Academic journal article Hecate

Surveillance and Slander: Eleanor Dark in the 1940s and 1950s

Academic journal article Hecate

Surveillance and Slander: Eleanor Dark in the 1940s and 1950s

Article excerpt

Surveillance and Slander: Eleanor Dark in the 1940s and 1950s

In 1974 Drusilla Modjeska, then a newcomer to Australia, went to Katoomba to meet the award-winning author Eleanor Dark. Despite Dark's reputation as a recluse, Modjeska found her interested in talking about the politics of the past as well as contemporary issues. Dark was in her early 70s (she was born in 1901), articulate, not one to suffer fools gladly, and an authoritative presence. They discussed the different contexts of their political formation. Modjeska wrote:

For me as a young woman it was the Vietnam War and the Whitlam Government. For her, World War and Depression. Different, yes, but similar too. What we share across those generations is the experience of modernity, of living in a society that simultaneously offers us more control over our environment and actions, more mobility, more freedom if you like, while at the same time threatening to destroy everything that we have ever known, every point of security. From Eleanor Dark I learned that history is not just about wars and governments but the way in which we live and breathe and understand these things and everything else, and that we inherit ways of thinking and seeing, they too have their histories.(1)

Modjeska went on to write more about Dark over the next decade, generally positioning her as an important `exile at home': a socialist whose writing about women defined her as a proto-feminist of the 1930s and 1940s. In her account of the interview with Dark quoted above, she emphasizes an engagement with modernity found in her novels of the inter-war period (some of which were in modernist mode, although this aspect of her work has been under-examined). David Carter notes that it is

only recently, with the appearance of a small number of books and articles which give a more elaborated sense of intellectual context and literary occasion, that the modernity of writers in the mid-1930s such as Eleanor Dark, Katharine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw, Allan Marshall and Frank Dalby Davison has begun to be seen.(2)

I want to consider one aspect of that engagement with the process of modernity: that is, the way in which Dark negotiated the tensions of freedom versus control in her writing while she was subject both to national surveillance and local right-wing intimidation in the 1940s and 1950s. In considering the issue of surveillance I appropriate John Jervis's description of the `project of modernity' as a `purposeful future-oriented activity, geared to the achievement of practical, secular goals'; one that is `technocratic, organized and bureaucratic' and is connected, critically, to an `ethos of control.'(3) Dark's ambivalent relationship to this project (she would have had no issue with the achievement of practical, secular goals) is seen in her circumlocution of political and bureaucratic control over her writing, although she experienced the effects of those systems of control on a day-to-day basis. The questions I ask are: to what extent did Dark's relationship with the security forces influence her literary endeavour? how is it possible at this point to evaluate this relationship, which is different from, but perhaps allied to, local political pressures? finally, what does Dark's experience tell us about the intellectual and cultural pressures of the period?

Very little help with these questions can be found in Dark's papers, held in the Mitchell Library. What we see in the papers is a collection -- I would argue an oddly `clean' selection -- of her biographical and literary experiences. Noteworthy by its absence is any acknowledgement of security operations and possible pressures on her own existence, although, by virtue of some of her associates (Lance Sharkey was said for example by ASIO to take papers from his office to her house), she would have known about such processes. The Petrov affair of 1954 is not examined in her fiction or mentioned in notes among her papers. …

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