Chapter 1: How Edith Campbell Berry Ate Six Courses and Practised the Seven Ways in the Dining Car on the Train from Paris to Geneva
On the train from Paris to Geneva, Edith Campbell Berry, at twenty-six, having heard the gong, made her way to the first sitting and her first lunch in a railway dining car.
Apparently there was a brouhaha around Grand Days and the 1994 Miles Franklin Award. I say apparently because I do not remember it myself; it’s only what I’ve read about since.
The Miles Franklin website states that the prize will be awarded to a novel which is ‘of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.’ The judges of that year concluded that Grand Days did not have sufficient Australian content to be eligible for the award. Obviously this dilemma was overcome, or worked through by 2001 when Moorhouse’s second Edith book, Dark Palace was deemed eligible and went on to ultimately win the award.
I guess it all comes down to how you define ‘Australian life’.
Yes, Grand Days is predominantly set in Geneva with only the occasionaly flashback to Edith’s time in Jasper’s Brush as a child or her time in Melbourne working for John Latham, the 1922 Independent Liberal Union candidate for the Federal seat of Kooyong (Moorhouse claimed that Edith’s father was a friend of Latham’s “through the Rationalist Society.“) By the time she left to work in Geneva, Latham would have been attorney-general for the ruling National Party.
He then visited the League of Nations in 1926 when he led the Australian delegation to the General Assembly, which gave Moorhouse a chance for Edith and Latham to socialise in Geneva. A visit from a boy back home, on a Rotary tour, gives the reader another glimpse of life in Australia during that time.
The rest of the time, however, Edith is decidely in Geneva, or thereabouts.
At 26, she is a young Australian woman experiencing the big wide world for the very first time. In fact, Edith’s Australianness becomes a significant part of her character and Moorhouse regularly uses it as a device to compare and contrast her naivety and idealism with the worldliness and sophistication of the other staff working at the League of Nations. The setting is European, but Edith is a grand example of an Australian abroad. This sense of being Australian defines her every experience.
It reminded me of my own time living in the UK and traveling through Europe, worried about my lack of cultural sophistication, aware of my colonial heritage (the Brits never let you forget it!) and concerned that if I stayed away too long, I might not be able to come home to a home that still felt like home.
No doubt, between the publication of the first two books, the Miles Franklin Award committee also came to a similar conclusion – that the Australian abroad is, in fact, a distinct phase of Australian life for many of us.
Next up is Frank Moorhouse’s ability to write a believable female protagonist.
From my very first read through of Grand Days twenty years ago, I was impressed by this ability. When I was about thirty, 26 year old Edith felt like a best friend, or as Anne of Green Gables would more romantically declare, a ‘kindred spirit’. Later on I read that Moorhouse had based Edith on his own mother. They were roughly the same age. And Edith was able to live the intellectual, international life that his mother could not.
An interview I found with Moorhouse by Jason Steger from 2011 in the Sydney Morning Herald, explained this complicated relationship further (*spoiler alert* only read the interview if you know how the trilogy ends already!) The Edith books are Moorhouse’s ‘mother novels’, according to his therapist, where he attempts to come to terms with the parent who won the “struggle between the parents, for control of the personality of the child.”
In the interview Moorhouse also agreed that Ambrose’s sexuality came from him.
“But the beauty of being a writer is that we play many parts. I remember thinking, yes, of course there’s a lot of me in Ambrose but there’s a lot of me in the secretary-general of the League of Nations. And there’s a lot of me in T. G. McDowell.”
Twenty years later, I still found Edith to be a very believable and likeable character. Her quirky ways suggest a mind in search of systems and knowable rules to help navigate her way through life. A woman who liked to be in control, yet open to the possibilities of new experiences. Edith was ready for romance, considered herself to be a ‘holding’ person not a ‘warding’ person, felt honour bound to commemorate ‘first times’ and she loved good stationary. All things I could relate to and admire!
I did find some of the middle chapters, where Moorhouse had Edith ruminating over her decisions and directions in life a bit tedious this time around, but given how long it took me to sort my stuff out at that age, I cannot complain too much!
As I touched on above, another intriguing element was the mixing of the real with the imaginary. Historic figures regularly interacted with Edith and her friends. A character list at the beginning on the book was helpful, but for this read, the internet was even more enlightening.
Real events that Edith got caught up in included the contest to find an architect to design the Palais, which was built between 1929 – 1938 (from 1946 in became the home of the United Nations Geneva Office), the admittance of Germany into the League in 1926 and The World Population Conference.
For most of Edith’s time in Grand Days, though, the League was still housed in the Hôtel National, renamed Palais Wilson in 1920. She obviously loved the building and everything it stood for. It was only towards the end of the book that we see Edith starting to feel somewhat jaded or disillusioned by events at the League.
It could be said that Edith’s idealism reflected that of her nation, Australia, only newly arrived on the international scene itself. She was impressed by the grandeur and the history and was easily caught up in the extravaganza of the moment and the times. This is not only Edith’s coming of age story, but also that of the newly federated Australia.
I’m sure I’m not the only Australian who has cringed at the sight of some of our politicians and leaders over the years as they have attempted to navigate the international stage. In so many ways, as a nation, we are still the gauche, obsequious, trying too hard to be worldly character that we see in Edith sometimes.
Some of the characters make observations about the nature of Australians as compared to their original British stock, wondering if the sun, pioneering spirit and the distance has somehow ‘altered’ the ‘national soul’. Certainly, Edith found a common bond with colleagues from the other dominion countries like Canada and New Zealand.
Did I enjoy my time reading Grand Days for the third time?
Yes, I did. With a couple of proviso’s.
Edith is not an unreliable narrator, but she is flawed especially in some of her judgements and choices. Moorhouse presents each chapter rather like a set piece in a play, where Edith is put in a certain position where she learns something about herself of the League of Nations or life in general. Early on she is advised about “learning the wrong lesson from experience” and it is something she grapples with often.
A few sections in the middle felt unnecessary and I’m still not sure about the whole Robert Dole thing that develops at the end. It feels like Edith learning the wrong lesson from her experience with Ambrose.
After all this time Edith still feels likes a friend, but she is now an old friend I once knew a long time ago. A fond memory rather than a current concern.
I was also reminded why some of the Marie Kondo ‘spark joy’ movement felt old-hat to me when I rediscovered the William Morris quote that Edith took to heart, “have nothing in your home you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful”. It was a credo I also adopted twenty years ago.
I’m glad I took the time to reread this chunkster.
There were many things I had forgotten or misremembered. But mostly, it was pure joy to be back in the charming, delightful world of Edith.
Book 1 of 20 Books of
Summer Winter #20BooksofSummer22
Title: Grand Days (Edith trilogy #1) Author: Frank Moorhouse ISBN: 9781742752686 Imprint: Vintage Books Published: 1st November 2011 (originally published January 1993) Format: paperback Pages: 718
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.