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

By Howe, Renate | Journal of Australian Studies, December 15, 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Howe, Renate, Journal of Australian Studies


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. …

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