invitations to their city clubs and country houses. Initially, he had used letters of introduction from Charles Pearson (to Dilke and M. E. Grant Duff, for example), but as word spread about this charming and challenging young man from the Antipodes, so the requests for his company and literary contributions to the London magazines poured in. The editor of the Fortnightly Review ‘seemed to take greatly to me & strongly presses me to write him a colonial article…Murray’s Magazine has pressed the same thing but I declined all’.[26]

One of the many leading public men to whom he was introduced in London was Sir George Trevelyan, historian and politician and biographer of Macaulay. They met at a lunch hosted by Lady Holland, Trevelyan’s sister, Macaulay’s niece and the wife of Sir Henry Holland, the Colonial Secretary. At lunch, Deakin was seated next to Trevelyan: ‘very cultured, clever & chatty,’ he noted dismissively in his letter home. Though Deakin judged Trevelyan to be ‘a light weight all round’, he nevertheless noted down Trevelyan’s remark that ‘this was the age in which one fine art, that of speaking, has been brought to perfection’.[27] Deakin knew that it was an art in which he excelled.

His eloquence particularly impressed the Colonial Secretary. ‘Sir H. Holland was pleased,’ Deakin wrote to his sister, ‘& Service says he has fallen in love with me as other elders have done. I cannot see this.’[28] But he came round to this view, a few days later, when after conference discussions on the subject of defence, the Lords of the Admiralty, Sir A. Hood and Sir A. Hoskins, ‘came right up to me & poured in broadsides because of my independent views of Victoria’. But then, ‘Sir H. Holland came to the rescue—& Service declares his personal attentions are most marked to me—In a pleasant interview I had with him he expressed his regret at my declining the KCMG & wished me to take it. I think I have made a friend in him.’[29]

Holland was considered a proficient speaker, but not an orator, an important distinction: ‘[I]n style and tone he is the model of a permanent official; and, though not an orator, is quite capable of making a clear and business like statement on any point of procedure or policy.’[30] Deakin’s assessments of men usually looked to their speaking capacity, which he interpreted as a reliable indicator of their manhood more generally. William Gladstone was ‘strong in passion & strong in natural gifts of an oratorical order, strong in a kind of culture which fed & elevated his oratory’.[31] Poor speakers were explained as effeminate or feeble. Arthur Balfour, the young Secretary for Ireland, was ‘foppish unprepossessing in appearance, egotistical and without oratorical grace’. On a visit to the House of Commons, Deakin ‘heard no speaking of special order. Two feeble old Liberals moved an amendment & an aldermanish but capable conservative made a good and solid reply.’[32]

Just as a capacity for oratory was a marker of powerful manhood, so it rendered women ‘masculine’, as Deakin described Annie Besant, whom he heard speak in Edinburgh over Easter. His critical analysis of her performance judged it according to a number of masculinist criteria. She had an

intense voice good & ringing not soft or winning—never smiles & her humour what there is of it grim & not pleasant—her accent quite educated & cultured. Her language clean & well chosen, admirably simple & strong. I should say her lecture was familiar to her, tho she glanced now & then at her notes. Her sentences were well formed & finished, not so flowing nor so theatrical nor so dominating as Mrs Britten, but concise & more sinewy in some respects the best speaker among women I have heard. But just as her audience was old, so was the treatment of her speech.

Deakin thought her arguments ‘clean in expression & utterance, but by no means original in any single thought, utterly barren of constructive ideas’.[33] To the extent that she was a good speaker—indeed, the best speaker among women he had heard—she sacrificed her femininity. Oratory was a masculine performance; womanliness demanded a soft voice and winning smiles.