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Frank Moorhouse: writing unconventional characters

The early-to-mid twentieth century was not an easy time for non-conventional young Australians.

Australian author, Frank Moorhouse and session chair, Sophie Cunningham discussed the lives of young people during these years, their attempts to stop the war by flocking to Geneva, and the difficulties faced by non-heterosexual individuals.

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Frank Moorhouse explains the extent of research he undertakes for his novels. Image: Kalem Horn

Moorhouse showed himself to be a master storytelling, and an entertainer. His anecdotes were not only amusing, but also illustrated the years and depth of work and research that went into constructing his heroine, Edith Campbell Berry, in his trilogy of novels: Grand Days, Dark Palace, and Cold Light.

Moorhouse spent four years in Geneva researching archives, and had almost completed his novel when he discovered (through the United Nation Pension Board) the one surviving first-generation idealist, Mary McGeachy, who was living in Canada.

Moorhouse was shocked to discover, on first contact, that Mary’s family were unaware of her work in Geneva with the League of Nations.

Moorhouse explained that many of the young people, who “flocked to Geneva” with all the ideals and intentions to stop the Second World War, were so traumatised by their apparent failure and experiences that they never spoke of their time there when returning home.

This lead to conversations concerning ethical issues that occur when living people become muses for an author’s fictional characters. Moorhouse added that Edith Campbell Berry was also greatly inspired by his mother.

When Cunningham asked, “why did you take your mother to the United Nations?”
Moorhouse simply replied: “That’s as far as I could get her.”

He then mimed measuring the substantial height of the stack of his books that he has based upon his mother.

Moorhouse’s novels featuring Edith Campbell Berry are set from the 1920s to the 1950s. Berry is an independent, ambitious, eccentric, unconventional woman, whose greatest love affair occurs with Major Ambrose Westwood. The major is a cross-dressing bisexual, who is employed by the British High Commission, and pathologically lies about his age. Quite her type, it would seem.

Trying to unpack the problems faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people during the Menzies era in Australia, Moorhouse lightened the tone by saying that it has always been unacceptable for men to dress in women’s clothes, because a man will always think he is smaller than he is.

He added a more serious fact: “Fifty-percent of gay men in executive positions still don’t come out.”

Moorhouse was awarded the 2001 Miles Franklin Literary Award for Dark Palace, the novel was also short listed for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Age Book of the Year Award.

Stevi-Lee Alver is a Creative Writing student at Southern Cross University.

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