Author, Book review, Fiction, Frank Moorhouse, historical fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘Grand Days’ by Frank Moorhouse

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 736 pages; 2018.

Grand Days, by the late Australian writer Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022), is the first in a trilogy of (chunky) novels exploring the life and times of Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman making her mark in diplomatic circles on the world stage.

First published in 1993, but set in the 1920s, this novel charts Edith’s early career at the newly created League of Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland.

It’s an enormously detailed look at office politics and corporate life through the lens of a headstrong and idealistic 20-something woman whom we might now dub “before her time”. Indeed, the novel could be described that way, too, because it takes an enlightened approach to 21st-century issues including gender fluidity, female agency and independence, sexual politics and “internationalism”.

It first came to my attention via the three-part ABC TV program ‘Books That Made Us’ (screened in 2021) when it was the only book mentioned in the first episode that I hadn’t heard of ( I had already read most of the others). I’m not sure why this one passed me by — I was working as a part-time bookseller when it was published so I must have sold copies of it — but I rather suspect that even if I had taken the time to read it I would have been too young and naive to appreciate it at the time.

Fast forward 30 years, and I’m in a much better place to value (and recognise) the richly detailed world that Moorhouse has created, with its focus on the minutiae of office life, the never-ending internal politics between rival colleagues and departments, and the failed idealism at its heart.

But the novel is much more than just a historical glimpse of “corporate” conduct: it’s also a wonderful coming-of-age story about a 26-year-old woman working out who she is, what she wants from life, falling in love and discovering sex.

A journey to a new life

When the book opens, we meet Edith on the train from Paris to Geneva en route to her new post at the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation designed to uphold world peace following the end of the First World War. (The history of the ill-fated League, which was disbanded in 1946, and later inspired the formation of the United Nations, is expertly woven into the narrative which includes real people, identified by their real names, and is largely based on documentary sources.)

In the train’s dining car, Edith meets Major Ambrose Westwood, unaware that he will become the single-most significant figure in her life, both at the League, where they become colleagues and allies, and at home, where they become secret lovers participating in a “sexually adventurous underworld” (as the blurb on my edition describes it).

In each gloriously named chapter (for example, How Edith Berry Campbell Berry Ate Six Courses and Practised the Seven Ways in the Dining Car on the Train from Paris to Geneva, or The Tenets of Civilisation and Various Wonders Not to Be Talked Of) is like a self-contained story in its own right, which serves to move the narrative forward set-piece by set-piece. And from this, we see how Edith slowly transforms herself from a naive employee to an invaluable staff member — despite getting into various tricky predicaments with the serious potential to backfire — and inches her way up the career ladder, all the while figuring out her love life and building a solid circle of friends.

She goes through some pretty icky and challenging experiences but always manages to come out the other end stronger and more resilient than ever. But she’s also manipulative, with a head for scheming, which is probably why she is able to survive the internal machinations at work so adroitly. Not much seems to bother her. And even when her mother dies, back home in Australia, she seems remarkably unfazed by it.

Highly recommended read

Did I like this book? Yes. And no.

It’s too long and parts of it dragged. Sometimes it was a struggle to pick it up after I had put it down, and it took me the best part of three weeks to read.

But there was so much of it I enjoyed.

  • The heady idealism of everyone working at the League, including Edith’s deep belief that she’s doing important work for the world
  • The scheming and shenanigans and internal bickering in the office, which is so realistic even by today’s standards
  • The depiction of the Geneva nightlife, the glamourous parties, the seedy clubs
  • The history of the League and the people that worked there (the appendices detailing “who’s who” and some of the working practices are enlightening)
  • Edith’s transformation from a naive young woman to a woman of the world, even if she makes some dubious decisions along the way
  • The Australian abroad aspects, which will resonate if you have been an ex-pat for any length of time
  • The biting satire that underpins the storyline, but also the many wonderful laugh-out-loud scenes
  • The forward-thinking attitudes held by many of the characters

There are two more books in the series — Dark Palace, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2001, and Cold Light — which I will look forward to reading in due course.

For another take on Grand Days, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life.

‘Grand Days’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Shipping info here.

17 thoughts on “‘Grand Days’ by Frank Moorhouse”

  1. I’m always slightly relieved when I come to the end of one of your reviews to read that the book under discussion hasn’t been published beyond Australia (though in this case – why not?) as I’d decided it probably should go on my TBR list – but not at the top. Now I have breathing space.


    1. So, reviewing books that lack world rights is doing you a favour, Margaret. 😆 No idea why this one is only available in Australia seeing as it covers a really interesting piece of world history and deals with universal themes. I believe it was out of print here for awhile too … I had to place a special order for this as no bookstores in Perth had it in stock.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a lot of reading over a summer! These books are so chunky! Interesting to hear you liked this one best… I’m intrigued to find out what happens to Edith in the next two books

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Like Lisa, I’ve only got the last one on my blog. My reading group did this when it came out and we loved it. Perhaps as Canberrans we loved the politics, the detail, as well as Edith herHaving strolled the League of Nations at school, I really enjoyed reading a novel about it.


        1. Not much. Lol. I didn’t do history in secondary school because I took science subjects rather than humanities. The only history I was ever formally taught was in primary school and that was Australian settlement post-1788 (ie. white colonial history) and heavily focused on explorers and bushrangers!

          That said, I did study the history of human settlement at university, but that was focused on how humans built communities and cities, and the history of the world’s gardens (my undergrad degree at Melb Uni was a mix of urban design/town planning/landscape architecture/environmental policy – Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest did the same course, though she’s a few years younger than me!)


        2. Only a few years older than Kim (I think) but I did ALL the histories I could! Mostly the wars were on the NSW curriculum, so I did quite a bit about the League back then. back it was taught as a doomed failure. What I loved about this book is how it brought to life the idealism that so many felt in the 1920’s and early 30’s. They had such high hopes for world peace…

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, good point Brona about the plain history and the actual experience of those involved. I did Modern History right through high school, and am so grateful for it. My husband was like kimbofo and did none.


  3. I own the trilogy but I’m not sure I’ll ever read it. The subject doesn’t appeal, and as I saw somewhere the other day, why is every woman in historical fiction’ahead of her time’?


  4. I also rersponded to your comment on my post, and will ponder it here too – I wonder if our reading habits and expectations have changed since this was first published?

    I don’t remember thinking it dragged during my first read – in fact I loved the chunky nature of the book and was sad when it ended – feeling that the ending had been rushed. I loved the meandering nature of the story and the lol chapter headings and all the detail.
    But this reread was more critical about the length and the digressions.

    We have been stocking Grand Days at work again ever since the ABC program, but have found that most people don’t line up for the other 2 books. I do my best to encourage them 🙂


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