Thoughts on Manning Clark on reading Mark McKenna’s new biography

Shared life, shared memories ... Dymphna and Manning Clark in 1989. It now appears it was Dymphna, not the historian, who saw the aftermath of the Nazi pogrom.

Manning and and Dymphna on the veranda of their house at Wapengo on the NSW South Coast

Inside Story has just published an essay by me in which I try to figure out Manning Clark. I was working on this within the bowels of what is not so politely called the ‘back end’ of Troppo when Ken Parish sent me an email saying that he liked the essay as it was coming along.  But it was still fairly repetitive, so I smartened it up and sent it off to Inside Story for a more salubrious publication than we amateurs can hope for here on Troppo.  I’m not too sure what the point of publishing an earlyish draft of the essay is, but Inside Story don’t like us reproducing their copy in its entirety, but I wanted to put a marker here to the final essay and it’s here in Troppo’s back end so I’m going to press ‘publish’ and be done with it.  But I’ll assume unless otherwise stated that comments below relate to the final version up on Inside Story. And even if you do read the material below, you should read the final version linked to above – or otherwise miss out on the story of the contraband frozen salmon marked “printed matter” that Dymphna smuggled through US customs.  (Please don’t pass the story onto Chris Mitchell or there’ll be hell to pay).


I’ve written once or twice about Manning Clark on Troppo and have managed to rack up over 3,000 words in this post. Given it’s got a nice spot for an ‘intermission’ I’m going to publish it in two parts.

I lived in a converted garage out the back of his house in 1990 – in between two close friends living there for several years each on either side of me – and got to know him and his wife Dymphna quite well. Manning Clark both as he appeared on the public stage and as I knew him and his expansive circle of family members, friends, followers and acolytes and hangers on of various hues (like me) remains a subject of fascination. One reason for that is that, to use one of his own high blown expressions, he dreamed a great dream. To use Woody Allen’s expression, he wanted to eat at the grown ups table and had the temerity to imagine that he could somehow fashion literature out of his very vivid and melodramatic view of his own experience.

A second reason is that the dream he dreamed was about us, about our history.

A third reason is that, in contrast to other great national cultural figures of his generation, it’s painfully unclear what he achieved. His monumental history is a very strange beast, full of inaccuracies ( not of great moment by themselves, but for what they may portend).

McKenna’s biography helped me clarify my own thoughts about what I think of his history.  I’m sorry to say that I think it’s pretty much a disaster. It is an attempt at an anachronistic genre – an attempt to write history as myth as Thomas Carlyle wrote (I can only really take about one paragraph of Thomas Carlyle at a time – separated by at least a few hours though usually it’s a few years – he was also a big defender of slavery against the likes of those cold blooded practitioners of a new and ‘dismal science’ – his expression – called economics – which brings one up a little short, but I digress). The anachronism of the genre ramps up the degree of difficulty – the chance of pulling off what he’s attempting by a great deal, but perhaps leaves it as a possibility. It would be possible to write something great writing additional books of the Bible – ie not as contemporary literary interpretations but additional books to add to the series – but it would be pretty damn hard. Like imagining a painter who could create really great art as an imitation of some past style. I know of none who’ve done it.

The problem is even deeper than that.  As the biography illustrates, Manning was centred on his own experience to a degree that some might find pathological. McKenna stops short of describing him as a Narcissist on the grounds that he’s consumed with doubt – and Narcissists are pleased with themselves.  I’m not sure about that. In any event, whatever words one uses to describe it, Clark is so intensely preoccupied with himself, his mortality, his high ideals for himself – and of course his moroseness at how far he falls short of them – that there’s very little room for anything much else in his life. McKenna has access to Manning’s diary and all his letters including a massive cache of letters between himself and Dymphna from their courtship (much of it spent apart – always handy for biographers!) right through to his demise in May 1991 including the letters from Dymphna’s several walkings out on him for a number of infidelities.

With the newly betrothed couple having received funding for two years in Europe (a difficult thing to achieve in a much poorer world than ours and so not something to throw away lightly), Dymphna went to Germany to further her remarkable abilities as a linguist while Manning went to Oxford. There he panicked about his loneliness without Dymphna  and sent her daily letters full of high feeling prose declaring his love, his inability to live without her, which then lead to recriminations because of her inability to respond in kind. Though her letters are lucid, expansive and very affectionate, indeed loving, nothing is ever enough to stop Manning, not just freaking out but also sending recriminations to her about his fear that she is being prosaic to the point of frostiness.

He comes over to Germany in high drama (there was plenty of drama going on at the time, with Kristallnacht having happened only a couple of weeks ago – though he famously later told the story as if he had arrived the night afterwards, whereas in fact, as Dymphna told people, dismayed when he told the press otherwise, he arrived a couple of weeks after Kristallnacht). He eventually gets her to marry him in Oxford (when the plan was to marry back in Australia) as well as to abandon her studies in Germany given the dangerous situation there. There was danger in Germany, but Dymphna later felt she should have stayed there longer than she did.

None of this kind of emotional turmoil is unusual for people in their early twenties. But Manning’s extraordinary combination of neediness and inability to be satisfied by Dymphna’s best endeavours to communicate her affection for and loyalty towards him in her own doggedly prosaic way went on and on. If Dymphna was away from him he would write daily with intense personal correspondence seeking her support. This would more often that not lead to the same kind of standoff as had occurred in their correspondence in Europe.

Manning’s several infidelities from around fifteen years into their marriage and then on a number of occasions subsequently usually ended in Dymphna leaving – the last occasion it was a fairly serious business involving Dymphna moving to Brisbane and getting a job as a nurses aid (cleaning and menial chores – just what she endlessly did in Canberra) – with Manning writing daily and doing extraordinary things to get her back usually lobbying the women he’d been having affairs with to join him in begging her to return. It’s pretty bizarre stuff.

Both Manning (joined by Dymphna) were very sensitive to all the people who had turned against them – as they saw it. As the book makes it clear, it wasn’t as one sided as that – or often wasn’t. It turns out that Manning was not only as devastated and thin skinned about criticism as he was about his wife’s failing in her affections towards him. He reacted to it with extraordinary vigour and indeed a desperation which is likely to have undermined the confidence of others in high places which he craved. Receiving the final draft of a fairly negative but perfectly legitimate review of Volume One destined for Nation Magazine, Manning sought to prevent it being published – approaching the magazine, and then the doyens of Australian history – Max Crawford and Keith Hancock – to intercede on his behalf.

These tactics worked surprisingly frequently. In this case, the editor of Nation (Tom Fitzgerald, a remarkable man of great integrity and achievement) would not agree to suppress the review. But then the reviewer had second thoughts and his negative review was ultimately published with a bizarre apologetic postscript conveying its author’s chastened confession that in his “anxiety to defend Protestantism” he had treated Clark unjustly. “This is simply the impact of the book on me” he confessed “the result of my harsh, personal selection from so many riches and insights”. Nor he confessed had the review recognised that “the personal idiosyncrasy of an historian is often the very groundwork of his insight and originality”. ((p. 447~))

Not only would Manning get up to this kind of stuff, but he would then refuse all contact with those whom he felt had slighted him.  One could say he was thin skinned, but it might be more accurate to say that he was almost lacking a skin – his sensitivity to the outside world was like someone who has some wound over which skin just wont grow so that the slightest touch sets it off again.

And, ultimately this is the problem with his grand history.

Clark’s qualities meant that there was much fine writing and fine feeling in his history. Those qualities included deep reading, powerful feeling – including a passion for Australia that surfaced in his expat years in the UK long before it surfaced in the contemporaries with whom he later led a renaissance of Australian culture – people like Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Patrick White. Still for all the purple patches of prose, all the times one thinks that he’s managed the rhetoric of his story admirably, Ken Inglis’s staccato burst of adjectives sums up the six volumes’ prose as well as anything else – “glowing, incantatory, allusive, evocative, archaic, banal, repetitive, threadbare.” ((p. 461~))

In a sense it really doesn’t matter if there are lots of factual mistakes in the work because, although Manning would accept that it wasn’t historical fiction, he wasn’t supposed to just make stuff up. It doesn’t matter in terms of what Manning was trying to achieve that there are lots of errors because, though he would regard such errors as flaws, the purpose was to create literature that would stand the test of time. (And apart from anything else, most great histories have factual errors because it’s pretty impossible in the face of incomplete evidence not to get some things wrong – which, with the passage of time get discovered and  fixed up.) Now Manning’s mistakes are not due to the incompleteness of the evidence but rather to his taking liberties with the text. But since his purpose is to create literature of lasting value, the test is, do these inaccuracies detract from that goal in some fundamental way. I don’t think they necessarily do, but they are a symptom of the deeper problem which is that as the repetitions build up the history reveals itself as a kind of costume drama in which the characters play out Manning’s mental world.

The book contains quite a few examples of people writing to him to correct him on points of fact and interpretation. His portrait of Curtin was morose – not unlike guess who – but his daughter wrote and told him (along with numerous inaccuracies of fact) that her father was not morose, and that her mother would never have given Curtain an ultimatum that she’d not marry him if he wouldn’t give up the drink.. The real kicker is that Manning’s archetypes never expand into characters that are more than the archetypes, something uniquely belonging to the subject of the history whether it was Alfred Deakin, John Curtin or Ned Kelly. They’re some side of Manning in fancy dress. Hell in the heart, wondering what went on in the mind of a woman, wondering what it was all for. The material is cannibalised for scenes which can be transformed into stories that Clark wants to tell. Clark’s inaccuracies need not be a big deal, but are a telltale sign that the narrative is indeed “threadbare”.  Great literature, or even good writing is not threadbare.

Here’s Clark describing the moments after Ned Kelly’s capture.

Matthew Gibney, the Vicar General of the Catholic Church in Perth, who happened to be at the Glenrowan, began to prepare Ned for his journey into the kingdom of perpetual night.  He knew what had driven Ned mad; he knew the meaning of those words ‘Mad Ireland made him’; he knew how the English had allowed the most beautiful island on God’s earth to become a land of skills during the Great Hunger of 1846-47. But he knew, too, the remainder of his Divine Master that any man who was angry with his neighbour without cause was in danger of hellfire; he knew of the compassion of the Galilean for those outlaws and vagabonds who wandered over the face of the the earth with a private hell in their hearts. So on that railway station at Glenrowan, Matthew Gibney began to tame Ned and to prepare him, desperately late though it was, for redemption and acceptance, to get him to see that though men find some things right, and some wrong, to God all things are fair, and just, and right.

At one stage McKenna says that though Clark did not write historical fiction, he did write fictional history – quite a comment to toss in. I’ve not seen the sources, but I’m pretty sure that virtually all of the passage I’ve just quoted is pretty much fiction.  But my complaint is not that it’s what might be called ‘elaborative fiction’, but that if you read a lot of this, it doesn’t develop. It’s the same incantatory stuff, chapter after chapter.  A few archetypes in costumes doing their shtick.  In fact the passage I’ve just quoted isn’t from Volume IV where I would imagine Ned appears (I’ve only got Volumes 1, 5 and 6 to hand.) It’s from a book of Occasional Writings and Speeches and the piece is written in 1968 from a very enjoyable essay called “Good day to you Ned Kelly” – the title is a quote from Mr Gribble whose fob-watch Kelly ordered his men to return after they’d taken it from Gribble in their Jerilderie adventure. In this context the passage is certainly unusual by normal standards, and I think it’s also fictional – if you like ‘elaborative fiction’. And on it’s face its fairly clear that the historian is elaborating on things he cannot know. So it’s not particularly deceptive, and one might think it does some work in the story – it certainly brings in Clark’s themes.

The problem is that there are six volumes of this kind of elaboration and once the themes are established, the elaborations end up simply repeating themes encountered earlier. At this point, history as literature with elaborative fiction, becomes costume drama. We’re not learning anything new about the past, and paradoxically nor are we learning anything new about Clark’s mental world – for to do that, there would need to be some creative engagement between the historian and the material with which he’s working – beyond simple identification.  Ultimately nothing gets elaborated that we don’t already know. We’re in a literary echo chamber.

So for me the grand history doesn’t cut it. It’s a huge collection of fragments which become more and more repetitive and, as a consequence add less and less of substance. Clark and I think Dymphna always feared that the whole thing was a failure. A grand undertaking and a grand failure. He concluded his Boyer Lectures which were his first sustained meditation on his opus thus:

I was very lucky: I had a great dream. My great regret was that I was never able to find the words which would enable me to portray the child of my heart.

In 1967 the year before the publication of Volume 2 he gave a lecture full of admissions of the weaknesses of the history:

I remember, and like all journeys, there were and still are moments when one regretted leaving the winter palaces – when one wondered whether it was all folly – the peaks were always out of reach. Yes, and I would do it again, because, may I say it, the vision was right, the execution bad.

Still there are big things to like in Clark’s project even if he didn’t bring off his grand ambitions.  But they wait for part two. It may surprise you but I think that for all the failure of his History of Australia, indeed in some senses because of it, Manning Clark managed something of considerable moment.

Those things include;

  • its grand scale. As McKenna argues, Clark was the first post-colonialist history of Australia. And to say perhaps the same thing, it was also the first history of Australia which didn’t make Britishness a kind of touchstone of Australia.  From its opening, it cast Australian history as a European drama.  (Clark always felt bad about underplaying aborigines in the story feeling that his first line became an embarrassing anachronism – though it’s true enough in the sense in which he meant it “Civilisation did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century”.)
  • its grand themes. I think his idea of painting his portrait of Australia as an historical theatre in which the values of Enlightenment, Protestantism and Catholicism met is a fine construction and one which has surely contributed to our understanding of ourselves.
  • its embrace of narrative. This was a bold thing to do when analytic history was only growing in favour throughout the academy.
  • its Australianness. As McKenna shows, Clark was passionate about Australia, and about the need to tell Australian stories and to write Australian literature from a very early time. This was much clearer to him than it was to many other peers, including those who became fellow travellers on his journey to forge an Australian cultural sensibility – people like White in literature and Boyd and Nolan in painting.

And it’s not incidental that the quote above comes from a much shorter work – an essay. For Clark’s style really was at its best in much shorter pieces. Indeed his Occasional Writings and Speeches is a collection of terrific pieces. His speeches are fine things to read.  But I heard him speak and on a couple of occasions and I can only say that they were electrifying.  I remember living at Burgmann College and I think I had spoken to him on a couple of occasions – he invited you round to talk to him at his house at the drop of a hat. Anyway undergrad valedictory dinners are not the best places for after dinner speeches. Most people begin with that undergraduate desire to please the audience, to prove that they’re hip, or have been hip or are above hip.  Manning began in a very soft almost breaking voice. I think he had a microphone but it wasn’t too flash.  A couple of people tittered at the sound of him. He sounded like a doddering old man. There was some tittering as he started. They had also had a fair bit of alcohol.

I was very anxious and nervous for him. What if they just laughed and went on talking (that’s what we’d done to the Governor General Zelman Cowen the year before). Anyway I think Manning began by telling the story of Old Mother Hubbard who went to the cupboard to find that it was bare.  A bit more tittering. Anyway somehow, though Manning was in no hurry to get to his point or to ‘hold his audience’ they stayed quiet enough to hear and be drawn into his message – which was that we all worry about being like Old Mother Hubbard and finding, when we open it that the cupboard – of our talents, of our reserves of endurance is bare. And then what. Then he told some stories and the hall calmed and quietened. And he went on for a long time. I recall only one more thing that he said, almost inaudibly as if he were breaking down – perhaps he was, perhaps he was putting it on, perhaps a bit of both – but we could all hear.  He said “You have to remember . . .  there are dogs outside the holy city”.

And on he went. About half an hour after he’d started, he concluded. There was a pause while people wondered if he had stopped, as he almost petered out into silence. And then there was rapturous applause.  It was a remarkable performance.  Indeed I think in his remarkable and unique way, he’s the best speaker I’ve ever heard. What was on display was a very complete kind of performance. One in which the heart was paramount, and yet which emerged from very deep learning and knowledge of his subject.

The other thing I’d say about Clark, and I think it is a big thing about Clark, illuminated to some extent by the content of the biography, but not developed as a theme is that he played the fool.  I don’t mean by that what some of his detractors meant – that he was, in the words of the TV add on drink driving “a bloody idiot”. I mean ‘fool’ in the way fools appear in Shakespeare. Clark made an art form of speaking the truth elliptically and playfully and strangely. His charisma as a lecturer was partly based on his unpredictability. He was constantly doing strange but very funny things – singing in his lectures. In his letters to Dymphna and to others he is exercising his phobias and foibles, but he’s also acting the fool, full of wide eyed naïveté.

What is Manning doing driving to the airport, sometimes a city away from Canberra to meet the first copies of his books? Or posting notes to his parents on their gravestones, and taking pictures of them. Manning’s vanity in enjoying own profile was renown. But he was a fool in the way he did this also, which is to say that he accepted invitations from people and organisations that were poorly placed to contribute to that profile. The biography makes it pretty clear that Clark knew he was dying. He was advised to go to hospital by his doctor and did not go. He was becoming weaker. But he still accepted an invitation to fly to Adelaide and give a speech – a trip he cancelled on the day he died. The biography doesn’t say, but I don’t think it was a high profile thing. This was a man who was leaving notes around the house telling Dymphna how badly he was feeling and leaving last notes also to his biographers.

For all his self-centredness he was also hospitable to the point of foolhardiness in some respects. Although his domestic hospitality was more of an imposition on Dymphna than on himself, I recall him taking me down to his beach house at Wapengo (which Dymphna would point out with great hilarity to anyone who’d listen, he stuck on a map of important settlements in NSW in 1850 in Volume 3).  We piled into the car with Tuppence the aging black Labrador – a lovely, much loved dog – and down we’d go.  Along the way Manning would stop and pick up virtually any hitch-hiker, along with any luggage – including pets – they may have in tow. In they’d squeeze with the BO wafting round the car.  They’d be invited to stay at Wapengo if they wanted. Virtually anyone could come to Wapengo.

In thinking about Clark, I think of Wilde’s comment that he put his talent into his work and his genius into his life. Of course with Wilde the life really was one of genius, his martyrdom for the gay cause was like Socrates martyrdom for his conception of life as it should be lived. Clark achieved nothing on that score, and indeed, nothing to rival Wilde’s great plays, but one of the things I thought before I read the biography, but which becomes much plainer having read it, is that Manning’s Magnum Opus was a grand effort. And though it may have been a grand failure, which in some senses makes it a grand folly, it was also the window into the life he wanted to lead – into eating at the grown up table. Of course one can see this as a kind of calculated play acting by Clark. But of course he gave it everything he had.  He sat up there in his study starting at around 6.00 am or so every morning and working until the early afternoon for over two decades, each volume receiving several drafts.

And the point of it was not just the work, but the work in the life. As we all do, Manning narrated his life to himself, and then turned that narrative into his subject.  He did so quite self-consciously quite early on in the production of the volumes of history.  And so, I think that like many great writers, his subject was himself, and his life. He wasn’t a great writer, but he was a fine writer when the style in which he was writing was more true to his abilities and his real intent – that is to say his writing of speeches – as well as their delivery was as fine as anyone I know.  And his writing about his own journey, his own efforts at going to the cupboard and doing all the work and taking all the risk that he’d find what Old Mother Hubbard found.  I don’t think the History stands as an achievement except as a monument to a grand effort. But ultimately Manning Clark did not go away empty-handed and neither did we. His ambitions were grand and in a strange kind of way, and I’m not thinking of the fame and adulation he acquired as he went, he achieved them.

Having got this far, you may be wondering what the book is like. It’s a marvellous read. Watching Clark’s life – really Clark’s and Dymphna’s life unfold is exciting and exasperating. And thoroughly absorbing.


This entry was posted in History, Life. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lesley Beards
12 years ago

I want to print this article but cannot. Any advice please? I am currently studying Manning Clark is a history course at Newcastle University. NSW.

Lesley Beards

Lesley Beards
12 years ago

I just can’t print it and I need it for my esay to reference comments. I am beginning to think there is something wrong with my computer as it takes ages to get anywhere.
Thank you for your comments.

Lesley Beards