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)

Eleanor Dark, 2 novels

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Eleanor Dark with typescript of Storm of Time at 'Varuna ...

Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) is best known for her Timeless Land trilogy, but she was also an important modernist writer, and one of the earliest. Luckily for us, two contributors to this Week, Buried in Print from Canada and Emma of Book Around the Corner from France, have chosen to review Eleanor Dark novels.


bip-colourBuried in Print

Writers in Novels: Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company (1945) #AWW

It’s a time of “political and intellectual crisis” in The Little Company. Sound familiar?

Drusilla Modjeska’s introduction situates readers in Dark’s depiction of ordinary life in Sydney and Katoomba, in this time of “recession, nuclear threat and more failed expectations” in Australia.

Read on …


https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/22c6cba66f07d4f48c5befac11b9f492Book Around the Corner

Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark – an intelligent comedy about a community doomed to disappear.

Eleanor Dark introduces us to the inhabitants of Lantana Lane, set in Dillillibill, a rural area of Queensland, the tropical part of Australia. They have small farms and mostly grow pineapples on their land that is not occupied by the sprawling lantana weed.

In this district it may be said with little exaggeration that if you are not looking at pineapples, you are looking at lantana.

Read on …

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Photo: Eleanor Dark at Varuna with typescript for Storm of Time, Dec. 1947. Blue Mountains City Library

There is a GAN, revisited

Voss

I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

Waterway, Eleanor Dark

Image result for eleanor dark waterway

Waterway (1938) is a far more significant work than I realised when my brother (B2) gave it to me to read a few months ago, and I’m going to go into some background to try and explain why I think so.

Before I go on though, about halfway through reading this novel I happened to glance at the back cover (of the edition pictured above) and it completely gives away the novel’s ending. Why a publisher would do that I don’t know, but it spoiled my reading of the book, and I can only advise you to resolutely hold the book face UP.

Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) was one of the women writers who dominated my Australian Gen 3 period – from the end of WWI to the 1950s, a period marked for women writers at least by a concentration on social (and in some cases socialist) realism. Socialism was an important influence during this period, though of course much less so after 1956. KS Prichard was a Communist; as was Jean Devanney; Christina Stead was, though she wasn’t a party member; Kylie Tennant was briefly a party member; there is evidence Miles Franklin hovered between socialism and communism. I’m not sure about Dark, but her husband was socialist and active on the left of the Labor Party.

Prior to my reading this book, Dark’s importance, to me, was her Timeless Land trilogy (1941, 1948, 1953) which imagined for the first time white settlement from the point of view of the displaced Aborigines. The only other of her works I remember reading is Return to Coolamai (1936) and it seemed to me her interest there was in middle class character and interaction. But I can see now her importance in the introduction of Modernism.

Waterway was Dark’s fifth novel. No.s 2 and 3, Prelude to Christopher and Return to Coolamai were both winners of the ALS Gold Medal. Wikileaks says (today anyway) of Prelude that “the storyline is nonlinear and of interest to those interested in the establishment of modernism in the arts in Australia.” It is interesting to guess what books/writers Dark might have been influenced by. Here are some landmarks –

Joseph Furphy, Such is Life (1903)
DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Eleanor Dark, Slow Dawning (1932)
Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934)
Patrick White, Happy Valley (1939)

So Dark and Stead were almost exact contemporaries, with Dark the first to be published, by a couple of years. Stead had the advantage of being in Paris in the early 30s in the circle around Sylvia Beach who published Ulysses, while Dark remained in Sydney. And I think Stead gradually became the more polished writer. Interestingly, both Seven Poor Men of Sydney and Waterway are set in Watsons Bay, just inside the Heads, on the south side of Sydney Harbour.

Like Ulysses, Waterway is one day in one city, but from the point of view of an omniscient observer relating the conversations, arguments, thought processes of 16 people from half a dozen houses in this one waterside suburb, as they bump into each other, in the street, in the water and on the ferry to and from the city.

Dark divides her protagonists into thoughtlessly wealthy and philosophers (with not much in between). The philosophers are led by Professor Channon who has two beautiful, intelligent daughters – Winifred unhappily married to rich Arthur Sellman and Lesley, single, who has just become the lover of Sim, the carefree, handsome younger son of another wealthy family, the Hegarty’s. Winifred has a blind daughter, 6 and is in love with her widower next door neighbour Ian who has sons aged 7 and 8. Arthur’s sister Lorna, also beautiful, but vain and thoughtless with it, is determined to marry Sim. Then there are the doctor and his artist wife, Lois; Roger who publishes a failing literary newsletter; and finally Jack, unemployed, living in a shack on the waterline amongst the fishermen, strong, angry and incoherent.

Dark’s philosophy, which is expressed by a number of her protagonists, basically seems to be Christianity without the religion –

“Hang it all, if you gave away every bean you possessed tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the little bit of ‘philanthropy’ that mattered, it would be the freeing of yourself [from possessions].” Roger to Sim.

It’s summer, the day is fine, hot. Those who can, start the morning, or in Lesley and Sim’s case, finish the night before, with a swim in the cove. The workers catch the ferry or drive into town. Winifred and Ian have vowed to stop meeting but manage to be on the beach at the same time so his boys can take her daughter for a swim. Arthur of course is angry and broods that the wife to whom he gives everything wants nothing except divorce.

The afternoon is to see the society wedding of Sim’s older brother and that, though unimportant to all the protagonists, is a focus for much of their activity. Jack falls and damages his hand, ends up in a mob of unemployed which gravitates towards the crowd watching the wedding; the kids go to the zoo; the artist has some paintings in an exhibition; one way or another most of them end up in town to come home on the 10 to 5 ferry.

There’s some excitement and the day draws to a close. It’s very well done and we the reader are involved in the ebb and flow of their thoughts. Sue (WG) of course will ask me how I can allow Dark to write the thoughts of men. Good question Sue. To a large extent the men are stereotypes, particularly Jack, I don’t think Dark is very familiar with the working class. The women are much more interesting. Winifred, Lesley, Lois and even Sim’s mother, Lady Hegarty are thoughtful and intelligent, though none of them is independent in the sense of wishing for a life without a husband.

Dark foreshadows her later work, which may have been inspired by a feeling that the Harbour is a living, breathing organism with a life independent of the white society that has so recently perched around its shores –

And when the invaders landed they felt a soil beneath their feet whose very texture was alien; a hard earth, which smelt not of grass and flowers and hay, the reassuring familiar odours of man’s long habitation, but strangely of an age-old solitude.

Lesley, who is probably the closest to being Dark herself, as the doctor seems based on her (Dark’s) husband, writes stories set in the earliest days of white settlement

By now, fed by necessary research, her mental picture of the city in its infancy had grown so familiar to her that she had often felt when she stepped out again from this quiet room into the daylight … surprised to find it no longer that … straggling settlement of a handful of colonists.

I haven’t really made the case for just how good the writing is, the long streams of consciousness as one protagonist or another reflects. The author herself notes one of her influences –

She thought, “I’m going all D.H. Lawrence! I suppose you have to go through this before you realise how accurately he paints – one side of the picture!” Lesley.

If you like to think about writing, and about Australian writing in particular, then this is a book you should consider. I think Aust.Lit. came of age in the 1930s and it was the women, and I guess Xavier Herbert, who were responsible, and who in a large way formed the base built on by Patrick White.

 

Eleanor Dark, Waterway, first pub. 1938. My copy Imprint 1990 with Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska

see also:
Meg Brayshaw, The Quiet Brilliance of Eleanor Dark, AWWC (here)
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (here)
Sylvia Beach, Ulysses in Paris (here)

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week will be in the second week of January 2020 (and there will probably be a Part II in the corresponding week of the following year).