An Eye for Eternity: The life of Manning Clark

By Mark McKenna
Melbourne University Publishing
$55.00   793pp.

McKenna opens with Clark’s speaking voice as the measure of his man. He transposes this ‘song of himself’ into a song of Australia as Clark’s aria rose on a nationalist chorus during the 1960s. McKenna embellishes the aural dimension of biography with variations on his subject’s body, visage and attire. Although almost all the people interviewed recall Clark’s sense of fun, little of the resultant mirth is evoked by the retelling.  

Other elements are under-developed or scattered, such as the monies that went into and came out of the writing. Royalties and research grants are as crucial as metaphysics and metaphors. Clark’s big mistake was to sell A Short History outright for £900.

Health is also treated unevenly, with a lot on epilepsy, but less on heart problems, which, despite by-pass surgery in 1983, sapped the energies needed to lift the final volume across the wastelands of 1916 to 1935. It is not clear whether McKenna thinks that Clark was ever an alcoholic. His wife of fifty-one years, Dymphna, had long thought his illnesses largely psychosomatic, reminding friends that St Dymphna was the patron of the insane. The life presents a portrait of their marriage, not a diptych.

Neither Newton’s alchemy nor Einstein’s socialism influences our evaluation of their respective notions of gravity. That split between facticity and character does not apply to scholars in the humanities. Personality and politics are but two of the prisms through which historians approach our subject matter. Hence, to know about the tellers helps readers to decide how much credence to place on their tales. How should revelations about Clark’s private life affect our responses to his chosen role as a bearer of morality yarns? Since he never presented himself as other than a sinner, and his six volumes are a scrub of men defeated by flaws in their clay - fellow sufferers - his failings are a reason to attend. He did not understudy Tartuffe and was never the cynic.

Dostoevsky’s life and fictions were as much a part of Clark’s reality as the ladder he climbed each morning into his study. His probing of emotions still unnerves his blokey critics. Professor La Nauze’s riposte that he did not read Clark because he never read fiction showed up in the failure of La Nauze’s biography of Alfred Deakin to fathom his depths.

Clark stood apart from most contemporary scholars who were taken up with the relations between the individual and society. Although he accepted that history was about individuals adrift against larger forces, he kept ‘his eye ever on eternity’, as his Catholic student Sid Ingham recalled. Earth, Christ and man were the trinity in Europe but in settler Australia Clark saw only earth and man. D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo conjured with a spirit of place which Clark discerned in Patrick White, Sid Nolan and Arthur Boyd and sought to emulate.

McKenna’s sub-title ‘The life of Manning Clark’ contrasts with his subject’s insistence that his own magnum opus merited only the indefinite article ‘A history of Australia’. Were Clark’s most implacable critic, the late M H Ellis, to review this life he would say of it what he did of Clark’s first volume in 1963: it is focused on ‘little things of the mind and spirit’. Since Clark did not limit his Dostoevskian ache ‘to understand what it had all been for’ to inner longings, he too might fault McKenna for becoming a prisoner of the diaries.

That source material narrows his interest in the six volumes towards their reception, away from their production. He tells us that Clark’s Oxford tutor ‘revolutionised’ his note-taking but does not say what this method was. We are never taken through how Clark worked up a paragraph from the materials that he and his research assistants garnered; that exercise would help us to understand his strengths and his failings as scholar and stylist. Without those 100,000 sentences there would be no market for his private life. We hear more of how he failed to woo one researcher than on how he worked with all the others. Three pages from Clark’s travel notes track Burke and Wills across the continent but offer no guidance on how he wove them into one of his finest set pieces. What effect did his writing with a steel-nib pen dipped in ink have on the accuracy and polish of the final drafts?

McKenna devotes a chapter to Clark’s misreporting of his arrival in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht. In this typically asute achievement, McKenna explores how the retelling of any story affects memory. The subtleties of reshaping might ell have been repeated in a case study from within the six volumes.

Dymphna Lodewyckx’s father dreamt of her as his successor in academe, a role for which she had intellectual equipment to spare, as she demonstrated in her edition of von Hugel’s 1833-4 journal, and her efforts to prune Clark’s self-indulgences in print. He attached notes to his parents’ gravestones: after his death, she edited his Master’s thesis and a collection of speeches. Yet she had no regrets about not becoming a tutor of Old Icelandic. Instead, she wondered how her life might have turned out had she been free to go Bermuda in 1942 to interpret at the interrogation of suspected spies. Let us fancy her career in MI6 and a presence throughout Le Carre novels.

Her energies went into her six children as a mother lioness and into the three Clark family homes. ‘I created Croydon with my own hands’. Robin Boyd designed the Canberra house which was run up by an Italian who had never built a dwelling before. Dymphna served as project supervisor and could have done the carpentry; she and the builder became lifelong friends. Gardens and plain cooking were among her several strengths. We glimpse one source of her domestic regime from a story she told of her mother’s plucking, cooking and eating a thrush which had died in her garden: ‘So that it might not have lived in vain’. While Clark addressed rallies, she addressed envelopes for the Aboriginal Treaty Committee.

A side of him ached for a Christina Stead to respond in kind to his impassioned declarations, though not even her man-hunger would have put up with his antics for fifty years. Those infidelities and public flirting brought on rage, despair and some self- loathing in Dymphna. More perplexing than adultery and its aftermaths was their placing their two-month old son into a hospital in 1955 while they travelled through Asia before meeting up three months later in India. She left home more than once, fleeing to Brisbane to work as a hospital orderly, getting a little money for the scrubbing that she had done unpaid. Thereafter, she kept a bag packed. Her resolution swung between ‘please have pity on my attempt to save a mite of dignity and integrity for the last few years of my life’ and assurances ‘but believe me, I am warm, very warm in my feelings for you’.

She died in 2000, McKenna writes, ‘lying on the same bed on which Clark had died in 1991; he calling out for help, she asking to be left in peace’.

Humphrey McQueen is the author of Suspect History, Manning Clark and the future of Australia’s past (1997).