Inside Story

Scenes from a marriage

Two daughters profile a controversial father and an enigmatic mother against the backdrop of the growing bush capital

Nicholas Brown Books 3 October 2022 3259 words

Before the storms: Cecily and John Burton, just married, in London in April 1939. Burton family collection

Canberra in the 1940s “was a ghastly town for women,” Nugget Coombs conceded. As bright young men like him were drawn into the exciting, expanding opportunities of wartime administration and postwar reconstruction, their wives faced isolation in the scattered housing of the bare national capital.

Their experience might be redeemed by patterns of sociability in the tight circles of similarly placed recent arrivals. Most of them — men and women — were relatively well educated. By circumstance they were exposed to a ferment of ideas, by necessity they were mobile, and they found in their own self-conscious informalities some of the elements of a new middle-class identity seen as desperately needed in mid-century Australia.

Commentators at the time defined that still-fragile emerging identity around concepts of the state and state intervention, secularism, self-expression, empathy and expertise. Some who knew the city well in those years saw such a status as one to which a large proportion of Australians might aspire but relatively few could really lay claim, even as many looked to their men in Canberra — politicians as well as public servants — to deliver the new agendas of the welfare state.

Those men gravitating to Canberra were there, after all, because they were a “type,” envisaged by the Public Service Board in 1948 as “the sort of youngster who, with right handling, great care and great patience” would adapt keen intelligence to “the gross air of everyday affairs.” They were making the place as much as it was making them.

For their wives, however, the everyday of personal relationships could seem dominated by masculine codes of (often alcohol-spiced) intellectual rivalry transposed in largely unmediated ways from offices (and probably before then from scholarship and prize lists and school hierarchies) into the cramped spaces of hasty, ration-limited suburban dinner parties, rangy young families and domestic roles assumed far from extended support.

Such experiences, of course, were far from peculiar to Canberra. But they did have a kind of precocity there. Stuart Macintyre noted the austere masculinism that was inherent in Labor’s reconstruction processes, however inclusionary its “new order” message. And given this association with groups who would go on to exercise significant national leadership, those processes might be seen to have had both a reflective and formative role in relation to longer-term transformations in Australian society.

Coombs’s wife stayed in Sydney. In a recent collection of essays written by the daughters and sons of other women who chose (if that is the right word) to move to Canberra, one recurrent if seemingly unanticipated question intrudes into the more familiar recollections of childhoods in the privileged, experimental city taking shape around them. “Were our mothers happy?” For some, a second question follows: what guilt or stress was carried by fathers whose often consuming work was the only reason for their families being there?

In these pressures, perhaps, the national capital was hardly a microcosm: its alienation had its own “ghastly” dimensions. But as Don Watson has also powerfully observed, Canberra “is like no other Australian town or city, yet no other Australian town or city is more Australian.”

Untangling that paradox can seem an indulgence. How can such a transitory “bubble” reflect more than fragments of the lives passing through it? An answer? Perhaps by broadening out our sense of what wider transitions Canberra, for all its idiosyncrasy, drew into focus in such moments of intensity.

John Burton was among those bright young men, and would become the most controversial. His father was a prominent Methodist minister, an inter-war “theological radical” whose missionary work informed advocacy for exploited Pacific islanders. The son left faith behind but carried forward a similarly vigorous reformist commitment. He joined the Commonwealth Public Service in 1937, aged twenty-two, after graduating from the University of Sydney. His study of economics, and the power of a precious few mentors who led the way in seeking a synergy of academic and bureaucratic skills in Canberra, soon enabled his transfer from an uninspiring post office clerkship in Sydney to the Department of Commerce.

In 1938, in ranks still deeply ambivalent about the importance of a degree, and in a nation in which no university offered a doctorate, Burton secured the first public service scholarship for graduate study. With a PhD from the London School of Economics, he was back in the national capital by 1941, joining the Post-War Reconstruction division of the Department of Labour and National Service.

Fired with ideas of what planning could deliver, Burton was not easy to manage in small teams dealing as much with the immediate demands of mobilisation as with longer-term objectives. Moving to External Affairs, he gained more autonomy in framing an economic agenda that almost inevitably contended in influence and perspective with colleagues in other agencies.

His confident yet insinuating manner — as one of those peers most offended by it, Paul Hasluck, observed — “instantly commended itself” to his even more complex and ambitious minister, H.V. Evatt. Becoming Evatt’s private secretary, Burton entrenched the seemingly unassailable hold over policy formation his critics deplored, or envied. In 1947, Evatt edged Burton, aged thirty-two, past those with seniority, making him secretary of his department.

Burton’s diplomatic impact and achievements are familiar to students of Australian international affairs. He anchored Evatt’s internationalism, argued for recognition of Communist China, supported Indonesian nationalism as one core element of a “positive approach” to engagement with Asia, and urged disengagement from “great power” dependency and from the polarising scenarios favoured by the military and intelligence strategists he dismissed as the “gnomes of Melbourne.” This list could go on.

Evatt’s anchor: John Burton with external affairs minister H.V. Evatt at the San Francisco Conference in April 1945. Burton Family collection

He was, then, distinctly “frank and fearless,” in the terms of the model of bureaucratic leadership often associated with the transformation in the authority and professionalism of the Commonwealth Public Service from the 1940s onwards. But he was certainly not one of those who secured endurance, influence and reverence by deftly managing policy reform through the change of government from Labor’s “planning” into the long Menzies years after 1949.

While still secretary of External Affairs, Burton ran for Labor preselection for the new federal seat of Canberra in 1949, rather misjudging how far local politics would go in supporting an “intellectual.” He resigned from the department — and left his post as high commissioner to Ceylon — to run unsuccessfully as a Labor candidate against Billy McMahon for the Sydney seat in the 1951 election.

The following year, even Evatt was discomforted when Burton insisted on attending a meeting organised by the Chinese Committee for Peace in the Pacific, as a private citizen but with a high public profile and a commitment to inform the nation of the cause. Taunted as Labor’s “pink eminence,” Burton was subject to intense surveillance by ASIO — the creation of which he opposed — and became a figure of official investigation, public suspicion and proven press defamation during the royal commission following the Petrov defection in 1954.

All of this might mark him out as an exception way beyond the pale of a Canberra rule. And yet. Through all this maelstrom some networks persisted; a place was accorded to Burton as the conscience — or perhaps wise fool — on the margins of a court of bureaucrats who played safer in public but still sought change, whatever the politicians said. Certain loyalties persisted from the informal networks of the 1940s into the 1950s, and maybe a few ideals.

At non-alignment conferences in the Asian region, Burton had a seat and status much closer to the stage than Australian officials, torpid in their instructions. At that other rising emblem of Canberra, the Australian National University, Burton, turning his energy to more considered reflections on foreign policy “alternatives,” might never have fully secured a place but was still accorded a standing that served its own purposes in testing or proving institutional tolerance.

A “ratbag” — as he was called — can be useful, as can a personality. Acquiring a series of farms on Canberra’s suburban outskirts where he adopted innovative practices; literally “shovelling shit” while in earnest conversation with visitors on the metaphorical equivalent in national and international affairs; offering hospitality to those needing a moment’s escape from the circus; or selling his own milk on university and public service doorsteps in intrepid self-employment — Burton became a singular, eccentric if somehow vital, integral figure in the “bush capital.”

Emphatic in defending “those with young families, those whose jobs, promotions and development were denied them unless they were untrue to themselves” under the pressures of cold war scrutiny — as he wrote in Meanjin in 1973 — he maintained that he himself, and his family, had risen above such “inconvenience,” given his capacity for reinvention, accepting “challenges as they came” and resiliently fighting for values others merely mouthed.

That “inconvenience,” however, rested heaviest on his wife. Pamela Burton and collaborator Meredith Edwards’s newly released biography of the couple, Persons of Interest: An Intimate Account of Cecily and John Burton, originated in their determination to rescue their father’s reputation from the easy, careless, calculated slurs on his “philo-communism” as a spy, traitor or dupe, which persisted well after his death in 2010. But it soon became obvious to these sisters that no defence could be complete, or just, if it did not take account of their mother, Cecily. Their work then had to become “an intimate account” of both parents, and most centrally of their marriage. And that marriage needed to be conveyed not as bedrock but as a site of strain, friction, demand and fragile emotional survival.

The questions — was Cecily happy? was John guilty? — might seem trite but are also insistent in this closely observed, intimate, candid book. What was being transacted in the tensions between these individuals, and in their broader historical context?

If John Burton was “a multifaceted, mission-driven man of extraordinary diversity” — familiar enough from more specialised studies of his career and commitments — Cecily was an introspective, enigmatic, loyal but increasingly hurt partner whose experience requires very different registers to comprehend. He sought “an accommodating wife” — a domestic anchor as his “inevitable” career and restless energy drove him forever outwards. Robert Parker, at first a friend of John, increasingly a comforter, then lover and second husband for Cecily, was blunt: Burton “doesn’t trouble to understand other people — I doubt if he’s really interested in them as individual human beings; what he wants is to save Humanity.”

Cecily also had a Methodist background, the first daughter of a medical doctor, and was a university contemporary of John. She admired his independence from afar, but how to connect, and what was the prospect of a shared life with him as he seemed to demand an exclusive loyalty? More inward in sensibility, vulnerable to exactly the kind of demands his energy would impose, she yearned for recognition in a marriage that drove her deeper into the isolation of housekeeping and mothering for which she was unprepared, feeling she “knew nothing, nothing” in a domain increasingly defined by experts.

Her friend from undergraduate years, the poet Judith Wright (who herself came to know something of the emotional demands made by Canberra), observed the Burtons’ struggle to find mutuality in their marriage: “in fact, of course they cannot possibly accept each other because if they did, it would mean giving up their precious egos.”

John sought disciples. Cecily had a harder path to chart, in itself part of a journey from the terms in which John would define a state-sanctioned redemption to those she would seek in more therapeutic modes of understanding the struggle for identity in us all.

It would be reductionist to see these deeply “unusual lives” as just a Canberra story of political intrigue, or as some kind of cipher for the evolution of middle-class personae through the trauma of the twentieth century. The city is, however, more than simply a backdrop: it is a their landscape, an essential ingredient in their mix, and to some extent a simulacrum in exploring these transitions.

There is the sudden proximity of young men and women trying to make sense of new models of career, marriage, parenting and friendship, bicycling from nursery to cocktail party through frosty empty streets. There is the spiral of lives in tight neighbourhoods but with dislocated or remote supports. There is the public and the private in a tight and desperate exchange, mapped out in suburbs of social engineering and emotional tension. We have images of Evatt as a bold leader in one nearby address, then defiant amid political collapse in the Burtons’ living room, or later declining into imbecility over the back fence in a house chosen to be close to this chosen family, “sitting in a wheelchair, propped up by pillows, his legs covered by a thick rug.” Politics becomes arrestingly, often poignantly personal in this book.

Beyond the peculiarities Canberra inserts into the general pattern of Australian politics and policy are the specifics of a community seeking an appropriate sophistication to match its calling. There was, for example, the local appetite for ideas Burton met in running a bookshop (with the city’s first Gaggia espresso machine), in promoting amateur theatre (and launching a commercially successful touring musical production of The Sentimental Bloke), in driving an old bus up to the settlements of immigrant labour serving the Snowy Mountains scheme “with record racks full of joy… imported magazines and out-of-date foreign newspapers,” or in bidding for a local television licence in an effort to give Canberra the kind of informed media service appropriate for a capital.

Burton’s social entrepreneurialism was extraordinary, but little of it began in consultation with his wife, much brought financial insecurity to his family, and all perhaps expressed that abstract zeal for “Humanity,” with its inevitable (if suppressed) disappointments, which scarcely connected with household needs. Seeking her own connections but needing income, Cecily found work in other unfolding dimensions of the capital, including at the ANU (bringing her closer to Parker, a professor of political science) and as an administrator at the new Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

As their marriage strained, additional aspects of Canberra’s landscape came to the fore. There were the all-too-obvious black sedans of ASIO surveillance parked down the street; and there were the more effectively concealed if also rather obvious absences for intimacy in back rooms or cars in transit between dinners and babysitters, as clever, restless, searching people explored “loyalty and friendships, love triangles, infidelity and deceit.”

And, given that this is a study by daughters, there are the landscapes of children — teased at school, adjusting to sudden unexplained moves in housing, embarking on their own search for friendship and affirmation in the thin sophistication of the capital with the awkward fit between the outwardness demanded by educational aspirations, strained domestic situations and the generationally anchored paradigms of good and appropriate behaviour to which, at the end of the day or the term, they must return.

Burton struggled to impose a prudish control on his adolescent daughters (was this guilt?); Cecily lost respect from at least the youngest and most troubled, Clare, who perhaps blamed her “for allowing John to stray or for failing to protect her” in her own exposure to the reckless, predatory, desperate dynamics of a marriage under stress, a family in its public exposure and secret corners, a culture wrestling with some residual sense of innocence as well as opportunity.

Cecily’s distress comes to the fore in the second half of this study, as John’s career finds its own opportunities elsewhere. Central to her struggle to escape “the woods” of her marriage was a psychotic experience in 1951, when the unilateral impulses of Burton’s public life seemed to obliterate her own identity and needs almost completely. Cecily was seized for a transcending moment looking out over a loved, familiar vista of the Murrumbidgee valley by a luminosity that impelled her to see beyond alienation to the “oneness of everything.”

It is intriguing to note that on the slopes of the Mount Stromlo Observatory at around the same time, the younger, also lonely, newly married and mothering Rosalie Gascoigne grasped the possibility of finding her own existential place in the minute, the dislocated, eroded and broken remnants of Canberra landscapes. Persons of Interest does not make this connection, but it is part of the moment — in women’s experience, in the shaping of a gendered national consciousness, in Canberra’s peculiarity — that it insists we pause and understand. Emotion, relationships, place, marriage and the bargains of career suddenly, insistently, demand attention.

By the early 1960s, their marriage broken, John left Canberra to seek a third and “real” career in the study of peace, based in Britain, advocating the need for open exchange across all the dimensions of security (and especially economic needs) between nations. He returned happily remarried to Canberra, in active retirement and a new burst of hospitality for old friends and new disciples. Cecily stayed, finding a place in its own way central to many questions the Canberra community was asking in coming to terms with its privileges, its anguish and identity.

In self-directed reading, then tentative connections, Cecily embarked on a Jungian approach to psychiatry, dream therapy and marriage counselling, becoming a central, founding member of a local society supporting such exploration and support. She worked in Canberra’s first, most experimental “alternative” public schools as a “non-counsellor,” but left disillusioned with the elements of conformity that remained within its approach.

If John’s journey — in public principle — is central to Persons of Interest’s account of the 1950s, Cecily takes up that place through the 1960s and beyond, seeking a path beyond the intractability of emotional invalidation and financial dependency within the most fundamental of relationships. As so often with this book, the power of the account lies not simply in raising the issues but in insisting they be seen in experience, as these bold partnerships, endurance, commitment and questioning, even as they finally narrow down to rooms in nursing homes and those implicit contracts of care where the most intractable burdens of love are weighed.

John Burton has yet to find his biographer: this book does not fill that need. It does, however, demand that any such study takes seriously the complexity of his relationships as well as his politics. In Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel Nicolson insisted that it would be a “betrayal” if his parents’ relationship — dysfunctional in many ways — was not respected as a “marriage” in a fundamental sense. Persons of Interest makes a different point: Pamela Burton and Meredith Edwards — and perhaps Clare, who died in 1998 — would insist on a similar betrayal if this book was not read as taking into account the suffering at the core of their parents’ marriage.

Each sister has made her own outstanding contribution — in academic study, in family law, social policy reform and equal opportunity advocacy. Their achievements are a tribute to their parents, even (as Clare insisted) to their shared Methodist pursuit of good works. But the challenge Persons of Interest poses is not to gloss in sentiment such radical lives, but to insist on seeing the sometimes “ghastly” dimensions of such public crusades as they translate down to endurance and injury. •

Persons of Interest: An Intimate Account of Cecily and John Burton
By Pamela Burton with Meredith Edwards | ANU Press | $60 or free online | 394 pages