'A Writer with a Last Story to Write.': From an Unfinished Novel by Eleanor Dark

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`A Writer With a Last Story To Write...' From an Unfinished Novel by Eleanor Dark

Introduction

Among Eleanor Dark's manuscripts there are unfinished novels, fragments of stories and essays, plays never performed. This novel, untitled, bundled into a homemade cardboard folder, has as its narrator Kate Vernon, a writer. She describes the rise and fall of the fortunes of her large extended family, tracing middle class Sydney lives from the time of the First World War through to the 1950s, as well as telling her own story.

In 1951, Eleanor and Eric Dark went to Queensland, to join their son Michael and the writer Eric Lowe in the farming community of Montville. They spent winter there and summer in Katoomba for the next seven years. Katoomba had been their home for more than thirty years; but now they were suffering the consequences of their open support for leftwing causes. Eric Dark received death threats; his medical practice was collapsing; there were people who wouldn't speak to them, he said. Cold war politics, combined with economic conservatism, materialism and consumerism in Australia, the loss of her network of writers and different agendas in the literary community made Eleanor Dark feel alienated. She was tired and pessimistic about writing and political change. They made a new life in Montville as farmers and her mood lightened. In 1953, she published No Barrier, the last novel of the historical trilogy, and started on the first of the stories and essays about Montville life that made up her last published novel, Lantana Lane (1959). She went on writing, working on a novel, No Room for the Dead, and a play, The Last Appointment. In 1964, she talked about giving up writing; in 1971 she was still `tinkering' with No Room for the Dead, but it was never finished. The Kate Vernon novel and another manuscript called Dear Home Town seem to fit in somewhere between No Barrier and No Room for the Dead. She may have been working on them at the same time as the Lantana Lane stories.

In the last section of this novel, dated 1952, Kate Vernon is in her fifties. She has just found out she has only a short time to live. Facing death, she feels a kind of liberating detachment. Eleanor Dark takes up again the meditation on time that is threaded through all her writing. In this extract Kate has just been talking to Maurice, her doctor and her ex-lover, who has told her she has perhaps only six or twelve months left. Because there is so little time, everything else falls away, and there is more time for writing. She reviews her life as a writer, and discovers a last story to write. Maurice, and all her friends, have always thought that writing filled her life, she says, but in fact it has been fitted into snatched hours.

Lack of time has always loomed so large that it seemed for years (and perhaps was, then) the only really menacing obstacle [to writing]. But in the last decade or so I have become increasingly conscious of others, and realised that in the effort of scrambling for time, I have expended energy needed for other struggles, equally desperate.

Thirty years ago I imagined -- most properly -- that I would someday be a good writer, if not a great one -- though even that seemed gloriously possible. This illusion faded into the decent and sober knowledge that I could never be more than a respectably competent one; and (such is the excellent adaptability of the human mind) I have come to accept it without anguish. There is really no question about what I shall do with my remaining bit of life; I shall write -- or begin -- another reasonably competent book. But it so happens that for the first time since -- at the age of seven or thereabouts -- I discovered that I like pushing a pen across a sheet of paper, I have no `work in progress'. Not even, now, my drawer full of scraps, for about a month ago, in a sudden frenzy of impatience, I burnt them all in the grate, and a fine pile of flimsy ashes they made. …