Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse is third in his ‘Edith’ trilogy comprising Grand Days and Dark Palace. I read these years ago when they were first published, and enjoyed both the strong characterisation and the piquancy of reading about a woman’s career in the failed League of Nations of the interwar years. Cold Light can be read entirely independently of the companion novels: it follows Edith’s chastened return to Australia as the Cold War tightened its grip. The novel begins with Edith and her cross-dressing husband Ambrose living in the limbo of a Canberra hotel while they sort out their respective careers.
While in Europe Edith had some trouble being taken seriously as a diplomat because of her gender, it was no preparation for the indignity of being under-employed in unrepentantly sexist Australia. Edith’s journey in this trilogy moves from youthful optimism and a sense that all things are possible in Grand Days to disillusionment in Dark Palace: Cold Light follows her middle-age into a sense of loss and frustration with cramped opportunities. Add to that the awkwardness of having a brother who’s an active member of the Communist Party and her own desires for sexually adventurous behaviour, and she has a problem indeed.
In some ways Cold Light reminded me of The Memory Room, by Christopher Koch. That was a fascinating psychological study of an Australian spy, offering glimpses into the minds of people who are not what they seem. It showed how the habit of necessary constraint in all relationships, especially personal ones, is a barrier to full humanity, and Moorhouse shows too how a double life of any kind impinges on natural human behaviour.
In a previous post I mentioned that I particularly enjoyed the three-sided conversations between Edith and her long-lost brother: what he says, what she says, and what she’s thinking but not saying. For Edith, relationships flicker through different prisms. Marooned in the wasteland that was the nation’s fledgling capital in the postwar period, she needs to establish both a personal and a professional network – but a sibling relationship is fraught with problems. Busy on the world stage, she hadn’t bothered with Frederick (or her now-dead parents) for a very long time. How has he tracked her down, and why? Does he hope to exploit their relationship for covert Communist purposes? And what will it do to her already weak prospects for a career in the diplomatic service?
She was still trying to understand the brother-sister bond, its frontiers. The brother and sister thing was not only about the heart, it had to do with alliances. Brothers and sisters were, of course, the first people we meet in our life where an alliance was possible and useful and even necessary – usually an alliance against parents or against strangers in the street or bullies in the playground. But she could see that there was nothing obligatory about it. It wasn’t genetic. One had only to look at the bad blood between siblings at times – historically or biblically – to know that it was not genetic. An emergency could bring siblings back into alliance. If an emergency overtook one or both, siblings could without hesitation turn to each other. Perhaps Frederick was right that it was a politico-economic unit. (p64)
In the triumphant post-Communist world of the 21st century, Frederick’s earnest Marxist analyses of capitalism and its pernicious effects seem quaint. From this distance, Ambrose’s anxiety that Fred’s activities may compromise his work for the British High Commission (and his habit of sharing its secrets with Edith) seems like a melodramatic response. Who on earth would be taking any notice of Frederick and his girlfriend Janice parroting the Communist Manifesto, in a remote bush capital? It is so easy to forget how fear of Communism leaked into every aspect of Australian political life for a very long time. It took us into a tragic, unwinnable war; it kept a lazy government in power long past its use-by date; and as in America under McCarthyism, it blighted the careers of all kinds of innocent people judged suspect by an over-zealous ASIO. It’s easy to forget too, about postwar fear of nuclear annihilation and World War III during the Cold War. In those days nuclear shelters were built, in the naïve belief that they afforded protection. Today we no longer have those illusions. We’ve learned to live with nuclear weapons because we’ve had to.
In Cold Light the British were about to test nuclear weapons at Maralinga and Menzies was about to ban the Communist Party and gaol its sympathisers. Edith joins the battle to protect free speech at some risk: the proponents of Menzies’ bill tagged its opponents Communists and careers were ruined over it. Moorhouse tracks Edith’s tussle between pragmatism and integrity while also tracing her shifting view of her brother, alerting us to the manipulative attitudes that she shares with Ambrose. Edith is a fascinating example of human nature.
Edith is also pragmatic about her marriages. Over the long years of any marriage there are always compromises of one sort or another, and she and Ambrose have not only accommodated his cross-dressing adventures but also encouraged her own experiments. (The only other book I can remember that has tackled this cross-dressing penchant is Rosalie Ham’s quirky portrayal of small town life, The Dressmaker. I must read her latest one There Should be More Dancing soon!) (Update: I have. See my review here). Well, Canberra was a small town in those days, with a small town mentality tangled into its premature pretensions to be the nation’s capital. Edith’s not-very-well suppressed desire to be part of a sexually-relaxed ‘Bloomsbury’ set in Canberra seems like a forlorn hope indeed. As she ages over the long years of this novel she has to learn to accept these and other frustrations. Moorhouse writes about women very well.
And he does so without diminishing his heroine. She is first and foremost a career woman when it was not easy to be one. This is when Australian women could not buy a house without a husband’s permission, and when all the meetings she attended were all besuited males. Edith is constantly trapped by limitations ascribed to her by her gender. But seduced by sheer desperation into a trifling job for the Canberra planning committee, Edith rediscovers her lifelong visionary instincts. She sees beyond the pre-fab buildings, the petty bureaucracy, the pretentious aping of customs from elsewhere and small-minded penny-pinching. She finds a tiny chink in Canberra’s formidable defences and reinvents herself. She makes some awkward compromises and a few bungles but is a remarkable survivor.
Moorhouse is a master of dialogue. It is crisp, witty and authentic, capturing the nuances of class, education, and the still-pervasive influence of Britain. The author is also spot-on, as we say, at ‘nailing’ Australian insecurities: Edith has to hide her cosmopolitanism. It’s not okay to quote her Geneva Latin or her fluent French. She must tell the Other Wives that her Dior is just a copy. Even the way that Edith and Ambrose furnish their house must be done with care, to avoid offence. ‘Australians fear being seen as ostentatious, must have no airs. Nothing lavish, extravagant, or excessive. You should, as an Australian, be very much down-to-earth and your house should say that’ (p234).
That constraint extends to Edith’s caution in conversation. Local insularity and defensiveness is a minefield:
She knew that if you were someone who had Lived Abroad, there were socially acceptable ways of talking about Australia – but as for Canberra, she was still uncertain of what was permitted in the way of jokes by those who lived there. There was one way of talking when speaking to another person who had travelled or lived abroad, and another if you were speaking to an Australian who hadn’t travelled. There was yet another way of speaking if you were driven to flaunting your worldliness by exasperation and irritation because of arrant provincialism. From something he had said, she knew that this civil servant Richard had been to London before the war, but had not travelled elsewhere and that he wasn’t a returned soldier. Expatriates were always required to say some things to prove that themselves ‘true blue’. And there was another group who seemed to love to hear Australia denigrated, and Europe – especially England – praised to the skies; they were people who dreamed of leaving and living there, and you confirmed their fantasies and endorsed their dissatisfactions, permitting them to attribute their personal failings to the dreadful accident of place of birth. (p92)
Provocative as they are, observations such as these shed light on many postwar migrants’ experience when they first arrived in Australia. In Oh Lucky Country! Rosa Cappiello raged against insular assumptions that all migrants were illiterate peasants. Justifiably, she was furious about attitudes that were dismissive of European culture, from people who’d never seen it. Moorhouse recreates this claustrophobic world just as Australia was on the cusp of starting its journey towards becoming the vibrant tolerant society we enjoy today, and he does it through a captivating story with an engaging central character. It’s a wonderful book, which deserves its place on the 2012 Miles Franklin shortlist. It’s on my own personal shortlist to win the award …
For other reviews, see those listed in my previous post about Cold Light.
Update: See also these thoughts at Meanjin.
Author: Frank Moorhouse
Title: Cold Light
Publisher: Vintage 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.
Fishpond: Cold Light