Focus on Eleanor Dark
Ferrier, Carole, Hecate
Eleanor Dark (1901-85) was born a hundred years ago on 24 August, and this special focus commemorates that anniversary. It comprises two pieces of Dark's unpublished writing including a section from one of her last novels; a commentary upon Dark's figuring of the urban space of Sydney; an account of Dark's engagement with medical discourses in her earlier fiction; a discussion of Dark's experiences of surveillance by the state; and a paper re-viewing the sexual politics of some prominent men of the time involved in sexual reform campaigns including Dark's father, Dowell O'Reilly.
Dark told her friend Jean Devanny that from a young age she 'took a literary career for granted.'1 She spent her early life with her father, a poet and Labor MLA, and her mother, also called Eleanor, who was a talented pianist but submerged in an 'angel in the house' role and who died in 1914. Dowell in 1917 married his cousin, Molly, a portrait painter-after an improbable epistolary courtship of her in England in 1916, that included such enticements as: 'Immutable law has set aside woman for childbirth and man for thought-birth,' and 'I have never yet known a "happy couple".'2 Molly did not do much more painting after she came to Australia. Christina Stead has been read as writing out an overpowering influence of her father in The Man Who Loved Children (1946), and Dark's biographers Barbara Brooks and Judith Clark suggest that, somewhat similarly, 'when Eleanor started to write it was as if she was in dialogue with her father' and that even after his death in 1923, she was still 'negotiating with Dowell's shadow,'perhaps remembering his assertions that to be both mother and artist 'would cause nothing but pain.'3
Eleanor had begun a novel called 'Pilgrimage' in 1921. After eighteen months as an office typist, the alternative of university not having eventuated, she married Eric Dark in 1922. She records a continuing struggle with herself and with constructions of her as (house)wife to resist contemporary expectations that Kylie Tennant described as 'you can use your brains or you can use your pelvis.' One of Dark's characters comments that a woman 'must deny herself sexual fulfilment, or accept, along with it, the extra burden of domestic cares.'4 What Marjorie Barnard called 'dom dts' were the bane of many women writers in an Australia that Miles Franklin labelled 'a nation of charwomen' on her return at the beginning of the 1930s. As a middle class doctor's wife in Katoomba from 1923, Eleanor often had what her husband called 'henchwenches,' but during the war and at other times she did not. 'Eleanor could complain about the housework without disturbing the surface of her existence too much'5 in the late 1930s, Brooks and Clark suggest, but also, contradictorily, that she herself said that when she 'looked back at her life it seemed as if she had written her novels in moments snatched from the housework.'6 Eleanor and Eric toyed in the late 1930s with the idea of 'semidetached living' but didn't implement it beyond her separate study in the garden.
Eleanor Dark's earlier work can be located within modernism and, for Dorothy Hewett, what was most significant was that she was 'a stylistic innovator, writing against the social-realist grain of her times.'7 Reviewers received Return to Coolami (1936) as 'the acceptable face of modernism.'8 Nicole Moore's article below discusses Dark's dialectical presentation of dominant contemporary ideologies of genetics and understandings of 'madness' in Prelude to Christopher. Perhaps her engagement with the medical discourses of the time was in part an attempt to understand her mother's situation. The Bulletin in the early 1930s sneered at 'young women rushing into "Freudism",'9 but Dark's contribution to the psychological novel of the new woman, like Jean Devanny's, has still not been at all adequately assessed. Some of Dark's novels use what Marjorie Barnard called 'that most difficult creation, another writer as our means, our sounding board,'10 and often reflect upon the creation of fiction. G. A. Wilkes' snide throwaway line in 1951, 'Mrs Dark is no thinker,'11 reflected the tone of a Reader's report thirty years ealier on her first novel. This inability to read the complexity and politics of Dark's writing has tended until recently to dominate much of the discussion of her work. Slow Dawning (1932) was seen as 'not lowbrow enough on the one hand, nor on the other, highbrow enough to succeed.'12
Historical trilogies were a feature of the literary landscape of the 194os and 50s, and to write hers Dark did detailed research in the Mitchell Library. The Timeless Land (original title The Black Man's Burden) was finished in 1940. As time went on she was seen by some historians, Manning Clark in particular, as a pioneer in the fictional (re)writing of Australian history that influenced their own work. Clark in 1946 had his history students read The Timeless Land, and Eleanor to talk to them,13 and wrote to her in 1963 about 'the inspiration in reading The Timeless Land.'14 It was described as 'fictionalised history'-as opposed to historical fiction-by the New York Herald Tribune in 1941. One problem of how to read such fiction now, as Brooks and Clark in discussing the trilogy suggest, is that it 'may speak of contemporary issues, but not in a contemporary voice':
What Eleanor did is something a white novelist would not do easily now. Now black writers, criticising racism and appropriation, want to tell their own stories; and white writers have been told to examine their prejudices. But she would have argued that unless black and white can write thoughtfully as well as critically about one another's point of view, the complexity of the problem will not be represented.15
The anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry, like Clark, welcomed the representation of Aboriginal characters as other than 'a problem' or 'a duty.'16 The approval of Dark's treatment of race was not uniform. Miles Franklin found it to be 'Australian history mixed with the prevailing fashion in sentimentality about the Aborigines.'17 But in Dark's view, The Timeless Land's central focus was upon the 'darkest of all blunders, heaviest upon our conscience, the blunder of our dealings with the black Australians whose land we stole.'18
Eleanor's notebooks that she kept in the 1940S interestingly prefigure the premature postmodernity of Doris Lessing's Anna in The Golden Notebook (1962); both express a sense of fragmentation of discourses and The Little Company (1945) like The Golden Notebook draws upon extracts from newspapers, and takes up in complicated ways issues about politics and writing.
In the mid-1940s, Eric had been learning Russian, and there was a possibility in 1946 that the 'Dark Lady's Husband' would be made Ambassador to Moscow, where Ric Throssell, the son of her friend Katharine Susannah Prichard, was also working in the diplomatic service. A sojourn there away from Australia might have had an interesting impact upon Dark's writing-but it did not eventuate.
In the early part of the Second World War, the Darks were singled out as Reds, even traitors, in a foreshadowing of the campaign in the Australian press in the past few years (in which the Courier-Mail has been prominent) to depict Manning Clark, along with Prichard and her son Ric as Agents of Influence. Bruce Milliss's war-time library for evacuated children in Katoomba was rumoured, Dark wryly reported, to be 'used entirely for Soviet propaganda. No doubt also financed by Moscow gold.'19 Stalin had graced the front cover of the Women's Weekly on 12 May 1945 but, before long, 'anyone who did not agree with Menzies,' as Eleanor pointed out, 'was a Communist anyhow.'20 In the parliamentary denunciations that began in 1947, Eleanor was described as 'an underground worker for the Communists,"21 and Susan Carson's article below recounts some of the consequences of this, for her life and her writing.
Christina Stead was not in Australia in the late 1940s and 1950s but she was unable to get any work published from 1952 to 1964. Devanny could not find any outlets for her fiction after Cindie in 1949. Dark seems to have struck similar difficulties that led to demoralisation, and to have lost confidence in being able to intervene in her society through the production of fiction. Writers in the early 1950s, Brooks and Clark suggest:
were no longer the voice of the culture. After years of seeing themselves as critics of the society, years of carrying the dream of what Australia could be, and always thinking their time would come, it now seemed as if their time had passed. They were under attack, they were marginalised.22
This state of alienation that afflicted many engaged intellectuals of the 1950s, even though they did not suffer as many of their peers did under McCarthy (as Stead documents in the posthumously published I'm Dying Laughing), has some similarities to a recent quite widespread anomie in Australian cultural life, although its sources are both similar and different.
1 Jean Devanny, bird of Paradise, Sydney: Frank Johnson, 1945, p248.
2 Qtd. Barbara Brooks and Judith Clark, Eleanor Dark: A Writer's LIfe, Sydney: Maemillan 1998: p48.
3 Brooks and Clark, pp48, 96.
4 Waterway, 91.
5 Brooks and Clark, p 218.
6 A. Grove Day, Eleanor Dark Boston: Twayne, 1976, qtd. Brooks and Clark p419.
7 Dorothy Hewett, 'Aganst the Grain.' Weekend Australian, 12-13 September 1998, pR11.
8 Brooks and Clark, p204.
9 Brooks and Clark, p132.
10 Barnard to Dark, 25.8.45. Carole Ferrier ed. As Good As a Yarn With You, Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p.130.
11 Southerly 12.3, 1951.
12 Reader's reprot, qtd. Brooks and Clark, p122.
13 Brooks and Clark, P332.
14 Manning Clark to Dark, 22.8.1963 qtd. Brooks and Clark p427.
15 Brooks and Clark, Pp376, 365.
16 Kaberry to Dark, 15.6.1940, qtd. Brooks and Clark p364.
17 Franklin to Grattan family, 10.2.42, Jill Roe, ed. My Congenials: Miles Franklin and Friends in Letters, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1993, 2, p65.
18 Dark, Notebooks, qtd. Brooks and Clark p294.
19 ED to Molly O'Reilly 7.10.42, qtd. Brooks and Clark, p255.
20 Dark to Franklin 17.5.50, As Good As a Yarn, p. 243.
21 Cec Abbott, reported in the Melbourne Herald 17.5.1947.
22 Brooks and Clark, p4oo.…
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Publication information: Article title: Focus on Eleanor Dark. Contributors: Ferrier, Carole - Author. Journal title: Hecate. Volume: 27. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 1, 2001. Page number: 6+. © 1999 Hecate Press. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.