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Altitude BirdIssue 44
Features reviews by Kathleen Broderick, Linn Miller, Christine Choo, Bill Thorpe, David Ritter, Eve Vincent, Stephanie Bishop, Alison Miles, Richard Kay, Amanda Day, Bernard Whimpress, Mads Clausen, Marion May Campbell, Sylvia Alston, Catie Gilchrist, Eva Chapman, Lucy Dougan, Stephen Lawrence and Nathanael O'Reilly. Click here for more details.


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Altitude BirdPopular Music: Practices, Formations and Change - Australian Perspectives
The papers collected here in this special edition of Altitude offer a brief snapshot of popular music research broadly connected with Australia. The essays demonstrate the variety of theoretical and methodological approaches used by researchers in the fields of popular music studies and cultural studies to explore themes of popular music practice, formation and change in an Australian context. Click here for more details.



 
 
 
 

Dark Palace

By Frank Moorhouse, Sydney: Random House, 2001, paperback, $21.90. Reviewed by Renate Howe in the Dec 2001-Jan 2002 issue.

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Oral Sex and the League of Nations: The Genre of Faction in Grand Days and Dark Palace

Although the genre is hardly new, the publication of Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse raises again the issue of 'faction' and the implications for the historian.1 I would argue that the blurring between fiction and history has now moved to a stage where Australian historians need to confront the interpretative issues raised by the popularity of the extensively researched historical novel. The increasing professionalism of fiction writers and the need to publish regularly has encouraged a turn to novels with well-researched historic themes, most recently Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang and Frank Moorhouse's Dark Palace. Frank Moorhouse's book, set around the League of Nations, provides a case study of this developing genre and an opportunity to explore the issues raised for the historian in this postmodern era of interpretation; of the difference between fiction and fact, between what is imagined and what is real.

Historical Background
Dark Palace is described by Moorhouse as a 'companion' volume to his earlier novel Grand Days; both are focused on the rise and fall of the League of Nations in the 1920s and 30s.2 They are long, substantial books based on extensive research and reflection. Moorhouse began the project in the mid-1980s and the two volumes have been published seven years apart in 1993 and 2000. They have involved research in North America, Australia and Europe. Moorhouse spent two years undertaking research and writing in France and Geneva supported by an award under the Australian Government Creative Fellowship Program and the support of Paul Keating and Donald Horne is acknowledged in Grand Days. Moorhouse received a Fulbright Award and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for the preparation of Dark Palace especially for research at the Library of Congress where the papers of Arthur Sweetser, an American journalist who reported the League of Nations are held. A Harold White Fellowship enabled him to study the John Latham papers at the National Library and Moorhouse notes he was the first Australian literary writer to receive this award. As well as archival research, Moorhouse undertook interviews in Canada, the USA, Great Britain and France. Both books have a number of appendices of historical documents, explanations and there is a list of characters, reminiscent of Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory, where an asterisk distinguishes real and imagined characters. Although based on extensive historical research both books are listed under fiction in Moorhouse's list of publications at the front of each book; only Days of Wine and Rage is listed as non-fiction. At the start of Grand Days, Moorhouse states his position;

This book is, in part, based on the dramatic reconstruction of real people, identified by their actual names, and on fictional characters who sometimes embody features of people who existed at that time, but who are essentially fictional (see Who is Who in the Book). Where people who actually existed say anything substantial, their words are taken from documentary sources. All the historical and politically substantial events depicted (and quite a few of the insubstantial events) are inspired by documentary sources.

But the book is, above all, a work of the imagination.
Edith Campbell Berry (ECB) is the central character of both books. She works in the bureaucracy of the League of Nations and is a fictional character although Moorhouse makes clear she is modelled on Canadian Mary McGeachy who worked in the Information Section of the League of Nations. Through a fortuitous contact in France, Moorhouse was able to fly to Canada to interview McGeachy not long before her death. Mary McGeachy was one of many women frustrated by the lack of women's representation in official delegations to the League who sought to influence the organisation either through working in the administration or through membership of commissions and working parties. American historian Leila Rupp in her book Worlds of Women 3 and Australian author Fiona Paisley,4 have noted the attraction of international organisations to women from settler societies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The character of ECB is an opportunity to explore this attraction, an opportunity constrained by Moorhouse placing ECB in a much higher position at the League than any Australian woman ever achieved. She works for Sir Eric Drummond, the English Secretary-General in Grand Days, while in Dark Palace Edith has a senior position in the secretariat, powerful enough to advise and discuss current issues with the likes of Anthony Eden. However, Lenore Coltheart who has studied Australian women's involvement in international organisations in this period,5 told Moorhouse that the highest position gained by an Australian woman was by Jocelyn Horn from Adelaide who was in charge of managing the secretaries and typists pool, a significantly less important position.

Central to my concerns in relation to the books and their portrayal of women's involvement in the League, is ECB's complete isolation from any women's international organisations or networks. Here she parts company from her model Mary McGeachy who was involved in women's international movements and left her League position to be executive secretary of the International Alliance of Women, the leading international coordinating group for women's organisations. In the work of Lenore Coltheart and the English historian Carol Miller,6 who have both researched women at the League, and in my own work studying international women's networks, it is clear that activist women in this period did have an international agenda around legislation for the protection of women and children and the establishment of international benchmarks for women's rights.7 One of the strategic priorities was to develop a Women's Charter to be ratified by League members, a project supported by a wide range of women's international organisations.

However, ECB has no discernible links to international women's organisations and indeed is critical and dismissive of such women, especially Dame Rachel Crowdy, who reached the highest position in the League bureaucracy as head of the Social Questions Section, and Helena Swanwick, British delegate to the Assembly. Although Crowdy's achievements are acknowledged, both are portrayed as older, dowdy, arrogant British women. Australian women are hardly mentioned with Bessie Rischbieth the West Australian feminist having only a cameo appearance as part of an Australian delegation in Dark Palace. Freda Bage, a delegate to the League Assemblies in 1926 and 1938, is briefly mentioned in Grand Days, yet both women were leaders in Australian women's international organisations and networks in this period. There is little mention of other Australian women involved in the League either in Geneva or in the League of Nations Union in Australia such as Constance Duncan of the Victorian branch or Jessie Street in New South Wales. It would seem that ECB, having no background in those networks herself, has no respect for them.

Australian Background
ECB's Australian background is more evident in Dark Palace than Grand Days. Rightly outraged by the refusal of the Miles Franklin Award judges to consider Grand Days an Australian novel because it is set in Geneva, Moorhouse makes sure that ECB returns to her home town of Jacobs Brush just north of his own home town of Nowra. In Grand Days ECB made the decision not to return home to visit her dying mother but in Dark Palace, she visits her father and we get some idea of her Australian background. In Australia as in Geneva, she is not part of any women's organisations or networks. Her main Australian mentor is John Latham and it is the Melbourne based Rationalist Society that provides much of the inspiration for her work at the League. There is no mention of important organisational bases for Australian women's international activism such as the Young Women's Christian Association or the International Federation of University Women.

ECB is invited to lecture on the League at the University of Sydney where she had been a student. An odd assortment of members from the Sydney branch of the League of Nations Union attend lunch before her lecture -- A P Elkin, Herman Black and Enoch Powell. Anyway, ECB seems as concerned about her costume, hat and gauntlets as her lunch and lecture. Although her lecture is well received, ECB's visit to Australia confirms her decision not to return and seek a position in the embryo Canberra public service. Having satisfied the Miles Franklin Award judges, she thankfully returns to Geneva.

Public and Private
The novels explore the fusion of public and private lives that historical writing in the area of international diplomacy usually avoids. Here Moorhouse is more in tune with feminist historical analysis of international organisations, where it is argued that activist women were not only crossing boundaries in terms of involvement in public life but also pushing the boundaries of their private lives. The decision not to marry and have a family was made by most women involved in public life in this period and family responsibilities were especially incompatible with involvement in international organisations. The close relationships between many women involved in these organisations, either companionate or lesbian, have been well documented in historical scholarship. However, ECB's adventurous pushing of the sexual boundaries seems more of the present period than of the 1920s and 30s. The sex scenes in the two novels (and Moorhouse writes in scenes) would be more at home in his novels of the post 1960s. In Grand Days ECB spends most of her leisure time in Geneva's sexually ambiguous Molly Club with companion Ambrose Westwood. ECB's central sexual experience in Grand Days is a brief oral sex encounter with a black American jazz singer at a Paris nightclub. In Dark Palace, ECB's marriage to an English journalist collapses and Ambrose, now a transvestite, takes his place in her Geneva apartment. There are some bizarre scenes involving Ambrose and her estranged husband, while the Molly Club remains a central part of ECB's life. According to Lenore Coltheart, the Australian Jocelyn Horn was dismissed from her position at the League for going out dancing, yet ECB's more exotic social life does not lead to her dismissal! During her visit to Sydney, ECB makes time to provide a sexual experience for a friend of university days now disfigured by a war injury, although this means disposing of her expensive European clothes because of semen stains. Another scene in Dark Palace describes ECB, frustrated at the confined world of her married Australian friends, masturbating in a car. Both books bring in the significant impact of Freudian psychology in this period although in an awkward and unconvincing way. In Dark Palace, ECB visits Geneva's leading psychoanalyst for advice on her failed marriage, providing Moorhouse with opportunities for lectures on Freudian theories. However, although he suggests that her private and public life are part of the exploration of new directions and identities for the modern woman, the pushing of boundaries in ECB's private and public life often seem two separate enterprises and Moorhouse misses the opportunity to fully explore the implications of their inter- relationship.

Feminists have in the past questioned Moorhouse's portrayal of women and these novels are unlikely to bring about a rapprochement. ECB spends much time on her appearance and elaborate outfits for League meetings. In Dark Palace she is a senior bureaucrat at a time of intense crisis for the League, but the amount of time she spends on the hard work of reading and preparing submissions, briefings and reports seems vastly insufficient. ECB has strong opinions but no women's agenda for implementation and is satisfied to participate on the margins of the male world of background negotiation and intrigue at the League.

The League of Nations
In interviews and articles Moorhouse has explained his long fascination with the League of Nations as the motivation for devoting the last twenty years to research and writing these two books. In an interview with David Nichols for an article in The Big Issue he explained that 'as a storyteller I became fascinated with what sort of people went there...what they did, and how they lived. I was using the League as a setting for great human tragedy...and human embarrassment'.8 Moorhouse found only one other novel on women at the League, The Peacemakers by Alison Richie, published by Hogarth Press in 1928 -- a more modest study of the influence of women in the League's early administration. The book was an important model for Grand Days and Moorhouse was able to interview Richie's family in London. Moorhouse has been concerned to rehabilitate the League, to rescue it from the negative view of historians and the ignorance of the general public. Many of the records that he consulted in the United Nations archives had not been previously researched and indeed the UN has had a vested interest in distancing itself from the perceived failure of the League as an international organisation and in maintaining an historical silence. In his rescue, Moorhouse captures something of the hot-house League intrigue through ECB's eyes and, especially in Grand Days, the obsession with status and rank, the focus on minor issues and the complexity of alliances and networks. Yet much of the discussion of League issues seem stilted and contrived partly because ECB is apolitical and partly because Moorhouse is paraphrasing documentary quotations for dialogue and explanation. Some sections read like a summary of issues and the intensity of debate is missing. It is frustrating for the historian that ECB takes simplistic positions on complex issues. In Dark Palace she is opposed to the pacifists' position in the 1930s as Fascism and Nazism strengthened in Europe and at her own expense organises a public meeting in Geneva as a platform for her views on this divisive issue -- an extraordinary step for a senior League official. Here she expounds her criticisms of the pacifist position which angers the League women present at the meeting. The account of the arguments convey no sense of the complexity of divisions in the international women's movement on strategies at this time. The debate on pacifism and other League controversies such as the use of sanctions, the subject of ECB's address at the University of Sydney, are over-simplified making suggestions of ECB's contribution to League policy at the highest level unconvincing. Indeed, her commitment to the League is hard to understand as it often seems a lifestyle choice rather than a driving moral or political commitment.

Does in matter?
Lenore Coltheart, while making the point that no Australian woman would have had ECB's position and influence at the League, nevertheless welcomed Grand Days as a contribution to awareness about the League of Nations and as a narrative that can help Australian's to think about their position in the world. It is also encouraging that a book on this subject can be accepted as Australian and finally win the Miles Franklin and other prestigious prizes. ECB has demonstrated that an Australian can be an urbane sophisticated woman centrally involved in international forums and debates. Do the discrepancies between the literary narrative and the historical evidence matter in a period where 'faction' has been an expanding genre in literature and film in an era of post modern interpretation? One of the extremes has been Edmund Morris' biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, in which Morris imposes his fictionalised self into Reagan's life and deliberately alters dates and 'facts' to de-stabilise historical conventions. Is the release of writing on historical subjects from the footnote something historians should endorse? Is this the way of historical writing in the future?

In his interview with David Nichols, Moorhouse reflected that 'as I moved through the archives and other sources, it was just about using the material to create living characters'. Nichol's asked 'Is it that easy?' I would answer in the negative. As the books are literature, Moorhouse's work is not subject to the scrutiny that the historian would expect for similar, publicly funded works of research and scholarship. Central to my concerns is the interpretation of women's international movements in both Grand Days and Dark Palace, the belittling of the endeavours of women from that movement to achieve a place in the new world order, the ignoring of the extensive networks that supported their endeavours and the worth of the women's agenda that they pursued. The researched historical novel should be more accountable to its sources and open to assessment by historians. Historians should challenge the defence of fiction, that it can be truer and more meaningful than 'fact', as it leaves the historical novel stranded between the judgments of history and literature.

1 Frank Moorhouse, Dark Palace, Knopf/Random House, Sydney, 2000.
2 Frank Moorhouse, Grand Days, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1993.
3 Leila L Rupp, Worlds of Women; the Making of an International Women's Movement, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2000.
4 Fiona Paisley, Loving Protection? Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women's Rights 1919- 1939, Melbourne University Press, 2000.
5 Lenore Coltheart, 'Laughing at Boundaries; the Idea of Edith Campbell Berry', Working Papers in Australian Studies, no 99, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, pp1-6.
6 Carol Miller, 'Women in International Relations? The Debate in Interwar Britain', in Rebecca Grant and Kathleen Newman (eds) Gender and International Relations, Open University Press, Buckingham,1991, pp 64-82.
7 Renate Howe, 'Women's Networks and the Construction of a Transnational Welfare State', Paper delivered at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, University of Rochester, New York, 1999.
8 David Nichols, 'League of His Own', The Big Issue, 8-23 January 2001, p 33.

Citation

  • Renate Howe. 'Review: Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse' [online]. Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network), Dec 2001-Jan 2002. Availability: <please cite the web address here> ISSN 1833-0932. [accessed 28 July 2014].

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