Dropping purls before swine

Last updated 07:29 27/06/2013
Kevin Rudd
BACK IN CHARGE: Australia's newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gestures as he talks to the media after winning a vote to lead the Labor Party at Parliament House in Canberra.

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There were those who laid eyes this week upon the picture of Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard happily knitting and, searching for a literary metaphor, settled upon Charles Dickens' mistress of vengeance, Madame Defarge.

OPINION: They had it wrong.

Try Kevin Rudd.

Set aside the matter of gender and Rudd is a much more satisfactory Madame Defarge, the demented woman from Dickens' Tale of Two Cities who takes her knitting to the foot of the guillotine in revolutionary Paris and quietly purls while the heads topple into the tumbril.

"...imbued in her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity," Dickens wrote of his creation.


Madame Defarge's need for vengeance was driven by the childhood memory of her family's ill-treatment by the aristocracy.

Kevin Rudd has infused into his personal narrative how he and his mother were driven off the share farm on which his father had toiled before dying; of having no bed but the back seat of an old Volkswagen; of being farmed out to relatives while his mother slaved at domestic work.

Imagine, then, having risen all the way to The Lodge, unaligned to any faction, only to be flung aside by the new aristocracy, the faceless men and their new empress, Julia Gillard.

Madame Defarge became a pitiless revolutionary, secretly knitting a register of all those who should be served up to the guillotine.

It would be easier, wrote Dickens, for a person to erase themselves from existence than to erase one letter of their name or their crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.

Kevin Rudd, according to Rudd family lore, was something of a specialist with the knitting needles. As a child on long country nights on the share farm, he emulated his sainted mother and contented himself knitting scarves and the like.

In the political wilderness of the past three years, it is not such a stretch to imagine him – at least metaphorically – knitting a register of enemies to be consigned to the blade.

Like Madame Defarge, who early in the tale sits in the shadows, "a watchful eye that seldom seemed to see anything", but whose mere flick of expression conveyed much, Rudd tried the secret needle of the deadly leak against the Empress, his detractors maintain.

When the whispered word did not destroy her, he came directly at Ms Gillard, seeking her head.

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But he had too few allies, and in February 2012, amid curses from the Empress' courtiers, he was cruelly rebuffed.

By March this year, Madame DeRudd could not bring himself to trust even his closest revolutionary knitting team.

They cobbled the streets for him to march to the foot of the guillotine, offered him the levers of its mechanism, and he demurred, watching from the shadows as those who had worked so hard for him were taken off to the political executioners themselves.

But vengeance burned still within his heart.

"Tell Wind and Fire where to stop . . . but don't tell me," cried Madame Defarge in Dickens' tale.

And so, it became clear these last weeks, did Kevin Rudd. He was determined to use his knitting needles as the finger of Fate.

Tricky thing, Fate.

A Tale of Two Cities relates that Madame Defarge met an unfortunate end when, in a struggle, she was shot with her own gun.

-The Age

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