Frank Moorhouse, the renowned Australian writer and essayist best known for the Edith trilogy, has died at the age of 83.
Her publisher, Penguin Random House, confirmed on Sunday that she had died that morning at a hospital in Sydney.
Author of 18 books, in addition to screenplays and essays, Moorhouse explores Australian identity through the career of Edith Campbell Berry, a young woman working as a diplomat in Europe, then Canberra, in three novels published between 1993 and 2011.
Grand Days, set in 1920s Europe, was judged ineligible for the Miles Franklin literary award in 1994 for not being Australian enough by judges, a decision that led to Moorhouse taking legal action. Dark Palace, the second book in the trilogy, won the prize in 2001, while Cold Light was shortlisted for it in 2012.
ABC journalist Annabel Crabb, a huge Edith Campbell Berry fan, said: “I know she resonated with a lot of ambitious, energetic, imaginative and slightly shambolic women – I’ve always identified very closely with her. What’s amazing about Moorhouse is how she was able to write it in such a way. who is so perceptive. Her fluidity of gender really defines her. She is a true artist.”
Born in Nowra, New South Wales, in 1938, Moorhouse was the youngest of three children. He settled on his future career at 12, after reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while recovering from a serious accident. “After experiencing the magic of this book, I wanted to be the magician who made the magic,” he said.
At the age of 21 he married his childhood sweetheart, Wendy Holloway, who later became a literary editor in London after the marriage broke down. Moorhouse went into journalism and was involved in activism and trade unions.
His first short stories were published in the late 60s. Many of them follow the same group of people in what he calls “interrupted narratives … so that it won’t be seen as a failed novel. I decided to pretend this was a literary form I had fiddled with.”
Along with Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, Moorhouse became part of the “Sydney Push” – an anti-censorship movement that protested far-right politics and championed free speech and sexual freedom. In 1975 he played a fundamental role in the evolution of copyright law in Australia, in the case of the University of New South Wales v Moorhouse, which found that the use of unattended photocopiers violated the copyright of authors.
Moorhouse writes prolifically and with the irreverence and humor of her 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 her writing, she said, she wanted to explore “the idea of intimacy without a family — now procreation isn’t the only thing that gives sex meaning”.
In 1985 he was appointed a Fellow of the Order of Australia for the ministry of Australian literature, and he received several scholarships including at King’s College, Cambridge, a Fulbright scholarship, and at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. His novel Forty-Seventeen won the Australian Literature Society gold medal in 1988.
Prof Catharine Lumby, author of an upcoming bio on Moorhouse, was putting the finishing touches on the book over the weekend when she heard the news of his death.
“When someone of his caliber dies, it feels like he belongs to the public,” he said. “I’ve been a huge fan since I was a teenager, but we met in the 90s and started discussing biographies in the early 2000s.”
She says she is “very in touch with her feminine side and is very supportive of young female writers. He really understands women and writes female characters really well.”
“But he’s not just a writer – he’s an activist fighting against censorship, he’s very active in women’s liberation and gay rights, and is a center for copyright reform in Australia. And he has a fascination for living well – he loves the martini and all the rituals around it, how you make it perfect, who you drink it with, which demonstrates a broader love for life.
“He has a very dry sense of humor and a great conversationalist – always in the restaurant, I don’t think he ever cooks himself. It was an honor to know him.”