The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

The Timeless Land.... eleanor dark ..1960

It’s Saturday as I type and I’m on the road home. But an email has come in (or to be honest, I have just checked yesterday’s emails) from Neil@Kallaroo. We’ve done very well with Eleanor Dark this week. Here you go Neil, the space is all yours.


Let’s cut to the chase. I read about one third of The Timeless Land before I gave up. That’s not a reflection on the book so much as a reflection on what I enjoy reading. Once upon a time I read a book from cover to cover, but there are so many books to read, so nowadays if I’m struggling I give up and move on.

The Timeless Land is the first in a trilogy about the European settlement of Australia. It is told from many viewpoints, such as Governor Arthur Phillip, Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Trench of the Marines, the Reverend Mr Johnson, Andrew and Ellen Prentice, convicts, and the indigenes Bennilong and Barangaroo. There are plenty more!

The different viewpoints expose us to the many issues around the settlement, from concern with the food supply, convicts trying to escape, and interactions between Europeans and First Settlers. The story progresses chronologically, with minimal flash-backs, and even though the viewpoint changes frequently, it is not hard to keep track of what is going on.

So why did I struggle with the story?

I guess I knew the plot already, though not the nitty gritty. So there was minimal novelty to engage me. The writing is a bit dry and academic (possibly as a result of Dark’s extensive research), and there wasn’t much witty repartee to humour me. I didn’t crack many smiles.

I was uncomfortable with the thoughts and actions attributed to the indigines. One phrase in particular caught my eye:

“Arabanoo, who was so gentle and so patient that he hardly ever beat his wife.”

Ouch. Did indigenous husbands beat their wives regularly? I know that alcohol currently contributes to domestic violence (universally!), but I am not at all sure wife-beating was a feature of the indigenous population in 1788. Mind you, Dark has a rather sly comeback:

“Bennilong, therefore, had felt no pity for the woman, but he wondered why she had been so held up to the execration of the whole tribe instead of being privately beaten by her husband in the normal way.”

And finally, I struggle with historical fiction in general. Is it fiction or faction?

So should you have a read of The Timeless Land? If you are looking for something light and fluffy, with witty repartee and plenty of action, probably not. But if you are interested in a warts and all approach to the problems of settlement, offering more than a European-centric story, then definitely have a go. Hopefully you can make more progress than I did.

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Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, first pub. 1941. Cover image Collins, 1960

see also reviews of:
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (1) (here)
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (2) (here)
Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur (here)
James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh (here)

31 thoughts on “The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

  1. Not being overly familiar with either Dark or Australian writing, I’ll just say that I’m glad to know this is the first volume of a trilogy and not a name used to represent the entire trilogy (as that means I only have the first volume, so might prefer to gather the second and third before I begin). Just peeking inside my volume the other day, following a mention of it here, it seemed that it would require some patience and attention-to-detail so I can see where, in the wrong reading mood, it could become a tedious task.

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  2. While Eleanor Dark wrote three books on the settlement of Sydney, and they follow in sequence, I think you could read The Timeless Land by itself satisfactorily. But I wouldn’t read the second, then jump back to the first.

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  3. It’s a gap for me too. I’m not put off by your post Neil, because I think our reading interests are different, but I am forewarned! Interesting about the wife-beating. I wonder if academics have taken this up and discussed it?

    Good on you contributing to the week.

    Loved your riposte to Bill about the direction he is going in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I must admit I found the wife-beating quite upsetting. I believe Dark did a lot of research, so I wonder if she found relevant comments about it. I spoke with a friend who worked near Darwin 40 years ago and was quite friendly with the local tribe. He was horrified when I suggested there was wife-beating. In his experience, quite the opposite.

      Bill is always good for a riposte, but since he has hosted this review, I can’t be too rude to him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m afraid it is a big issue in Indigenous communities Neil. That stats are out there eg In 2014–15 the age-adjusted hospitalisation rate for non-fatal assaults from family violence for Indigenous women was 32 times the rate for non-Indigenous women. My question was more whether it was historically the case, as I believe the contemporary situation can be slated directly to the long term effects of dispossession.

        And, yes, true re Bill.

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  4. Neil, I had a similar experience with my recent reading of Ernestine Hill’s My Love Must Wait, except I normally love historical fiction! But dry, humourless historical fiction will even do me in!

    I’m currently (re)reading Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander series and had forgotten how laugh our loud funny it can in places. He had a lot of research behind him too, but he remembered that funny would be needed for most readers to get them past all the nautical jargon.

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  5. Well, I’m not going to pick this one for Eleanor Dark week. It’ll be too difficult for me to read in English.

    So, thanks Neil, knowing what NOT to buy is as valuable as knowing what to buy! 🙂

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  6. I can’t look it up but I think there is an episode in Watkin Tench, Dark’s principal source, where Bennelong has to be restrained from beating his wife. (I reviewed Tench a couple of years ago).

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  7. Hm. Interesting. In that case Bennelong wasn’t doing so in private, as Dark suggests was the accepted Indigenous mode. And was this before or after Bennelong was introduced to alcohol? Maybe I’m just too much of a goodie-two-shoes, but to me wife-beating is anathema, and I’d like to think that was the case everywhere, in other words wife-beating is the exception rather than the rule.

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  8. To compare, I always felt sort of gross when I read Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston because when the main character, Janey, finds a man she loves, they move to the Florida swamps to work. It’s a place full of men, and if Janey didn’t agree to let her husband beat her, he would be looked down on by the other workers, and potentially ostracized. Apparently, beating your wife is the sign of a “man’s man.” Like I said, gross. In Hurston’s novel, Janey agrees that her husband should hit her. In a sense, it almost feels progressive for Dark to acknowledge that a man beating his wife is wrong, thus the guy who does it less than other men should somehow be praised for it.

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    • That’s a great comparison Melanie. Men everywhere seem to need to prove their superiority over women. We concentrate on beating (and murder) but how close are we I wonder to doing away with all the subtler forms.

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      • Interestingly, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Teacake did not want to hit Janey, but they both agreed that the community expected it so much that it would be a detriment to their relationship and security if he did not hit her.

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  9. That’s sad isn’t it. And yet so many women in literature and no doubt in life are accepting of being hit by men. Or tolerate it as a price to pay for the relationship, ‘security’, family. Teacake may be the first I’ve heard of who did it only because it was expected (No, I’ll have to think about that).

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  10. […] As for last January, we have Bill (The Australian Legend) and his AWW Gen 3 Week to thank for our good showing of TEN Classics reviews this month. Three of them were for novels by Eleanor Dark, a significant Australian writer, particularly of the 1930s and 40s, who won the ALS Gold Medal twice. The novels reviewed were Lantana Lane (by Emma of Book Around the Corner), The little company (by Buried in Print), and The timeless land (by Neil@Kallaroo). […]

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