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Frank Moorhouse: A Life

Frank Moorhouse: A Life
Catharine Lumby
Allen & Unwin, $34.99

I’ve never really been a fan girl but I love Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy with a passion and tenderness I find difficult to explain.

I was distraught, recently, when I couldn’t find Grand Days, the first novel in the trilogy, on my bookshelf.

Thanks to an angelic friend, I now have a signed copy: “For dear Rose, who has done so much for my writing and for my life. Thank you Rose. Frank Moorhouse.”

What a gift!

Rose Creswell was Moorhouse’s literary agent and a dear friend. Moorhouse was her first client and he jested “also the most trouble”.

Moorhouse, celebrated Australian author and essayist, died on June 26, 2022, aged 83.

I cried when I heard he’d died and I cried even more this year at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Annabel Crabb and Mark Mordue’s session “Remembering Robert Adamson and Frank Moorhouse”.

It was grief but also gratitude. That Moorhouse had created Edith Campbell Berry, the deliciously complex and utterly compelling Australian woman at the heart of his novels Grand Days, Dark Palace and Cold Light, still seems like the best kind of miracle to me.

Edith is so real.

She forges her way as a diplomat in the League of Nations in Geneva and then in Canberra … and I was with her all the way. As Crabb has written, “Moorhouse wrote humans like Vermeer painted light.”

Rich, literary contribution

A decade before his death in 2022, Frank Moorhouse asked journalist, writer and academic Catharine Lumby to be his biographer.

To do justice to his rich life and literary contribution Lumby waded through 158 boxes of archival material of which she said: “I was astounded by the volume of material in the archive. Moorhouse kept a copy of every significant letter he ever wrote and received. He also kept weird things, like aeroplane food menus from the 1970s and old American Express card receipts. There is a lot of material in the archive which I chose to leave out; I didn’t want to out some of his gay lovers, or hurt them or their families.”

Moorhouse was born in 1938 in the coastal town of Nowra in NSW and his formative years were spent in a conventional middle-class home. He “ran away to the city for good at sixteen years and ten months to become a copyboy on a newspaper”. In the 1970s he became a full-time writer who is credited with inventing a literary form: the discontinuous narrative.

Moorhouse was also a bisexual cross-dresser who grew up in a time when homosexuality was criminal and cross-dressing was considered unnatural. He was the author of 18 books, in addition to screenplays and essays.

Lumby writes that “his earlier short stories gave me a glimpse of a different world: an exciting bohemia in the Sydney suburb of Balmain where actors, journalists, writers, artists and film-makers all knew each other, socialised and fought for social justice. I remember telling a bemused 15-year-old friend that when I grew up I wanted to be Frank Moorhouse.”

I recognise the sentiment and I’m also glad Lumby and Moorhouse became friends and that he generously mentored her as she began publishing her own books.

In fact, one of his great legacies was the mentoring he offered to emerging writers including her, Matt Condon and Julia Leigh. 

Lovers, the good life and bushwalking

Lumby dug deep into Moorhouse’s life and relationships for this sparkling biography – and it is rich territory given Moorhouse had many lovers and long-term relationships with women and men. She shed tears reading an unsent suicide letter from Moorhouse to academic and writer Fiona Giles after Giles had finally ended things after 13 years. Thankfully, Moorhouse managed to pull himself back from that brink.

One of my favourite anecdotes from the book is from the time he lived with his lover, the poet Jennifer Rankin, in a stone hut in Bundeena on the edge of the Royal National Park. They survived, it seems, on the David Jones department store credit account Moorhouse’s parents had given him for his 21st birthday – with deliveries of grouse and the like arriving at Bundeena wharf.

“At 28, Moorhouse was already well on the path to balancing his Protestant work ethic with his desire to live the good life,” writes Lumby. “It’s certainly an entertaining portrait of a young, left-leaning and financially struggling writer relying on his solidly respectable middle-class parents to feed him and his poet lover on the food of the aristocracy.”

Friends and patrons Nick and Carol Dettmann also saw Moorhouse’s genius and gave him vital support which freed him to focus on his literary work.

Before I read Lumby’s book, I knew Moorhouse loved martinis but I didn’t know he loved bushwalking and found solace in Australia’s wild and ancient places.

I also wasn’t aware that, in 1959, Moorhouse married his high-school sweetheart Wendy Halloway. He moved with Wendy to Wagga to work as a journalist on the Wagga Wagga Advertiser before joining the staff of the Riverina Express.

Grand Days

Long parted from Halloway, Moorhouse began work on Grand Days (published in 1993) in Geneva at the League of Nations archive after winning a $150,000 Australia Council Creative Fellowship, also known as the Keating Fellowship after the then prime minister.

The research was painstaking, and he reached a low point after Grand Days was rejected for consideration by the judges of the Australian Miles Franklin literary prize on the grounds that it was “insufficiently Australian”.

In 2001, he won the Miles Franklin for Dark Palace.

Moorhouse was a social justice activist along with Wendy Bacon, Sandra Levy, Liz Fell and many others. He was also victorious in his fight against Australia’s censorship laws, a win for which every Australian author should be grateful today as it is thanks to Moorhouse’s chutzpah they are now paid fairly for their copying and lending rights.

As Lumby notes, Moorhouse wrote about gender fluidity long before it was a widely-accepted phenomenon. And he did so eloquently and honestly.

She believes he “always grappled with a tension, in both his life and his work, between the norms of the respectable, country-town family he grew up in and those of the wilder shores of the bohemian and creative existence to which he determinedly rowed when he left home”.

Asked about how his early life influenced his writing, Moorhouse once said: “I’m always writing about Nowra. You could say everything I’ve written is really about Nowra.”

Be that as it may, there is nothing pinched or provincial in how he approached the page and divined his wonders (for example the transsexual Major Ambrose Westwood and the Molly nightclub in Geneva – “a haven for refugees and those escaping persecution” – that feature in the Edith trilogy).

Moorhouse was one of Australia’s best-known and most-loved authors, whose contribution to Australian life and letters was profound with writing spanning the genres of the novel, the short story, the essay, the memoir, the erotic novella, the screenplay and the historical monograph.

His work has been translated into several languages and recognised with awards including The Age Book of the Year and the ASAL Gold Medal for Forty-Seventeen (2007) and the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Dark Palace (2001). He was made a member of the Order of Australia for services to literature in 1985 and was made a Doctor of the University by Griffith University in 1997 and a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) by the University of Sydney, 2015.

My hope is Lumby’s gem of a book will propel an even greater interest in his extraordinary oeuvre.

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