“I’m your brother,” he said, holding his cap in both hands.
Book two of the Edith Trilogy, Dark Palace finished as the aftermath of WWII gave birth to the brand new United Nations.
Book three, Cold Light sees us jumping forward four years to Canberra, Australia. 1950’s Canberra. A city that was only conceived after Federation (1901) as a neutral place to house the new national parliament. A city that was designed by US architect Walter Burley Griffin after he won an international competition in 1912. A city which slowly grew and spread in a stop/start fashion thanks to two world wars and a depression. A city with a ‘provisional’ Parliament House that opened in 1927. A city at the centre of the Federal Capital Territory, renamed Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 1938. A city that welcomed Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 for the first of many visits. A city with it’s own man-made lake, Lake Burley Griffin which was opened in 1964. A city that finally got it’s ‘proper’ Parliament House in 1988. This is the city that Edith and Ambrose moved to in 1950 at the beginning of Cold Light.
Canberra…in the half-built city that was not a city, in its temporary buildings & streets to nowhere, street lights burning in streets empty of houses.
Edith and Ambrose, a cosmopolitan, modern couple, alive to the Bloomsbury way of life, fully immersed in a European sensibility, moving to a barely developed, very conservative town in a very conservative country, still very embedded in it’s British colonial roots, in deep denial about the much longer, larger Indigenous history of the country they had taken over and in deep denial about the class system that was transplanted from the Mother Country, as so many people of that time still called England.
She knew that if you were someone who had Lived Abroad, there were socially acceptable ways of talking about Australia – but as for Canberra, she was still uncertain of what was permitted in the way of jokes by those who lived there. There was one way of talking when speaking to another person who had travelled or lived abroad, and another if you were speaking to an Australian who hadn’t travelled. There was yet another way of speaking if you were driven to flaunting your worldliness by exasperation and irritation because of arrant provincialism.
Into this conservative, class conscious world, Frank Moorhouse introduced the Communist Party, via Edith’s long-lost brother, Frederick. The Australian Communist Party (ACP) was established in 1919 with it’s peak period of active membership occurring in the 1940’s. By the mid-1950’s internal division and the disillusionment of many menbers saw the ACP slowly decline until it was dissolved in 1991. Moorhouse inserted Frederick, and his partner, Janice, right in the thick of it all.
We were not out to change the government. We were out to change the world, the system, the nature of things, to what Australians wanted to make of this country right from the start.
So now we have four outsiders.
My main motivation for reading the Edith Trilogy now, was a desire to finally finish the series. They have been lurking on my bookshelves for a decade, taking up quite a bit of space. After reading the first two books, with a great deal of delight twenty years ago, I was keen to discover how Edith’s story came to an end? How did she age? Gracefully? Or did she go down fighting? Did the story end with her retirement or her death? These issues and more will be discussed below, so only read on if you’re okay about spoilers.
My journey with Edith has been a curious one. It has felt very personal and long standing. But has it stood the test of time?
When I first read Grand Days I found that I shared a lot in common with Edith, or at least, I found her way of viewing the world and tackling new things, amusing and admirable. Throughout Dark Palace though, I started to part company with her a little. As she became disillusioned with her work and marriage, I too became disillusioned with Edith and some of the choices she made and the way she treated some of the people closest to her. She was still fascinating, but her charm was wearing thin. It was obvious that she and Ambrose were perfectly suited for each other, or as perfectly suited as any couple can best. Sadly, for both of them, Edith regularly got caught up in the ‘should haves’ – she should be with a more masculine man, she should be having babies etc, instead of embracing what she had right now. Often times, Edith’s inner voice was not her best friend. Yet another thing I have in common with Edith.
How lonely to have a personality for which there was no name.
This insecurity follows Edith back to Australia. The conservative, traditional nature of Australian society caused her to doubt herself and her relationship with Ambrose once again. During my entire reading of Cold Light, I could feel myself growing further and further away from Edith. I was frustrated by the choices she made and her immature sexual responses to Janice and then to Richard. I kept wanting to shake her and say ‘grow up’! Flirting is fun and fine, but not worth turning your whole life upside down for! Edith also had some very romantic and unrealistic expectations about what it would mean to be a stepmother. Another thing we shared – being stepmothers – although I like to think I took on the role with far more insight into how best to navigate the various relationships, expectations and do’s & don’t’s than she did!
The marriage was a punishment for her having betrayed her Bloomsbury ideals and her Rationalist upbringing.
When she threw over Ambrose for Richard, I was terribly upset for Ambrose. I shared his sense of disbelief that she was taking such a foolish path but I also wanted him to be outraged and incensed because I was so furious with Edith. It was blatantly obvious that her relationship with Richard would not work out the way she hoped. It was a passionate fling with a man caught up in his grief for his first wife. They only thing they had in common was sex. And don’t get me started on 70 year old Edith trying to flirt with a much younger man in Israel at the end of the book! Being sexually active and attractive was a big part of Edith’s sense of self. This could have been a healthy, positive sign of growing older, except it caused her to be disloyal and untrustworthy to those who loved her.
She felt a panic. She had been retired against her will. She was no longer needed. She was truly redundant.
Most of us maintain an image of ourselves as a much younger person despite the reality of the face that stares out at us from the mirror each morning. Edith obviously struggled with this aging process. It may have been a response to the ‘invisible older woman’ syndrome that existed then, and still exists now, but it felt more like a personal reaction and an extension of the Edith we saw in her younger days that worried about her looks and the right clothes to wear. She regularly adjusted her age down and carefully constructed and reconstructed her life story, in what Moorhouse describes as her ‘murky personal mythology’. It must have been quite a strain though, which is perhaps why she used alcohol to help blur the edges.
Was she beginning to live in the past, as it was said of the old? Was much of her knowledge and experience now out-of-date? She had fought against this happening.
Towards the end, Edith did question the choices she had made and acknowledged to herself that she had ‘bungled her inner life.’ Work and career and position were her foundational and motivational force throughout her life, so it was only fitting that she died on the job. Going out with a bang, so to speak, was a fitting ending for such a career and such a woman.
Was I satisfied with this journey? With this ending?
Only just. I felt the final section of Edith’s story lacked credibility and I began to lose interest. Moorhouse described the claustrophobic, insular world of small town Australia magnificently, as well as Edith’s struggles to find satisfying work back in Australia due to the gender and age biases that women of that era would have known all too well. Edith was a visionary, a dreamer, a big picture person. She was someone that Canberra needed. But she was a woman. So she was never really going to get out of her poky little side office, that was once a cupboard, no matter how much she embellished her story.
That everyone filters information to suit their own neurotic inclinations and therefore dooms themselves to be misinformed.
The Edith Trilogy contains a lot of social commentary about what it meant to be a women living and working during this time. Moorhouse wove in stuff about class consciousness, gender, sexuality, the work ethic, the nature of democracy and freedom, the difficulties we face when our inner lives and outer lives aren’t in sync with the norms of the time. All these topics and more are there for discussion and review, but ultimately, the books are all about Edith.
She is the star of the show, and the reason one keeps on reading, or not.
Love her, or hate her, in Edith, Moorhouse has created a woman to be reckoned with. Passionate, intelligent, articulate. A woman ahead of her times, who struggled to find a way to live in the world she found herself in. Edith was not perfect. Like the rest of us, she was a flawed human being, doing the best she could.
I’m glad I finally finished the series, but I’m also glad it’s over. By the end I was exhausted by Edith’s inner dialogue and Moorhouse’s tendency towards grandiloquence. Since finishing this book on the 15th, I have been subsisting on a diet of non-fiction.
My recommendation to those who wish to read these books, is to space them out with healthy intervals in between each one. I had originally planned to have a month off between book two and three. I’m not sure why I changed it, but I wish I hadn’t. The Edith Trilogy is a worthwhile investment of your time, but give it the time it deserves. And give Edith the space she deserves. A little bit goes a long way when it comes to such a memorable personality!
Did you make it? What did you think?
- Winner of the 2012 Queensland Literary Award
- Shortlised 2012 Miles Franklin Award
- Shortlisted 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award
- Longlisted 2013 International Dublin Literary Award
- Shortlisted 2013 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards — Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
- Winner 2014 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature — Award for Fiction
- Sign Up/Introduction post
- My review of Grand Days
- N@ncyElin’s review of Grand Days
- Kay @Whatmeread review of Grand Days
- Introduction to Dark Palace
- My review of Dark Palace
- Kay @Whatmeread review of Dark Palace
- Introduction to Cold Light
- Poetry of John Shaw Neilsen in Cold Light
- Epigraph to Cold Light – The Congress by Borges
- My review of Cold Light
- Kay @Whatmeread review of Cold Light
‘I’ll tell you what vileness is.’…’It’s vile that the possession of money or a superior intelligence quotient or luck should decide the quality of a person’s life – when something as crass as inherited wealth, or any of the talents of birth should decide who gets the riches of the world. That’s vileness. That birth or money should decide whose children get the best health or best education or who can afford to be defended before the law. Life for children should not be a lottery of rich and poor – and any system that always punishes its poorest and weakest when the economy goes wrong is vile and it is not a civilised system.’
Title: Cold Light Author: Frank Moorhouse ISBN: 9781741661262 Imprint:Vintage Books Published: 1st November 2011 Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 719 Dates Read: 1st August 2022 - 15th August 2022
- 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.