Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Launch of
An Imperial Affair

John Rickard's book An Imperial Affair: Portrait of an Australian Marriage was launched by Professor Raimond Gaita on Wednesday 6 November 2013 at Readings, Hawthorn. The launch speech and photographs follow.

Launch of An Imperial Affair: Portrait of an Australian Marriage by John Rickard

Raimond Gaita

I am honoured that I was asked to launch An Imperial Affair: Portrait of An Australian Marriage. It is a fine book. Monash University Publishing is to be congratulated for choosing it for its list and for doing it justice.

When Nathan asked if I would write some words of praise for the cover, this is what I wrote:

In An Imperial Affair, John Rickard tells the story of his parents’ marriage between 1927 and 1962 when his mother died. It was, he reveals, lived with a complex integrity, faithful to a vow whose solemnity we now find hard to take seriously, but which transformed their love. This is a fine, moving book – the book of an historian, a writer, a loyal but troubled son and a wise man. The love, compassion and delicacy, evident throughout, offer its reader a deepened and more sympathetic understanding of the values that defined times to which we are now inclined to condescend.

This evening I will try to explain why I wrote that. When they learnt that the attendance this evening would be so marvellously high Nathan and Sarah asked if I could keep my speech reasonably brief. To do that, I’ll talk about the affair. Later John will talk about imperial times.

Many of you will know John’s work as an historian. Some of you may also have known him as an actor and singer. The historian is evident in the book. That’s partly why it is a fine book. But it was not a desire to write a history of the period from before the First World War to the  1970s  that motivated John to write this book. When his father, Philip Rickard died in 1972, his father’s second wife, Pam, gave John a shoebox in which Philip had kept letters written to his wife, Mildred, when he served in the RAAF in England during the Second World War. I’ll quote John on this at some length because it gives information salient to what I will speak about and because it will enable you appreciate the quality of his prose and his gift as a storyteller.

There are over a hundred of them, carefully numbered, so that if a letter went astray or went down with a ship its loss would be known. My father was an officer in the RAAF, in stores and equipment, and was stationed in London from mid-1941 to early 1943. The letters tell an interesting story of what life was like in England after the blitz, when the immediate threat of invasion seemed to have passed, but when it was still difficult to imagine an end to the conflict that saw most of Europe in German hands.

But there is another story buried here, the story of my parents’ marriage. It is, at first appearances at least, a one-sided story, as my mother’s letters from Australia do not survive. This was their first long separation, and it was not easy to sustain the dialogue between husband and wife across the seas when a letter might take months to reach its destination.

I dip into the letters, penned in my father’s firm, well-ordered handwriting. I hear his voice, recognisable at times, but at other times almost the voice of a stranger. And I am trying to imagine what lies behind the words, what is not being said in these loving and informative letters to my mother.

And then I find a clue. Between two letters a small piece of folded pale yellow paper. I open it to find a tiny snapshot of an attractive, dark-haired woman in a summer dress, seated in a garden, a small child by her side. On the paper is written, in my mother’s handwriting: ‘Mrs Clare Moilliet, Lime Court, Linden Gardens, London. W.2.’

So this is Clare. I have always known about her, but have not seen a photograph of her before. Nor did I know her full name. She was just Clare, the mysterious Clare. Clare was the Other Woman.

Philip's affair with Clare was the second of two. For Philip it was by far the more important one and appears to have threatened the marriage for a time. The first affair, just before he went to England, with a woman identified only as The Woman in the Red Coat, was short. Judging by his letters to Mildred, it appears to have left no emotional trace, not even as early as a month or two after it ended. But the pain it caused Mildred went deep. This was not because she feared he would leave or even because she feared that she would lose his love. Her pain, and for a time her bitterness, expressed her belief that Philip had betrayed her and their marriage and that he did not appear to understand what that meant.

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre says that fidelity is a virtue needed for the stability of the household. There are, of course, practical reasons of a psychological and social kind why a culture would develop concept of marriage defined by a vow that the couple should forsake all others until death does them part.  But we come to value anything that is inseparable from the human condition – as sexuality surely is – in ways that that cannot fully be explained by reference to practical concerns. Courage, for example, is a virtue that is generally useful to individuals and to the society in which they live, but as well as valuing it for its usefulness, we admire courage for its nobility. That shows in the ways we celebrate it in military services, to take an example congenial to John’s book. Sometimes those celebrations strike the right note and other times they make us cringe. The same is true the way we value and celebrate marriage.

Before they were married, Philip and Mildred, or rather Pearl as she was then called, were romantic lovers. Their happiness was deep and lyrical – literally so for Philip wooed Pearl with poetry and song. Romantic love has its ethical standards to which lovers must rise under pain of superficiality. They are not imposed from outside – by morality for example; indeed they may sometimes conflict with morality. They transcend whatever practical value fidelity has to lovers to make of it a sexual ideal. But if romantic love, or falling in love to put it less grandly, can transform sexuality, marriage, Mildred and Philip and most of their contemporaries believed, transformed it yet again. That at any rate is implicit in the concept under which Mildred and Philip lived their marriage and it is, I think, essential to what makes John’s story such a moving one. Whatever role social factors played in keeping Mildred and Philip together – the difficulty and notoriety of divorce being one of them - the understanding of the meaning of Philip’s betrayal of their marriage that caused Mildred grief and bitterness, also enabled her to remain with Philip till death did them part. This was not because she felt enslaved to a vow that permitted no qualification. It was, John’s story seems to tell us, because she responded to the fact that it had no qualification with an ever deepening understanding of the possibilities it offered to wedded love, an understanding that I suspect she knew could deepen without limits.

Philip, of course, played his part, but the tone of the remorse he expressed in his letters to her (‘a litany of self abasement’, as John puts it), make clear that she was right to be dismayed by his failure to understand what he had done.  He laments, slightly resentfully, that she expresses her grief and bitterness for ‘pages and pages’. We learn from a touching and insightful letter to John by his sister Barbara that Philip was prone to be a little self-absorbed.  More interestingly his understanding of the concept of marriage that he shared with Mildred was not as deep as hers.

His need of her and his family, though, was deep. And he had an instinctively wise sense of the need we have of physical warmth and comfort, a sense quickened by Eros. I find the passage I am about to quote very moving. It occurs when John writes of Mildred’s fatal cancer:

Philip was proud that up to the very last night, when the nurse was called in, he had, as always, been sharing the double bed with Mildred. In one letter he mentioned that they had been unable to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary on 1 October with the usual dinner out and show. But it was, in a sense, observed…

The concept of marriage that was defined by the vow ‘until death do us part’, is, I suspect, as distant from us as the concept of a university in whose light it seemed evident that an institution without a philosophy or physics or history department, that spoke disdainfully of the intrinsic value of the life of the mind, could not be called a university. And just as an increasing number of academic managers condescend to that concept of the university, so many of us condescend to that concept of marriage. I put it that way so as to highlight that what is at issue is not so much that we have ceased to believe what Mildred and Philip believed, but that we do not share the same concept with them. The words that nourished the concept in a particular way of living at a particular time play a weak role in our life with language. Matters are made worse by the fact that argument about marriage has become part of the culture wars, which poison everything caught up in them. Both sides in the culture wars appear to believe that there is something that seriously counts as knowledge of the ethics and morality of sexuality and that they possess it. For the most part that is false, which is why there are, for good reasons, no whiz kids of ethical knowledge about sexuality and no Nobel laureates in it either.

The philosopher Peter Winch remarked that ‘treating a person justly involves treating with seriousness his own conception of himself, his own commitments and cares, his own understanding of his situation and of what the situation demands of him’. Condescension that sometimes ridicules or disdains what matters profoundly to people is often unjust to them and it sometimes dehumanises them. It fails even to see the possibility of real depth in that dimension of their lives – in the case of Mildred and Philip, a dimension fundamental to their sense of who they were. We see this in the kind of opposition to same sex marriage that implies, when it does not say explicitly, that gay and lesbian sex cannot have the kind of depth that is worthily celebrated in marriage. The phrase ‘same sex marriage’, they think, is an oxymoron. Given the importance of sexuality to our sense of our humanity, it is not hyperbole to say that this amounts to a denial of the full humanity of gays and lesbians.

You may now see why I think of John’s gentle, unpolemical book as an effort to recover, from the condescension of our times, an understanding of marriage that would reveal the full humanity of his parents. It is written from the perspective of a loyal and loving son, but also, from that of a fellow human being, hopeful that each of these perspectives will deepen the other, enabling us, to paraphrase Winch, to treat seriously Mildred and Philip’s understanding of their situation and what it demanded of them. To achieve that, it is not enough to be a fine historian or - need I add? - a philosopher. One needs to be a writer. Best of all would be a poet. ‘This is the story of my parents’ marriage’ John says, and goes on, ‘but I want it to be about Philip and Pearl, not just about my father and mother’.

That presupposes, of course, a kind of truthfulness that acknowledges- as John does - that a memoir of this kind is inevitably an imaginative reconstruction. And it presupposes that scepticism about truth in memoir and narrative generally does not extend to doubting that there is something that seriously counts as trying to see other people as they are rather than as they appear to us for many kinds of reasons. John is shrewd about this – shrewd for example about the failings of memory but also about the fact that if we take truth out of the concept of memory altogether, we would not have a more realistic concept of memory as radically fallible: we would have no concept of memory at all. John is scrupulous in his efforts to be truthful. In this way he expresses his respect for Mildred and Philip and for his readers. He always makes it clear when he believes something to be supposition, or an inference.  In one of the most poignant passages in the book, when he writes of the occasion when he told his parents of his homosexuality and his love for his then partner, Ron, he tells us that he cannot remember the words with which they responded and that he ‘would not dare, in this case at least, to invent the dialogue’. He goes on, ‘But the memory of them, poised in the doorway, my mother’s face etched with worry, my father deeply embarrassed, speaks to me across the years’.

I want to close with more of John’s words. The last chapter begins with a poem by James McAuley.

People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?

John’s closing words are these:

Fifty years later Australia had changed, the Empire had disintegrated, the world was a different place. The institution of marriage had also changed. Whatever Philip’s faults were, he shared with Mildred an understanding of marriage, with its rules, both written and unwritten, which by 1977 was going out of fashion. When they walked down the aisle in 1927 to begin their life together they had a clear idea of the commitment they were making and the responsibilities they were accepting. When the crisis in their marriage erupted they felt, in the end, bound by that commitment. For some couples, in similar situations, the result would have been an unhappy household, poisoned by a legacy of hostility and bitterness. But Philip and Mildred were able to recover enough of a loving relationship to reconstitute and sustain a happy family home.

Acknowledging the warning in McAuley’s poem, I shrink from judging my parents. But I am glad to say that, yes,
they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us.

— Raimond Gaita


About An Imperial Affair: Portrait of an Australian Marriage

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An Imperial Affair on display at Readings


Mingling before the launch


Raimond Gaita launches An Imperial Affair


John Rickard talks about An Imperial Affair


John Rickard and guests

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