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Frank Thomas Moorhouse (1938–2022)

by Caroline Overington

from Australian

One of Australia’s most celebrated writers, essayists, raconteurs, pleasure-seekers and anti-­censorship campaigners, Frank Moorhouse, has died at 83.

He was perhaps best known for the so-called Edith trilogy – Grand Days, Dark Palace and Cold Light – which follows an ambitious young woman as she pursues a career in diplomacy in Europe and Canberra.

The first of the three books, set in Europe in the 1920s, was – some say scandalously – deemed ineligible for the Miles Franklin Award in 1994 because the judges said it was insufficiently Australian. Moorhouse took legal action. The second book in the series, Dark Palace, won the prize in 2001.

His stand-alone novel Forty-Seventeen won the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal in 1988, three years after he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to Australian literature.

Catharine Lumby, who is just finishing a biography of Moorhouse, told The Australian: “I got up this morning and I was about to put fingers to laptop to write the conclusion of my biography of Frank, and I thought, how I will I end this? And someone on Facebook told me he’d died, and I thought, thank you Frank, you have the last word.

“I’m so sad, but I’ve spent the day reflecting on this man’s amazing life.”

Moorhouse wrote 18 books, as well as essays, screenplays, and hilarious monologues. He was also a fierce anti-­censorship advocate.

“Frank had a dark, sardonic, ironic sense of humour, and I think people kind of thought, I don’t quite get him,” Lumby said.

“But he was more than a writer – he ate, he drank, he loved fiercely.

“He was a cross-dresser. Edith (the main character in the trilogy) was Frank in many ways. He gave me permission to write about his cross-dressing and his bisexuality It wasn’t a secret.

“(The character) Edith, he always said, was based on his mother, Purth, and she was an amazing woman, an activist for Indigenous rights, and human rights, and Frank admired her to a great degree, but the more I read Grand Days, the more I ­realised Edith is Frank.”

Critic Peter Craven said: “Frank Moorhouse was an extraordinary man of wit and intelligence and self-mocking humour. Whether you’re an admirer of the discontinuous narrative of an early work like The Americans, Baby, which transformed the possibilities for the Australian short story, or whether you put the League of Nations (Edith trilogy) at the centre of your sense of Moorhouse’s achievements, he’s a writer any reader of Australian literature must confront.”

Adelaide Writers’ Festival artistic director Louise Adler said: “His Edith trilogy is in my top 10 Australian books. He was a great anti-censorship advocate. And a great lunch companion.”

Moore married childhood sweetheart Wendy Halloway at 21 but the union did not last.

Besides Lumby’s biography, there will be another by Matt Lamb, former editor of the Australian Review of Fiction.

“Frank Morehouse was an icon of the libertarian tradition,” said The Australian’s chief literary critic, Geordie Williamson.

“He rode the various waves of post-war culture with intelligence and elan, and revolutionised the short story form in the process. His contribution to the culture is impossible to overstate. He had a Rabelaisian spirit also, delighting in the intellect, the spirit and the body.”

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Citation details

Caroline Overington, 'Moorhouse, Frank Thomas (1938–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 July 2024.

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