'History happened to people'
Review by Phil Shannon
Eleanor Dark: a writer's life
By Barbara Brooks
Macmillan, 1998 — 504 pp., $39.95 (pb)
In 1947, Eleanor Dark was denounced in Australia's parliament as an "underground worker for the Communists", and the Commonwealth Investigation Service, the political police of the day, added speculation about spying on the Woomera Rocket Range to her file.
What particularly alarmed these guardians of conservatism was that Dark's novel The Timeless Land had been added to the matriculation syllabus. With its subversive view of Australian history through the eyes of Aborigines, convicts and women, the book was deemed to be insidiously corrupting the minds of Australia's youth.
As Barbara Brooks shows in her biography of Eleanor Dark, the anticommunist watchdogs were barking up the wrong tree on specifics: Dark was never a party member. She did, however, consider herself a socialist and her books did subvert capitalist orthodoxy and challenge conformist complacency.
Talented and innovative, compassionate and critical, Dark was one of that remarkable cohort of Australian women writers of the 1930s and '40s who were widely read and left-wing — Katherine Susannah Prichard and Jean Devanny (Communist Party members), Dymphna Cusack, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Kylie Tennant and Miles Franklin among them.
Born in 1901 to a middle-class, bookish and political family (her father was briefly the Labor member for Parramatta), Dark was reading at three and writing stories and verse at seven. "Ideas, and the words with which to express them, had been toys of her childhood along with books and dolls — and the habit of never accepting any dogma upon trust had been instilled into her along with the habit of brushing her teeth."
After an uncongenial taste of working-class life in a Sydney waterside suburb, and an unhappy time at business college (which she hated "with the contempt of the bourgeois girl for the working-class girls at the college"), she left with her husband, Eric (doctor and "social conservative with a conscience") in 1923 for Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.
The content of her early novels focuses on the pressures of prejudice and social restrictions on individuals, particularly women, and explores her interest in psychology. In contrast to the dominant style of social realism among her novelist peers, Dark was technically more adventurous and experimented with stream of consciousness, time compression and interior monologue.
Marjorie Barnard, her close friend and strong critic, was not always impressed: "Pretentious, overwritten and unconvincing", she wrote in one letter to Dark. Other critics regretted her disregard for plot (life is plot-less, too, just a string of incidents, Dark argued in defence), and found her novels gloomy and difficult with too much negative introspection, but they were excited by her literary promise.
During the "red decade" of the '30s, as Dark's husband became a socialist activist on the left of the Labor Party, Eleanor, too, began to engage with wider issues in her writing. The threat to the environment from "developers", and tensions between the wealthy and the unemployed were amongst her subject matter.
Under the impact of the Great Depression, fascism and war, Dark changed course in style and subject from in-depth contemplation of individual problems to "socially engaged writing".
The Timeless Land was her most popular novel. She wrote about the "three shadows that lay across the bright gum-trees-and-pioneers picture of pastoral and industrial development" — the abuse of Aborigines ("whose land we stole"), migrants and convicts.
Women, whose part in history was so often unacknowledged, were also given their due, and the reckless over-exploitation of the land also reflected her concern with conservation. She criticised British imperialism, the authority of the state based on violence, and the relationship between crime and private property.
Her historical novels left the reader with the awareness that "history happened to people" and is not just the trail of constitutions, institutions, legislation and colonial worthies.
By the late 1940s, however, the effort of writing and researching history, coping with the domestic chores of a doctor's wife and mother, and the marginalisation of the left during the Cold War drained Dark of drive and energy. She was dissatisfied with writing and disillusioned with politics.
The Chifley Labor government disappointed her, setting up ASIO and sending in the troops to break the miners' strike in 1949. (She cooked on a kerosene stove rather than use electricity as an act of solidarity with the miners.)
Political spying and death threats to the Darks prompted them to retreat to a small rural community in Queensland for seven years. Dark's last novel, Lantana Lane, is based on this rural experience. It is a "funny, affectionate, optimistic book" which many dismissed as exquisite though light humour, unable to discern the values of cooperation and community, and resistance to the hard edges of 'progress' that had long been Dark's concerns.
Nevertheless, Lantana Lane did signify a retreat to the ambivalent political culture of the rural community. In a previous novel, she had criticised the political conservatism and small-mindedness of people in small towns who "liked small problems, small issues, small scandals and small talk". Now, small was beautiful.
Wanting no more than to be left alone, a retired writer, Eleanor Dark died in 1985.
Her literary retreat was a product of her political consciousness. Dark was at the more liberal end of the left-liberal spectrum of her generation of women novelists.
An opponent of capitalism and its conformist pressures, her middle-class individualism and "independence" made her wary of large crowds and political parties, and the dynamic of working-class democracy was alien to her. Her main characters are writers, artists and intellectuals, not proletarians or political activists. She was a reluctant activist and speaker.
Jean Devanny wished Dark would "get off her high horse of rotten liberalism" and engage with the working class and its political movements.
Yet her legacy of novels remains to engage and inspire readers concerned about conservation, feminism and Aboriginal rights, and who, like the author, believe that "capitalism and the profit motive are incompatible with freedom and cooperation". She had the artistic power to put the reader in touch with the events, the ideas, and the human tragedies and resilience of society and its history.
Brook's biography of Dark is a finely written, industriously researched, humanly engaging and sympathetic but critically balanced account of a great, and good (in the best moral sense) Australian writer.