Frank Moorhouse, the acclaimed Australian author and essayist best known for the Edith trilogy, has died aged 83.
His publisher, Penguin Random House, confirmed on Sunday that he died that morning in a hospital in Sydney.
The author of 18 books, in addition to screenplays and essays, Moorhouse has explored Australian identity through the career of Edith Campbell Berry, a young woman who works as a diplomat in Europe, then in Canberra, in three novels published between 1993 and 2011.
Grand Days, set in 1920s Europe, was ruled ineligible for the Miles Franklin Literary Prize in 1994 because it was deemed insufficiently Australian by the judges, a decision which led Moorhouse to take legal action. Dark Palace, the second book in the trilogy, won the award in 2001, while Cold Light was shortlisted for it in 2012.
ABC journalist Annabel Crabb, a huge fan of Edith Campbell Berry, said: “I know she resonates with a lot of ambitious, energetic, imaginative, slightly shambolic women – I’ve always identified very closely with her. What was remarkable about Moorhouse was how he could write it in such an insightful way. His gender fluidity really stood out to him. He was a real artist. »
Born in Nowra, New South Wales, in 1938, Moorhouse was the youngest of three brothers. He decided on his future career at age 12, after reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while recovering from a serious accident. “After experiencing the magic in this book, I wanted to be the magician who did the magic,” he said.
At 20, he married his childhood sweetheart, Wendy Halloway, who would later work in journalism in London after the marriage disintegrated. Moorhouse himself went into journalism and became involved in activism and labor unions.
His first short stories were published in the late ’60s. Many of them followed the same group of people in what he called a “discontinuous narrative…so that it wouldn’t be considered a failed novel.” I decided to pretend it was a literary form I had tinkered with.
Along with Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, Moorhouse became a member of the “Sydney Push” – an anti-censorship movement that protested right-wing politics and championed free speech and sexual liberation. In 1975, he played a fundamental role in the development of copyright law in Australia, in the case University of New South Wales v Moorhouse, which found that the unsupervised use of photocopiers infringed the authors’ copyright.
Moorhouse wrote prolifically and with irreverence and humor about his passions – food, drink, travel, sex and gender. Early in his fiction, and later in his 2005 memoir Martini, he wrote candidly about his own bisexuality and androgyny. In his writing, he said, he wanted to explore “the idea of intimacy without family – now that procreation is not the only thing that gives meaning to sex”.
In 1985 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his service to Australian literature and he received several scholarships, including King’s College Cambridge, a Fulbright scholarship and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Her novel Forty-Seventeen won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal in 1988.
Professor Catharine Lumby, the author of a forthcoming biography on Moorhouse, had put the finishing touches to the book last weekend when she heard the news of his death.
“When someone of his caliber dies, it feels like they belong in the public,” she said. “I was a huge fan since I was a teenager, but we met in the 90s and started discussing biography in the early 2000s.”
She said he was “very in touch with his feminine side and was so supportive of young female writers. He really understood women and wrote the female characters so well.
“But he wasn’t just a writer – he was an activist who fought against censorship, he was very active in women’s liberation and gay rights, and was at the heart of copyright reform in Australia And he had a fascination with the good life – he loved martinis and all the rituals around it, how you make it perfect, who you drink it with, it spoke to a greater love of life.
“He had a very dry sense of humor and was a wonderful conversationalist – always in a restaurant, I don’t think he ever cooked himself. It was a privilege to have known him.”