Book of the week

Henderson, Anne: Enid Lyons — Leading Lady to a Nation. Pluto Press, June 2008, RRP $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-9802924-9-7

Enid Lyons — Leading Lady to a Nation, by Anne Henderson, cover imageThat a woman should have been elected to the Australian House of Representatives in 1943 is achievement enough. That this woman should be the child of a Tasmanian sawyer and a postmistress, and herself the mother of 12 children, renders the achievement quite remarkable.

What is most striking about the life story of Enid Lyons, however, is not its trailblazing singularity, but rather the degree to which she remained — throughout her life — a typical Australian wife and mother.

It was precisely this quality of down-to-earth practicality coupled with her awareness of everyday concerns that informed and energised a political career that saw Lyons mixing socially with royalty, shaping the legislative agenda for the Division of Darwin, and ultimately becoming one of only two women in Australian history to be made a Dame of the Order of Australia.

Anne Henderson's biography traces Lyons' history from her birth and upbringing in rural Tasmania through to her death, focusing on both her public political life and her relationship with husband Joe Lyons, Australia's tenth Prime Minister.

The relationship between Joe and Enid Lyons forms the basis of Kate White's 1987 book A Political Love Story — Joe and Enid Lyons. Henderson's biography provides something of a revisionist gloss to this earlier work, challenging several of White's readings and providing newly fleshed-out details of various key events.

Chief among Henderson's new material is a chapter on the origins of Enid's father, William Burnell, in which she exposes a scandal long buried in the sanitised family records. While providing an interesting contextual footnote, such details as emerge do not radically alter a reading of Lyons herself, who — it is revealed — would have been unaware of them.

More interesting is Henderson's take on the relationship between Joe and Enid, a marriage '... revolving around the vagaries of political highs and lows', which she claims has been substantially misinterpreted by history.

Enid survived her husband by 42 years, during which time she pursued a diverse and highly successful public career, independent of her husband's influence and legacy. Such drive and endeavour, Henderson argues, have led many to cast Enid as the true political force in the relationship and Joe as the figurehead, an impression fostered by Joe's own extensive public acknowledgement of his wife's achievements.

Through judicious use of primary sources — letters between the couple and interviews with the Lyons' children — Henderson creates a compelling portrait of a truly modern partnership of equals, in which Enid's energy and charisma were both a support and a spur to her husband's political ambitions.

When taxed privately with the tremendous risk that her husband was taking in leaving the Labor Party, Enid proved herself unshakeable in her devotion, reportedly answering: 'If he had done anything else I should have been ashamed of him.'

What emerges most strongly from Henderson's book is the image of an unconventional feminist; a woman whose love of the stage and of the thrill of public performance earned her the nickname of 'the family's Sarah Bernhadt', yet whose life was empty without an infant to nurse and cradle; a woman whose political addresses lived and grew out of the rhetoric of the hearth, and yet who was happy to leave daily domestic activity to others.

These contradictions it seems were at the core of Enid's character — the opposing magnetic forces that kept her in such sustained activity throughout her life — and wisely Henderson makes no attempt to reconcile them.

If the result leaves tantalising gaps in our understanding of the inner workings and motivations of this most unusual of women, it also remains faithful to the perceptions of family and friends alike, providing the most accurate image possible of the private woman and public politician who was Dame Enid Lyons.

Enid Lyons — Leading Lady to a Nation (Pluto Press)

Alexandra CoghlanAlexandra Coghlan graduated from Oxford University in 2006 with BAs in English Literature and Music, and completed an MPhil in Criticism and Culture at Trinity College, Cambridge. She lives in Sydney, where she works as a teacher and freelance journalist prior to returning to Oxford for a DPhil in October 2008.

Topic tags: Alexanrda Coghlan, Enid Lyons — Leading Lady to a Nation, Anne Henderson, ISBN: 978-0-9802924-9-7



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Existing comments

What an incredible woman! I will certainly read this book! Thanks for the excellent review!
Nathalie | 08 August 2008

A wonderful perspective on a great life. A great review as well - I would like to link this on my legal site if poss. Thank you.
Nick Ramage | 20 August 2008

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