Inside Story

Writing life

A new biography of Frank Moorhouse approaches its subject differently

Susan Lever Books 3 January 2024 1765 words

Moorhouse working on Thor, the successor to Tharunka, in Balmain in 1971. Photographer unknown

It’s only a few months since I recommended Catharine Lumby’s lively biography of Frank Moorhouse to readers of Inside Story. Her Frank Moorhouse: A Life is a warm tribute to its subject as a social force, with photographs and an index for those eager to check out mutual contacts, though it gives little attention to Moorhouse’s fiction.

While Lumby was working on her book Matthew Lamb was embarked on something different and quite unusual: a two-volume cultural history of Moorhouse. Lamb’s project is also a biography, but the extra length allows him room to explore in more detail the writer’s intellectual development and his role in challenging the restrictions on Australian publishing in the years he was active. Lamb’s first volume, Frank Moorhouse: Strange Paths, has just been published.

Both biographers spent time talking to Moorhouse before his death in 2022 and both combed through his extensive archives, so their books raise questions about the role of writers in creating their own lives. In recent years, we’ve seen Ann-Marie Priest’s detailed biography of Gwen Harwood, written after the poet’s archives were opened after many years of restricted access, Brigitta Olubas’s meticulous study of Shirley Hazzard, written with the approval of Hazzard and her friends, and Bernadette Brennan’s sympathetic account of the novelist Gillian Mears, so closely based on the writer’s archive that it reads almost as if Mears had written it. All these subjects clearly wanted a biography to be written, even when, like Harwood, they played off the various aspirants to the role of biographer.

Moorhouse certainly wanted his life examined, and he had a keen understanding of his own role in Australian social and cultural change. But the relationship between a writer’s life and their fiction can present difficulties for a biographer who wishes to secure the facts but can’t afford to ignore the parallels. While a biographer is bound by the records, the subject’s memories so often prove unreliable when they’re compared with the documentary record or the memories of their friends and colleagues.

Lamb has written elsewhere about the peculiar difficulties of recording the life of an author whose stories were often based on real events. As Moorhouse told a friend, a fiction, once written, obliterated the real memory on which it was based. And sometimes Moorhouse was not the only writer using the material: Lamb offers examples of Michael Wilding writing counter-stories to those of his then friend.

One of the effects of this fictional use of real life has been an underestimation of the art in Moorhouse’s stories, to the point that he felt the need to constantly insist on it.

Lamb set out to read all Moorhouse’s work, including the short stories he wrote in high school, his journalism and his essays for the Workers’ Educational Association, and place them in the context of the author’s life. He also tries to encompass Moorhouse’s own reading and the influence of his various mentors to build a narrative of his intellectual development. And he keeps an eye on the shifts in Australian cultural life and the legal restrictions it faced.

Strange Paths is as much about changes in Australian print culture and sexual attitudes as it is about Moorhouse’s life. It is this contextual material that justifies this second, extended biography.

Beginning with a short account of governments’ restrictive controls over local publishing from the very beginning of European settlement, Lamb traces the evolution of censorship and copyright laws in parallel with the lives of Moorhouse’s forebears in the colonies — in his father’s case in New Zealand. Young Frank was born into a society in which publishing was tightly restricted and writers were forced to accept low royalties from a British-controlled book trade.

Lamb makes Henry Lawson’s and Joseph Furphy’s difficulties relevant to Moorhouse’s later struggles for authors’ rights. Despite his popularity, Lawson battled financial difficulties; Furphy’s novels satirise the impossibility of recording Australian speech under the prohibitions on obscenity. The book’s treatment of the two men signals Moorhouse’s position in a tradition of Australian writing and sets up his later challenges to censorship and his part in the campaign for author royalties.

Moorhouse’s education in country public schools might appear limited, but Lamb reveals that encouraging teachers gave him access to magazines like Southerly and Meanjin. At home, he could read his firmly anti-communist father’s copies of Free Spirit, the forerunner of Quadrant, and discuss cold war politics. Though he was expected to follow his two older brothers into the family’s agricultural machinery business in Nowra, his parents were ready to accommodate his aspirations to be a writer. His mother even consulted the poet Rosemary Dobson when she visited Nowra for a talk.

Though Moorhouse later became known as a sexual adventurer he was as ignorant about sex as any other school student growing up in Australia at the time. Like so many Australians of his generation, he and his girlfriend Wendy gathered what information they could from biology textbooks and “hygiene” instruction books that often relied on euphemism. He might have appeared more liberated than the rest of us, but he negotiated the same conventional upbringing, churchgoing and smalltown values that dominated Australian life in the 1950s and 1960s. An exceptional high school student, he learnt the importance of self-education and self-discipline early, writing stories that Lamb reads as evidence of his teenage preoccupations.

The influence of his parents’ devotion to self-help, the philosophies of Rotary and the guidance of the scouting movement was obvious in Moorhouse’s fascination with theories of living. As a young man he was distinguished by an eagerness to learn and a curiosity about people and their behaviour. He read the available books on psychology and sexuality by Hans Eysenck, Alfred Kinsey and Sigmund Freud, and was committed to the “spirit of enquiry” advocated by his journalist mentor, John Penfold, though a long-term homosexual relationship undermined the “Frankness and Sincerity Theory” he advanced as the basis of his relationship with Wendy, now his wife.

He also understood that fiction offers a way for a writer to describe and speculate about human behaviour, including intimate desires evaded in journalism and academic writing. His experiences as a journalist in Sydney, Lockhart and Wagga Wagga gave him the chance to make stories from small events (jellyfish on the beaches of Sydney in one case) but also convinced him that he needed to break free from the cynical, heavy-drinking culture of journalism.

A position with the Workers’ Educational Association in Sydney gave him the chance to explore his ideas about changing print media, sociology, film and folk music. Explore he did, at one point participating not only in the WEA but also in the Film Study Group, the Sydney Left Club, the Libertarian Society and the Push, though he resisted the libertarian view that literature was only an illustration of a philosophy or directed at some didactic goal.

According to Lamb, he regarded the literary imagination as “a form of inquiry in its own right,” a means of exploring reason and its limitations. In practice he also embraced it as a means of examining social taboos and the sexual lives hidden behind prevailing social and censorship conventions.

Strange Paths provides details of Moorhouse’s several encounters with the law. In 1967 his quite unerotic story about a young man’s disappointing visit to a prostitute, “A Barmaid, a Prostitute, a Landlady,” led to a Melbourne bookstall being charged for selling obscene material. In 1969, when the banning of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint brought the censorship controversy to a head, Moorhouse was part of the Tharunka editorial team that challenged the obscenity laws. In 1973 he was convicted for distributing The Little Red Schoolbook and assaulting the police who had found copies in his car.

Also that year Moorhouse and his publisher agreed to take up the cause of authors’ copyright, successfully suing the University of New South Wales for breaching his copyright by allowing staff and students to photocopy his story “The Machine Gun.” This, too, was an important breakthrough for Australian writers’ freedom to publish and support themselves.

Two things stand out in this account of Moorhouse’s life. One is how his study of popular culture, sociology and the media developed ahead of any interest in such subjects among academics. His time as a university student had been curtailed by his commitment to writing, as a journalist and as a writer of fiction, but he immersed himself in the range of areas that interested him.

Like so many other brilliant Australian writers who didn’t finish university — Hazzard, Harwood, David Ireland, Peter Carey and many others — writing was itself a form of self-education. But the outreach elements of university campuses — the libraries, the magazines, the clubs and visiting lecturers — have provided essential support for the intellectual life of these outsiders; as universities increasingly adopt utilitarian practices they may need to be reminded of their duty to artists and other intellectuals beyond their boundaries.

The second element is Moorhouse’s commitment to fiction writing as an intellectual pursuit free from the demands of political ideologies or moralities. When fiction so often appears to be either mere entertainment or didactic instruction from those who know better than the rest of us, Moorhouse understood that art offers the freedom to explore ideas and areas of life that challenge prevailing conventions. Of course, his work provokes arguments about feminism, sexuality and personal behaviour. That, too, is a role of fiction. Lamb’s book is not a work of literary criticism but his care in placing Moorhouse’s writing in a detailed historical context is revelatory. It places literary writing at the centre of social change.

This first volume takes us to the end of 1974, with the publication of The Electrical Experience and the release of Between Wars, the film Moorhouse wrote for director Michael Thornhill when he was thirty-six. So Lamb’s project has quite a distance to go. Impatient readers will choose to read Lumby’s more concise account, but historians of the recent past will find plenty to absorb their interest here. I may be the ideal reader for this version as I try to make sense of A.D. Hope’s negotiation of Australian censorship at an earlier time. Lamb’s book shows one way that a writer can be placed in an extensive cultural context. •

Frank Moorhouse: Strange Paths
By Matthew Lamb | Knopf Australia | $45 | 480 pages