Dark Palace | Frank Moorhouse #EdithReadalong

Geneva, on the night of October 15, in the year of 1931…Edith and her friend, Jeanne, found themselves in the dining room of the Hôtel des Bergues  – Geneva’s best – wining and dining in a grand, exuberant, and stately manner.

One of the things I fear most when reading a series is the lengthy recap. In Dark Palace, Moorhouse does a tremendous job at avoiding this trap. He assumes you’ve read Grand Days and just carries on. Bless you Frank!

As my most diligent followers will already be aware, Moorhouse sadly died at the end of June. In his honour, I started reading Dark Palace the day he died.

Grand Days finished with Edith accepting a marriage proposal from the cynical, but ruggedly handsome journalist, Robert. It’s now a year or so later, the wedding has occurred and Edith realises that perhaps she has made a mistake. Marriage is not what she thought it would be, but she has made a social contract and she is prepared to stick it out. Meanwhile, she is celebrating the renewal of her work contract with the League of Nations for another five years.

This means she can get stuck into organising the various meetings and gatherings for the World Disarmament Conference between February 1932 and November 1934. For those of you who know Edith as well as I do now, you will appreciate how much Edith is in her element with an event like this. Seating protocols, the ways of diplomacy and the formalities to be observed are what she excels at much to the annoyance of some of her more hapless colleagues.

However, things start to unravel. Edith’s marriage is floundering, the Disarmament Conference doesn’t achieve what they had all hoped for and Edith makes a couple of social gaffs thanks to her rather zealous drinking habits. The only bright spot is the return of Ambrose.

All of these unfolding, unravelling issues which sap Edith’s idealism and hopefulness, allows Moorhouse to write Edith into some time in Australia. There was no way that Frank was going to give the Miles Franklin Award judges of 2001 the opportunity to accuse him of writing a novel that was not Australian enough!

Edith finally accepts that she needs to take some home leave and she returns to Australia for a few months. Like me she likes to read books appropriate to her journey. For her homeward bound journey she reads D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo (1923).

However home is not as she left it. She finds the environment harsh and overbright and her father is getting older. She struggles to find things to talk about with her old school and university friends. A trip to Canberra and the new Parliament House does not impress her with its newness and brashness.

She returns to Geneva with a renewed commitment to her international work, her European lifestyle and to Ambrose.

But as we all know with the benefit of hindsight, another world war is fast approaching. A war that all the idealism and hopefulness of the League of Nations can do nothing to stop. One of the elements I enjoyed reading about was how fearful the Swiss were in the lead up to and during the early stages of the war. We know they remained neutral throughout the war and that Hitler did not invade, but at the time they did not. Some Swiss feared that having the League on their soil would enrage Hitler enough to invade, while others hoped that the League would be enough to keep him and his army at bay. This tension was well captured.

Moorhouse also explored the various reactions of the French citizens who worked at the League when Paris fell to the Nazis.

Dark Palace was a far more sombre, sober read (despite Edith’s love of a fine drink!) The two trips that Edith makes to the US highlight the differences between European traditions and American modernity. The sense of abandonment and sadness in the final chapter is truly heartbreaking. The old ways, all previous knowledge and experience, and the honouring of traditions are lost, ignored or forgotten. No one cares about how things were once done. It is all fresh and exciting at the brand new United Nations and no-one wants to be dragged down by the past.

Just like the League, life is not turning out like Edith thought it might or should. She faces up to some home truths and learns to accept herself for who she is. Idealism and dreams are all well and good, but life has a habit on going regardless. Compromise, negotiation and accommodation become the keys to survival. Like the rest of us, Edith has to learn not to judge herself too harshly.

It’s obvious that Edith and Ambrose’s services are no longer required by the UN. Wikipedia tells us that “A Board of Liquidation consisting of nine persons from different countries spent the next 15 months overseeing the transfer of the League’s assets and functions to the United Nations or specialised bodies, finally dissolving itself on 31 July 1947.” Is this where Edith and Ambrose end up?

But then what?

Where will book three, Cold Light take us and Edith? How does her story end?

Dark Palace was not as satisfying to (re)read as Grand Days. Perhaps the disillusionment felt by Edith and others at the League not only about the approaching war but also the effectiveness of the work they had done with the League infected the reading sphere as well. A certain weariness comes through at times.

Edith still felt believable as a character with a couple of comments she made about being childless resonating strongly with me during both readings of this book.

I’m curious to see how she matures & faces growing older in the final book.

I will leave us with a quote from Frank Moorhouse which sums up his approach towards these books perfectly:

it is the stories we tell ourselves about the fate of the world that interest me. Of all the stories we tell about the world it is ‘the world that we want’, the way we want the world to be, which is one of the most potent, along with the stories we tell ourselves about the creation of the world and nature of an afterlife. 

World order dreaming: a guide to conversations about the United Nations | Frank Moorhouse | in the very first Griffith Review September 2004
Title: Dark Palace
Author: Frank Moorhouse
ISBN: 9781742752709
Imprint: Vintage Books
Published: 18 March 2018 (originally published in 2000)
Format: paperback
Pages: 678
Awards: Winner Miles Franklin Award 2001
Dates (re)read: 26 June 2022 - 13 July 2022 (first read 2000)
  • 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.

12 thoughts on “Dark Palace | Frank Moorhouse #EdithReadalong

  1. Argh! I still haven’t started this trilogy even though I had planned to join your readalong. Apologies; I don’t know where the year has gone! And now I’m back in a corporate comms job (instead of marketing) I spend my days writing, writing, writing and have so little energy left for reading when I get home. However, when I do carve out the space to read this book/s, I shall return to these posts to leave my thoughts.

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    1. No apologies needed Kim. I would hate to think that anyone felt compelled or obligated to join in when they didn’t want to/ weren’t ready or had other stuff come up instead. That’s life. This readalong is a take two for me as well. I originally planned it for last year, but it was too much to fit in with the Wolf Hall trilogy.

      Whenever you read these books, I look forward to hearing what you think about them.

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  2. Kangaroo was probably a very topical read with right wing militias springing up all over the place in the 1930s. I will read up/write up DH Lawrence’s Australian period ‘one day’ but I think he was here long enough to get it right.

    I’m afraid though that “Edith realises perhaps she has made a mistake” is enough to put me off reading the trilogy – despite all the space it takes up on my shelves. I’m just not interested in what men think about the inner workings of women’s lives (as I may have said before!).

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    1. I understand your reticence but one if the things that struck me strongly with my first read in particularly is how did a man know so much about women, or at least a certain type of woman like Edith (who shares some qualities/flaws that I also have).

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      1. That’s an interesting discussion, because while I was reading the first book, I was wondering if a woman such as Edith existed. Then I read that Frank based her on his mother, which, considering the emphasis on Edith’s sex life, is sort of a weird idea to me.

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        1. I’m not so sure if Edith was based on his mother, although I did read she was a very organised woman, who ran the family and various local clubs and associations much like Edith. My understanding that in psychological terms, these books were his ‘mother stories’ as opposed to the mother complex. But I’m not really sure what that means!

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