Reviewed: Frank Moorhouse: A Life, Catharine Lumby, Allen & Unwin
Frank Moorhouse was an Australian writer who defined a generation’s engagement with lost idealism and style. He is best remembered for his Edith trilogy, about a diplomat’s role in creating the League of Nations. A little over a year after his death in June 2022, he is now the subject of a biography by Catharine Lumby, a media studies scholar he had a close friendship with during his lifetime (another by Matthew Lamb is forthcoming). The dilemma posed in Lumby’s biography, Frank Moorhouse: A Life, then, is how to negotiate the limits of other people’s privacy, particularly when negotiating the life of a writer who saw privacy as a veil that accomplished censorship by other means.
Moorhouse lived in an Australia where there was a prevailing distaste against artistic works that created dissent as well as a reflexive moralism (the 1960s saw bans on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as well as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint). As a fervent campaigner against censorship, Moorhouse’s opposition to censorship makes him a writer whose oeuvre has contemporary resonances, particularly with regard to sex and gender. His life’s work is demonstrative that the cultural work performed by literature can result in creating new ways of thinking about living alongside others and being free.
In the biography, Lumby combines a media historian’s attention to the cultural current of the time with sketches of figures whose profile eclipsed Moorhouse’s in its narrower firmament, from Clive James to Germaine Greer. Lumby writes about how Moorhouse’s 1972 novel The Americans, Baby captures the ironic inertia of that milieu, as well as his attempt to invent an original culture for a society that feels originality is unnecessary if it creates dissent.
There is an afterword where Lumby writes movingly about the experience of being in Moorhouse’s archives, as well as her process of conducting over 45 interviews, many with admiring public figures such as Annabel Crabb and David Marr. However, throughout the biography there is a pained awareness of the differences between Moorhouse’s free expression inflected feminism of the 1960s and the #MeToo moment today.
Lumby recounts crying when she read the passionate and sometimes erotically charged correspondence between Moorhouse and Fiona Giles, an academic and friend, who first came into contact with Moorhouse when she wrote him a fan letter as a seventeen year old. In tears and feeling keenly the ethical responsibilities of the biographer, Lumby writes about ringing a friend, who advises her, ‘Darling, it’s okay. You have to read everything. You’re the biographer. Better you than some horny old Marxist.’ It is an ethical responsibility that Lumby mostly wears lightly, in a work that pays tribute to the lost boy tendencies of her subject and friend.
Frank Moorhouse: A Life betrays a care—and perhaps, even a reticence—that is the opposite of Moorhouse’s own habit of raising questions repurposed as quests. Lumby writes in her explorations of the archive that although Moorhouse lived his life railing against privacy, she chose to protect the privacy of Moorhouse’s lovers, including Giles. While Giles is quoted and her connection to Moorhouse is mentioned, Lumby dwells on the feelings she has as the biographer reading about their relationship rather than recounting it in detail to the reader.
Lumby makes a case for Moorhouse as someone whose plural selves capture the spirit of the times he existed in. This is never truer than in her discussion of Moorhouse’s gender fluidity, which she makes central to the biography by evoking metaphors of border crossing: between masculine and feminine, young and old, Australia and bigger cosmopolises. Lumby shines as a reader of Moorhouse’s work, reconciling both the light and shadow inherent in his body of work into an equivocal and beautiful whole. A reading of an early story published in Futility and Other Animals featuring a knife in a form of sex play begins as a protest for free expression, but evolves to take on the double-edged resonances of contemporary feminism.
If the effect is to create a type of repository that speaks eloquently through silence, there is a fascinating parallel between the Moorhouse archive in the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library and the archives Moorhouse himself drew on while researching his Edith trilogy: both created a literary work that has become its own act of cultural diplomacy. Of course, we also have his eighteen books, which surely must rank alongside Henry James as some of the most evocative writing about gender fluidity and bisexuality.
It is a paradox that Moorhouse was both denied a Miles Franklin nomination for Grand Days on the grounds that it was ‘insufficiently Australian’, and finally awarded the same prize for the last volume in the trilogy, Dark Palace, in 2001. Both the refusal and the acknowledgement are testament to the fact that Moorhouse was an author whose work contained the peculiar contradictions of Australian literature. Lumby’s biography is hopefully one that will be read beyond Australia’s borders.