November 2011

Arts & Letters

Age of innocence

By David Marr
Frank Moorhouse, the nation's Edith Wharton. © Steve Baccon/Fairfax Syndication
Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Cold Light’

Edith Campbell Berry has crashed to earth in Canberra circa 1950. She is no longer wanted abroad. All her years at the League of Nations and her efforts rescuing refugees from the rubble of Europe (“my best work”) have failed to win her a place with the United Nations. So this plucky woman comes home at about the age of 40 hoping for the best. Her plan was “to return and then somehow magically be swept up into the arms of Australia, and then sent away on diplomatic missions as a representative of Australia.”

Life doesn’t work out like that, or not with any speed, for our heroine. She is a woman. She is married. Australia has lost its interest in building a better world. It will be 20 years and 600 pages before the call comes and she is whisked back to her old life of international conferences and diplomatic intrigue. Meanwhile she has career and sexual adventures to pursue in early Menzies Canberra where it is possible to enjoy, she observes, “the privileges and discomforts of three modes of living in one place – the capital, the rural life and exile.”

She is not alone. Her husband Ambrose Westwood has a shadowy post at the British High Commission and a taste for cross-dressing. Her long-lost brother Frederick has reappeared from nowhere with his partner Janice, both organisers for the Communist Party. In a town where everyone knows everyone’s business, Edith fears losing her courage, her whimsy and her dedication to Bloomsbury principles.

“I am afraid,” she tells Ambrose one night in their suite at the Hotel Canberra. “I am afraid of everything. I am still afraid my brother will one day go to gaol; Janice will go to gaol. That we will be compromised. That you will be revealed. That some agents will burst in one night and find you en femme and that you will go to gaol – or worse. And I’m frightened that there will be another war soon. That atomic bombs will drop on us.”

Readers of the first two volumes of Edith’s adventures (Grand Days, 1993, and Dark Palace, 2001) know that such moods soon pass. Since she first turned up in Geneva in the early days of the League, Edith’s equanimity has been quickly restored by cool reflection, a few drinks – rather more now than before – one or two rounds of bracing conversation, sex and hard work.

With Cold Light (Vintage, 736pp; $32.95) Frank Moorhouse brings home a mighty, 25-year project. Australians love a three-decker novel, but nothing on this scale has been tried in this country for a long, long time. Moorhouse has taken us on a strange voyage through the psyche of Australia. We’ve laughed. We’ve cried. We’ve had our differences. After all these years and pages we know ourselves and our place in the world better. It’s no small thing.

That Edith Campbell Berry has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography seems a curious oversight. She has worked with great men, observed great events at firsthand and subjected all she has experienced to habits of self-examination drummed into her during her rationalist childhood in Jaspers Brush, on the NSW south coast. True, she is a bit of a prig and rather earnest. She gets about in gloves. But she is brave, original and good.

One of the most memorable scenes of Cold Light is Edith breaking with Sir John Latham over beef Wellington at the Melbourne Club. Her old mentor and fellow rationalist had ended up the only man on the High Court to back Menzies’ Communist Party Dissolution Act. After having this out with him in the club’s gloomy dining room, they never speak again. Such pluck. Years later a note in an intelligence file about this “dressing down” would see her in good stead with a new regime in Canberra.

But back in the early days of her return, still desperate for work, she lands a job with the National Capital Development Commission. “Planning Canberra, are we?” asks Striker, a ghost from her university past. “A comedown from planning the world.” But Edith plunges in and for a time – an exhilarating time in the long march of Cold Light – Edith is engaged in the task of defending the Griffins’ vision of a city that might ennoble the nation. The lake is one of her causes.

To set a novel in this place and time is an act of some daring. These are supposed to be dull years in a dull town. But in this bush capital Edith and Ambrose see the ends and the beginnings of so much: the great Red Scare, the long Menzies era and the rise of Canberra as an intellectual as well as political stamping ground. Now established in Arthur Circle, Forrest, this odd couple know the best poets, the interesting professors, the leading furniture designers and key diplomats of this little Bloomsbury on the Molonglo.

And as befits Edith’s commitment to the values of those few London squares, her inner life gets a great deal more attention than her career. A pity this. Her work first with the city planners and then, by odd connections, as an adviser on nuclear policy with a cupboard office just down the hall from Menzies, is somewhat fresher territory than her sexual escapades.

Edith is a goer. She and Ambrose achieve consummation of a kind as connoisseurs of “ideas and good living”. Then there is Red Janice, the former private school girl to whom she is strangely drawn; and war-wounded Striker – a great monster – into whose clutches she falls once more. The honest-to-goodness fuck with Richard at page 400 comes almost as much a relief to the reader as to Edith. In her last moments the old diplomat would see with absolute clarity she had bungled her inner life: “She had loved not too wisely, nor too well. But she had tried with all her might.”

Cold Light is a fat parcel: a historical novel; a comedy of manners; a bundle of short stories; a novel of conversations; and a vast rumination on the nature of love and sex. A decade can slip by as Edith ponders passion dwindling, step-motherhood – she marries Richard whose surname we never learn – and the relative benefits of the communion of minds over bodies. Deeply committed to the former, she never loses hope of the latter.

Her mind runs to rules. She has it all worked out. In a scene of heartbreaking comedy, Edith instructs Richard’s children on the etiquette of the body: “Beginning with the top of the head: you do not scratch your head in public. You should not comb your hair in public …” She deals with ears, noses, teeth, knuckles and fingernails. The boys leave home, soon after, for boarding school.

Moorhouse is the nation’s Edith Wharton. All his career he has been investigating the comedy and wisdom of manners: how they reveal and disguise time, character and place. He is a master of finding formality within informality, of detecting rules of behaviour where we thought spontaneity reigned. Mind you, he doesn’t slavishly admire ‘good manners’: not least of Edith’s qualities is knowing when to be damn pushy.

He has a surprising amount to say about lingerie. The feel of satin, we learn, always relaxed Edith’s body. It was something she had in common with Ambrose. “She believed that lingerie changed the way one moved – especially a well-fitted corset – and she always had clear, definite views when dressing as to which underwear the occasion required, or even the mood of the day required, or which her spirits required.” At the age of about 60 she ponders which brassiere to wear for a crucial meeting with Gough Whitlam.

The new prime minister doesn’t notice. He is more interested – as we have been for three volumes – with Edith Campbell Berry’s entanglement with history: a modern woman who has done “some service for the state” in twentieth-century Europe and brought her wisdom back home, an idealist whose spirit has survived a string of lost causes. Whitlam has a last mission for the old girl.

True, age has made her a tad long-winded. I can imagine drinks with Edith in the bar of her Vienna hotel might make for a tiresome night. But she can look after herself. She would not be laughed at behind her back as she tottered up to bed, nor would anyone in their right mind tangle with her the next day. The world may have resisted all her good intentions but along the way the freethinker from Jaspers Brush has earned herself a permanent place in the fiction of her country.

David Marr

David Marr is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the award-winning Patrick White: A Life, Quarterly Essay 38, ‘Power Trip’, and co-author of Dark Victory. He has been a reporter with Four Corners and the host of Media Watch.

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