Journal of a Biography: Writing Eleanor Dark

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Journal of a Biography: Writing Eleanor Dark

A is for ASIO files, and how the woman who didn't want to be seen was watched, how while the novelist was taking notes someone else was taking notes about her. She never writes about this. How did it affect her? That long period of silence, when she was writing but not publishing at the end of her life -- at that time, in the 1950s, how many writers here were silenced by the political climate of repression and suppression?

B for beginning the biography: where does Eleanor Dark's story begin? Somehow I think it should begin with her as the writer, not with childhood, especially not with family history. I'll go back to that, it's important, but start somewhere else then loop back and pick up on that early stuff.

There is no "perfect" moment for beginning...no "beginning" but a plunge -- anywhere, at any time, for every moment gathers in the past and propels the future. No moment is more significant than any other moment, for all hold germ, and growth, and climax. No deciding on a character, for a human being is not a house to be planned, but an organism, volatile, incalculable, to be twisted and shaped by emotions and events. Nor can you marshall events to some orderly pattern, for the human beings you create will disorder them, deflect them, rend them; thus you have no foothold, no foundation, but grope in the chaos of your art as you grope in the chaos of that life which it mirrors.(1)

C for collaboration, and its strategies.

February 1991: Our modus operandi at this stage: Judith talks into a tape when she's reading, I listen later. Australian history must have seemed very personal to Eleanor, Judith begins, her family involved in politics, the law, medicine and literature. Her anti-British and pro-Irish leanings. Canon Thomas and his two rebellious children, Dowell and Marian. Dowell born the year transportation finished, and she born the year of federation (a child of the century, she says in The Little Company), Judith talks about radical nationalism and racism -- remember Humphrey McQueen calls racism the most important single issue in Australian nationalism. About eugenics and the racist attitudes to immigration -- the Palmers and Evatts were anti-immigration, Miles Franklin was pro-White Australia. Eleanor saw the way sexual politics warped women, but didn't see racism then; she and Eric didn't seem to have their politics challenged till the 1930s.

D for dialogue. Ursula LeGuin writes about the mother tongue in Dancing at the Edge of the World. `The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation, a word that means "turning together." The mother tongue is language not as mere communication but as relation, relationship. It connects. It goes two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network. Its power is not in dividing but in binding, not in distancing but in unifying.'(2) Think about this in relation to the way Dark writes the novels of the 1930s -- a style that is like a conversation between her characters, a dialogue about what is happening to them, which can achieve a resolution that is not victory but accommodation.

E for end, as in The End. The beginning and the end are important. The beginning is what makes people decide to read on, the end what people go away with, feeling satisfied or dissatisfied. How and where to end? How to deal with the last years of Eleanor Dark's life, after she's stopped writing? (She stopped and started through the 1960s. Diary, 17 September 1965: Tried once more to pick up threads of book -- pretty hopeless.) She was depressed, her health was not good, in the end she was bedridden. It wasn't just a personal depression, more a reaction to feeling marginalised, and seeing the possibility of the kind of social change she wanted receding. She withdrew. As the biography advances, she retreats. And there's not much material. Judith and I talked about it often -- should we leave her in peace after she stopped writing? …