Inside Story

Grand days

Frank Moorhouse’s first biographer captures a life in motion

Susan Lever Books 1 September 2023 1556 words

Explorer of possibilities: Frank Moorhouse (left) in 1987 with Ross Steele, Monique Delamotte, Gough Whitlam, Fiona Giles, Jean-Paul Delamotte and Margaret Whitlam. Guibourg Delamotte

At a celebration of Frank Moorhouse’s life organised by his patrons Carol and Nick Dettman after he died in June last year, many of the writer’s friends recounted occasions when Frank showed his charm, wit and generosity. He was loved by hundreds and admired by many others, not only as a writer of fictions that traced the changing social and sexual life of Australians but also as a social performer who made that life more adventurous and amusing.

It is a difficult thing to write a biography of a writer who drew on his own life so fully for his fictions and journalism, and with many friends and lovers very much alive. In Frank Moorhouse: A Life Catharine Lumby allows her subject to take the lead, interviewing him, tracing his experiences through his substantial personal archive and talking to his friends.

Lumby decided not to write a literary biography but to concentrate on placing Moorhouse within his milieu, drawing out some of the contradictions in his personality and adding new information about his background that make his work even more intriguing. She adds to our understanding of Moorhouse’s writing without grappling too seriously with its ongoing significance as literature.

The biography follows a loose chronology, beginning with his parents’ origins and his family life in Nowra and then describing his escape to Balmain and embrace of the writing life. It deals with his idiosyncratic “rules for living,” his fight against censorship, his ambitious commitment to a trilogy of historical novels about a woman working for the League of Nations, and his frequent returns to the Bush. If you are a Moorhouse reader you will enjoy it immensely; if you are part of the generation who grew to adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s you will recognise Moorhouse’s role in helping break down the moral constrictions on ordinary middle class Australians.

Moorhouse’s parents, Frank and Purthanry Moorhouse, were not merely upstanding citizens of Nowra but exceptional people in their own right. Readers may have guessed that Frank senior was the model for the smalltown soft drink manufacturer, T. George McDowell, who first appeared in The Americans, Baby and returned in later fictions right up to Grand Days. Moorhouse gave his father’s commitment to community and his belief in self-discipline to McDowell but not his creativity; Frank senior invented a machine to preserve milk that changed the lives of dairy farmers in Australia. His agricultural machinery business prospered so well that he expected all three of his sons to join it. Frank went his own way, but his rigorous daily work routine was a clear legacy of his father.

Purthanry was an equally impressive person, president of the local Country Women’s Association, a girl guide leader and a homemaker concerned with living well. Moorhouse acknowledged that his mother’s concern for aesthetics and social protocol gave him one model for Edith Campbell Berry in his historical trilogy, but he came late to an awareness of the more complex lives of his own parents.

In his last years he realised that his mother had befriended a local Aboriginal woman, Belle McCleod, who helped in the house. Together they set up a CWA branch in the Aboriginal community at Worrigee on the edge of Nowra. He had missed the story of the Indigenous people living close to him.

The entire Moorhouse family were committed to the scouting movement, with Frank senior a scout leader, Purthanry a leading girl guide and all three sons boy scouts. It isn’t difficult to see Moorhouse’s concerns for correct behaviour and good preparation, and his need for regular forays into the bush, as an inheritance from the scouts. Lumby notes the creative tension between Moorhouse’s resistance to convention and his fascination with the protocols that make social and working life run smoothly.

Moorhouse made the journey from a country town to inner-city Sydney and beyond it to Europe. Driven by curiosity about people and their social world he discovered art and fine living at the same time as he was exploring various forms of sexuality. He never completed a university degree but his desire to learn led him to pursue matters often regarded as trivial or beyond acceptability.

Lumby tells us of significant moments in his life, such as his first experience of a camembert cheese, his relish in eating oysters from the shell and, of course, his fastidiousness about martinis. While these subjects may seem frivolous, in his fiction Moorhouse often undermined his obsessions with irony: his oft-quoted advice to anyone lost in the bush was to mix a martini and wait for someone to turn up to correct your method.

After an early marriage Moorhouse realised that he couldn’t remain monogamous, let alone exclusively heterosexual, and set about living a life outside the “bourgeois” confines of conventional suburbia. From his mid-twenties he determined to own neither a car nor a house, and sometimes juggled credit cards to ensure he could eat out for every meal. At times, he relied on the generosity of friends to keep him housed and fed. Women often took the role of provider of financial as well as domestic support, though they sometimes found his rules for living rather self-serving.

Lumby nevertheless renders bohemian life in Balmain as youthful and glamorous, the members of the libertarian Sydney Push meeting for philosophy discussions before seducing each other in pubs. Despite his unfaithfulness and exasperating fastidiousness about domestic life, Moorhouse’s lovers remember him as generous and, of course, he was funny.

In his fiction and journalism Moorhouse reported on his exploits in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan world that many suburban Australians dreamt about. His “discontinuous narratives” resisted the plotting of the traditional novel, observing the lives of characters making their different ways in a shared society. In stories as much reportage as fiction, Moorhouse showed us his version of Sydney’s bohemianism.

Lumby draws on other critics to respond to Moorhouse’s fictions and, apart from the occasional charges of sexism in his early work, they are all positive about his achievements. I am not a member of the Edith Campbell Berry fan club — the club Annabel Crabb imagines to be full of mainly women enthusiasts for Frank Moorhouse’s League of Nations heroine who ask themselves in a crisis: “What would Edith do?”

Edith strikes me as insufferably self-important, a kind of Barbie doll that Moorhouse dresses up in different clothes (cowboy suits, silk lingerie, capes) and tries out in careers impossible for most women of her generation. I was dismayed to see the wonderfully perceptive and funny observer of the foibles of real people in the contemporary world had moved off to a dreamland of historical fiction, where a Miles Franklin award might be (and eventually was) acquired.

In his grand trilogy, unlike his earlier fictions, Moorhouse was not writing about a world he had experienced — except, perhaps, in the sex scenes. After I read the celebratory appendix on file registries in Grand Days, I felt the need to tell him personally that these were familiar to anyone who had worked in a government department. By the time I read Cold Light, I wished that I had also explained to him that married women could not become permanent employees in the public service until 1966. Once he had married Edith off, she could never be promoted. If he had known, he might have kept her single so she would not be relegated to an outer office in Canberra rearranging the pencils on her desk and watering the pot plant.

Of course, that is judging fiction against historical reality and the novels may best be read as documents of Moorhouse’s own imagination and obsessions. Some realities, such as the actual restrictions on women’s lives, could only limit his fantasies.

On the back of Lumby’s book the publishers express astonishment that this is the first biography of Moorhouse, suggesting that they, too, imagine a fantastically cosmopolitan world where authors are given their due. In Australia, literary biographies are usually reserved for the long dead, and they can seem to mark the end of interest in a writer (studies of both Patrick White and Elizabeth Jolley, coincidentally, declined after their biographies appeared).

For readers of my generation, Moorhouse takes his place alongside Helen Garner as the recorder of the 1970s and explorer of possibilities for contemporary life. His work will always be significant to us. Pace Annabel Crabb, what reader in their thirties and forties knows of it? The work may yet fade away, like so many other writers who were significant in their moment.

Perhaps the difficulty is in the public preference for the monumental novel over the evanescent observations and speculations that Moorhouse wrote so well. Moorhouse, the performer, may matter more than Moorhouse the writer of a trilogy. This is why this biography matters: it tries to appreciate the performance of a life, not simply its residue of work.

While I will continue to resist the Edith fan club, I am now fully signed up to the Frank Moorhouse club. Frank, forgive me. I wish this book had been published before you died so that you could enjoy more of the acclaim you longed for. •

Frank Moorhouse: A Life
By Catharine Lumby | Allen & Unwin | $34.99 | 304 pages