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Book cover: photograph of a middle-aged man with an intense gaze.

Catharine Lumby
Frank Moorhouse: A Life

Frank Moorhouse was a complicated man. His writing pushed the boundaries of postwar bourgeois morality, as did his life with his many and varied lovers and his determined refusal of domesticity. Yet he was fascinated by social etiquette and the rituals of bureaucratic and democratic political life. When does the pursuit of pleasure collapse into social chaos, and when do order and rules become repressive? These are the key questions Catharine Lumby threads through her very readable telling of Moorhouse’s long and productive life.

Moorhouse asked Lumby to write his biography 10 years ago and read her almost-finished manuscript just before he died last year at the age of 83, checking the facts but not requesting any substantive changes, as was their original agreement. Lumby had full access to his extensive archive and interviewed more than 40 of the people who knew him well. Not all are named, as she has protected the identity of some of his lovers and only quoted with permission. The result is a book as charming as its subject.

Moorhouse was born in 1938 in the small New South Wales town of Nowra, into a respectable, civic-minded middle-class family. His father ran a successful business selling equipment to dairy farmers and his mother was a well-liked stalwart of the local Country Women’s Association and the Girl Guides. She was the source of his preoccupation with committees, conferences and the rules for living well. Young Frank was school captain, a cadet and an enthusiastic Boy Scout, but he did not want to follow his two older brothers into the family business. Instead he became a journalist, married his high school sweetheart and moved to Sydney.

The marriage lasted four years. Monogamy was not for Moorhouse, as he enjoyed sex with both men and women, and he moved to bohemian Balmain. Setting his pen against the dominance of the bush in the Australian literary imagination, he wrote about the contemporary urban lives of people negotiating shifting sexual mores and expectations of gender, including homosexual characters in his first book of short fiction, Futility and Other Animals (1969). He was active in the anti-censorship campaigns of the early 1970s, working with Wendy Bacon on Thorunka and Thor and editing Tabloid Story with Michael Wilding. Censorship treads the line between order and chaos. Moorhouse was uneasy about the anti-racial vilification laws, arguing that the legal suppression of information and expression denies us a full acquaintance with reality.

Moorhouse’s masterwork is the Edith Campbell Berry trilogy, about an idealistic young Australian woman who works at the League of Nations in Geneva as it attempts and fails to design the rules for civilised global living. At the end of the war she returns to a postwar Canberra in the grip of anti-communism. Lumby suggests that Edith, with her sexual adventurousness and faith in democratic procedures, is a cipher for Moorhouse. The furore after the first volume, Grand Days, was deemed ineligible for the Miles Franklin award as it was considered insufficiently Australian, led to the loosening of the rules and the second volume, Dark Palace, won in 2001.

One-time lover Fiona Giles describes Moorhouse as living between hedonism and hard work. The hedonism is there in the sex, a gourmand’s enjoyment of good food, wine and the perfectly mixed martini, and in the many long lunches over the decades with friends in Sydney’s networks of cultural power. Donald Horne, whose own biography was published last month, was a regular. Moorhouse wrote for The Bulletin when Horne was its editor, and their friendship became one of the most important in Moorhouse’s life. The hard work is in his discipline as a writer and its results: 18 books, essays, journalism, short stories and film, radio and television scripts. And it is in his sustained advocacy for writers’ incomes. Moorhouse was part of a successful campaign to force universities and schools to pay a fee for photocopied material. He was a generous mentor to younger writers and a great supporter of the Australian Society of Authors, including serving as its president.

Lumby sees Moorhouse as “our man at the cultural cliff edge – perpetually running his hand along the railing and staring down with alarmed fascination at the jagged rocks below”. But the cliff edges and jagged rocks of one generation are not those of the next. In the 1960s and 1970s they were repressive censorship and the rituals and expectations of heterosexual masculinity. Moorhouse’s depictions of intergenerational sex in The Everlasting Secret Family make for very uncomfortable reading, in the light of the lifelong harm caused by sexual abuse of children and young people.

Nor did Indigenous issues preoccupy progressive thought as they do today. Towards the end of the book, Lumby reveals that Frank’s mother, when her children were young, had live-in help from local Indigenous woman Belle McLeod. Historian Jennifer Jones interviewed McLeod for her research on the CWA’s support for Indigenous women in rural NSW and she spoke fondly of the family. Moorhouse always supported land rights, but he had little interest in the history of Indigenous–settler relations and Australia’s precolonial past.

The book’s well-selected photos are a joy: young Frank standing stiffly in his cadet’s uniform; his head resting awkwardly on the shoulder of his wife; cross-dressed at the 2000 Seahorse Ball; consulting map and compass on his annual bushwalk; and sitting at table with his many friends and lovers. 

Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Frank Moorhouse: A Life".

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