Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cold Light: Edith comes to Canberra

To start off this Centenary of the Naming of Canberra, we read Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light, the third in his Edith trilogy.

We had some years before read and discussed Grand Days, the first book, covering his radical heroine Edith’s adventures in Europe and involvement in the League of Nations. He is a witty writer, and Edith a feisty and energetic character. Cold Light was not so warmly received by the group. Many in the group felt it was too long and indulgent, needing some tighter editing, and less labouring of some of the political and personal intrigues. It was obvious Moorhouse had done a lot of research, and wanted to use it in the book!

It was enjoyable to read the references to Canberra in the fifties: to the Canberra Hotel, Parliament House, the city before the Lake, discussion on planning, their home in Forrest etc. The emphasis on having her own office, and being able to furnish it stylishly, as well as her developing relationships with those whom she could trust, was a little insight into the bureaucracy of the time. Some things don’t change!

We agreed Moorhouse tells a good story, and creates some appealing and very human characters. Ambrose, the lavender husband  comes across as witty and warm. Janice was a witty and pragmatic foil to Edith’s earnest brother Frederick, an organiser for the Communist Party. And Edith is passionate, a little vain, ambitious, and adventurous. She seems to be playing at various roles: that of wife and stepmother, her drinking and smoking, a potential gay relationship with Janice. She has an encounter with suburban domesticity with her relationship with Richard, which ends rather sadly.

Sexuality is a continuing thread through the book, as the characters flirt, undertake their own sexual piccadellos, even describing the sensuousness of clothing as Ambrose cross dresses, and Edith herself is open in her sensuality.

Some described the book as a Comedy of Manners, with its arch, flirtatious tone, the dinner parties, and the ‘crass’ social mores of Australia contrasted with European sensibilities.

Other themes we teased out: the resignation of aging; we spent some time trying to discern Edith’s age and felt she would have been in her 50’s or 60’s; and we have a sense of her resignation in the face of her possible death at the end. The failure of idealism, or the shortcoming of ideologies, as the demise of the Communist Party, the failure to stop nuclear armament, and even the compromises in the planning of Canberra are portrayed through his mixture of actual and fictitious characters.

And secrecy: what is known and what is kept secret; we find Ambrose is a spy; Edith is asked to keep secret documents for her brother, Edith and Ambrose are covering up aspects of their relationship … and so on.

We discussed the significance of the title: Cold Light, partly a reference to Canberra and the cold climate, perhaps the cold light shone on Communism (and the Cold War), perhaps the Cold Light of aging and experience, and beyond the heady and idealistic days of our main characters’ youth.

Overall, while there was much to enjoy, and to comment on and discuss in this book, many in the group were somewhat disappointed in the volume, and probably pleased that this is the third and final in this series. We will however continue our journey looking at books with relevance to Canberra in the coming months, and are looking forward to that!