Grand Days | Frank Moorhouse #EdithReadalong

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.

Palais des Nations, Geneva

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.

16 thoughts on “Grand Days | Frank Moorhouse #EdithReadalong

  1. Enjoyed this write up Brona. Too much to comment on but, I always thought the MF committee was wrong about this one, and wonder if they gave it to Dark palace in recompense! I liked some of your reflections. It really tempts me to read it again, but I don’t expect I will.

    Re your comment, “concerned that if I stayed away too long, I might not be able to come home to a home that still felt like home”. I remember feeling like this in my early 30s after living 2 years in the US. But, as soon as we drove into Canberra and saw our hills and gums, I felt so at home and knew then that travel would never discombobulate me!

    I love that William Morris advice, but my trouble is that I add a few words to it. Instead of “have nothing in your home you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful”, I go “have nothing in your home you do not know to be (or think might in future be!!) useful and believe to be beautiful”. Haha!

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    1. I’ll start at the bottom of your comment and work my way up!
      You & Mr Books would get on well with the (or think it might be in the future) part 😀

      And I had a similar experience when I came back home after my year away in 1991. The smell of the gum trees as I left Sydney airport was overwhelming and almost made me cry. I’ve never been able to smell them like that again, but then I’ve never been away for that long again either. There was also something about the light and the shade of blue in the sky that I didn’t see anywhere else that feels particularly Australian.

      It felt good to write a full book response again, but it also took quite a bit of time. It was interetsing to see that I still felt rather strongly about my relationship with Edith after all this time. But like you, I’m not sure I will be rereading it again, too many shiny new books to tempt me.

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      1. I think I like Mr Books!

        The other – perhaps embarrassing thing about that return of ours was that I fell in love with lamb! I was so used to it growing up that I got bored with it, but after being away for two years I realised what a great meat it is. Yes, I’m a carnivore though these days it’s small quantities of meat with lots of veggies! The Mediterranean approach.

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        1. LOL. Imagine living abroad for almost 21 years and repatriating! It was VERY discombobulating. I still have moments of being delighted to hear Australian accents and then realising I *am* in Australia. I’ve been back three years and still have “cultural gaps” about celebrities / politicians / TV shows that found fame in the time I was away. One day I will write about this!

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          1. I can only imagine the cultural gaps that come after 21 years!! The main one that gets me every time is when someone plays Daryl Braithwaite’s Horses song. It was number one for much of the time I was gone & I just don’t get it 🤷🏼‍♀️ everyone goes crazy dancing & singing!

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  2. I enjoyed the review with your insights and reaction to a beloved book
    …20 years later. I did join your read-a-long and gave this book a chance as I promised.
    We may not agree in our reviews but no 2 people read the same book.
    You did challenge me and I was introduced to a world of the League of Nations…that I knew little about and a new author. That is always a good thing. What I did enjoy was my close reading (…at least the first part of the book) and really noticed Edith’s way of saying one thing (feeling cosmopolitan, international)… then making some very naive choices!

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    1. I loved the League of Nations stuff. It was a moment in time I knew little about as most of my school history was about the wars, not the peace in between! Although obviously the Leagues formation came from WWI and some of the causes of WWII stemmed from the ineffectuality of the League.

      Thank you for attempting one of my old favourites – that says more to me than whether you liked it or not 🥰

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