Focus on Eleanor Dark

By Ferrier, Carole | Hecate, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

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 It comprises two pieces of Dark's unpublished writing including a section from one of her last novels; a commentary upon Dark's figuring of the urban space of Sydney; an account of Dark's engagement with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. …

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