Christopher Waters reviews Persons of Interest: An Intimate Account of Cecily and John Burton, by Pamela Burton with Meredith Edwards, Canberra: ANU Press, 2022.
Relationships within families are rarely the starting point for works of political history. Biographies and memoirs of political actors may include something on the subject’s family history and the support given by partners, but these are usually provided as background to the study of the public life of political figures; they are rarely the spine of the story. This is not the case with Persons of Interest: An Intimate Account of Cecily and John Burton written by their daughter Pamela Burton with the assistance of her sister Meredith Edwards. The political life of John Burton is relatively well detailed in Australian history. He was a leading federal public servant during the reconstruction era of the 1940s, a key adviser to Dr Herbert Vere Evatt, and a radical supporter of the United Nations and the decolonisation of the European empires who was targeted by Australia’s security agencies during the Cold War 1950s. Finally Burton became an activist academic who was a key founder of the principles and practices of the field of conflict resolution. This book does not place John Burton at the centre of the story, but rather starts with his wife, Cecily and then pursues the tale of their lives together. This change of focus enables Pamela Burton to make a notable contribution to several fields of twentieth century Australian history.
Persons of Interest provides a full exploration of Cecily’s and John’s family histories, emphasising their common heritage in Methodism, which inspired their shared desire to make the world a better place for all. It describes their childhoods, including their relationships with their parents, and analyses the other influences that shaped their outlooks on the world. It details the small world of Sydney University in the 1930s where they met and where deep friendships formed; for example, Cecily’s friendship with the writer Judith Wright. Cecily and John’s travels in the late 1930s brought them together in marriage in London in a world on the precipice of war. After a hazardous wartime return, John’s career took them to the fledgling federal capital. His meteoric rise to become a close and trusted adviser to both Evatt and Prime Minister J.B. Chifley, culminated in the secretaryship of the Department of External Affairs by 1947. Yet all was not happy in their relationship, nor in the life of Cecily, soon the primary carer for their three children. Here this book is a fine study of yet another intelligent, highly educated and talented woman of this era who is cast into an unsatisfying domestic role with little public outlet for her talents and energy. These frustrations, along with John’s failure to nurture tenderness in their relationship and share key family decisions, adversely affected not only Cecily’s marriage to John, but also her mental health. Pamela Burton and Meredith Edwards bravely explore the contours of their parents’ personalities and the fractures within their relationship, including their affairs and the mental health of their mother.
Beyond the personal and its important contribution to gender history this book contains significant new insights into the political life of John Burton and the Canberra world in which he worked. Persons of Interest provides an excellent account of John as one of the architects of the ideas and government structures through which reconstruction was planned, his role at key crucial international conferences and his influential tenure as head of the Department of External Affairs. Burton’s tussles with Defence and security officials over the issue of leaks of classified material from his Department to the Soviet Union are dealt with at length, establishing yet again that he was no spy for Moscow. Moreover, this book provides much new detail on John’s unsuccessful attempts to win a seat in the federal parliament and his controversial departure from the heights of the public service in 1950. All the time the Burtons were developing a farm outside Canberra; the burden of which often fell on Cecily’s shoulders. Persons of Interest reveals the full scale of the Burtons’ entrepreneurial endeavours during the 1950s, ranging from farming to book selling to running a retail bus selling goods into the villages of men building the Snowy Mountains Scheme to producing musical theatre. If nothing else, these successful capitalist enterprises should have proved to ASIO that John Burton was no communist!
The book narrates the dramatic impact that the Cold War had on the Burton family in the 1950s. John’s support for world peace, including a continuing dialogue with the People’s Republic of China, his opposition to the Cold War division of the world into two competing blocs under the threat of nuclear war and his active support for the decolonising world and the idea of non-alignment for these new nations— all these ideals and principles resulted in John and his family enduring oppressive surveillance by ASIO, harsh treatment by the mainstream press, a ‘public trial’ through the Petrov Royal Commission and ostracism by sections of the local Canberra community. This was all experienced as much by Cecily and the children as by John. Indeed, this book demonstrates that McCarthyism did exist in Australia. Persons of Interest continues to weave the political with the private, with growing turbulence in the relationship. Throughout these years John often failed to consider Cecily in many of the key decisions affecting their lives. John embarked on a number of affairs, while Cecily had one highly significant affair. Gradually the relationship decayed. In the end John and Cecily went their separate ways. Cecily moved onto a new long-term relationship with the ANU political scientist, Bob Parker and a fulfilling career as a counsellor. John went on to have further long-term relationships and a career as a prominent Professor of Politics in the United Kingdom and the United States. By the end of the twentieth century both ended up living again in Canberra; a very different place from that of sixty years before.
This is a brave book. We all understand how difficult it would be for children to write about the most intimate details of their parents’ relationship and the eventual breakdown of their marriage; and the even greater difficulty of exploring the mental health of their mother over many decades. How much of Cecily’s anguish was due to John’s failure to treat her as a full partner in life and how much was due to mental health issues? How could a man who devoted his life to changing the world for the better, treat, at times, his family with apparent indifference? It is indeed courageous to raise and reflect upon such questions. Yet it is that bravery which is the foundation upon which this important book is built. By putting Cecily at the centre of this important story and by giving their personal lives equal billing with their public lives Persons of Interest makes a notable contribution to Australian political history, gender history and the history of Canberra. It is much more than a family memoir; it is a fine work of history.