Australia’s Dark secret

It is a delight to discover a well crafted book from Down Under, which seems to contradict the assertion that Australia is not yet in full possession of its own culture. The facts suggest otherwise.

Many Australian writers are internationally known. They include Patrick White (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 for an “epic and psychological narrative art” that supposedly introduced a new continent into literature), Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Colleen McCullough, and Morris West.

There are Australian poets: Henry Lawson (also a notable writer of short stories), Banjo Paterson (a bush poet), C. J. Dennis, and Dorothea McKellar. Dennis wrote in the Australian vernacular and McKellar – at the age of 19 – penned the patriotic poem “My Country” (whose line about “flooding rains” is peculiarly apt).

Classic novelists include Marcus Clarke (For the Term of His Natural Life), Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career) and Ruth Park (The Harp in the South), while eminent Australian playwrights include Steele Rudd, David Williamson, Alan Seymour and Nick Enright. And yet, outside Australia today, who knows the name of Eleanor Dark?

Seventy years ago, Eleanor Dark (1901-85) published The Timeless Land, the first in a trilogy exploring Australia’s colonial origins. Her first published novel, Slow Dawning (1932), had had little impact. It was followed by the triumphs of Prelude to Christopher (1934) and Return to Coolami (1936). Both novels won gold medals from the Australian Literature Society.

The early novels reveal Dark’s interest in psychological motivation which is a hallmark of her writing. In The Timeless Land, she writes exceptionally well about the brooding nature of the land and its effect on its inhabitants. She is one of the first writers to treat Aboriginal people on an equal footing with the colonialist intruders, acknowledging her debt to Watkin Tench (1758-1833) – a British officer who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 and later published two sensitively written books: Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson.

Dark describes the historical Arthur Phillip, newly appointed Governor of the proposed British penal colony situated on the east coast of Australia, arriving on board HMS Supply. He is immediately aware of the power of this alien country and the scale of the undertaking he faces:

“There was no sense of Time here. Tonight – was it Now, or a thousand years ago? What was it in the life of a man which gave him that reassuring sense of the passage of Time? On his little journey from the cradle to the grave, how comforting to feel that Time moves forward with him-how chilling, how strange, how awesome, to feel, as one felt here, that Time was static, a vast, eternal, unmoving emptiness through which the tiny pathway of one’s life ran from darkness into darkness, and was lost!” (page 43).

In a review published in the New York Herald Tribune of 5 October 1941 entitled “The Birth of a Nation – Down in Australia” and identifying it as a historical saga strongly akin to that of the USA, Dorothy Caulfield cited its “extraordinary quality of depth, of moral perspective”, declaring that she knew of no other story “more touching, more pathetic, more literally heart-breaking in its honest, austere restraint.”

Dark’s career peaked with the publication of The Timeless Land (New York, Macmillan: 1941). The second volume of the trilogy, Storm of Time (1948), matched the first in critical reception, but the third volume, No Barrier (1953), failed to find an American publisher and was the weakest.

Her last book, Lantana Lane (1959), surprised and pleased the critics with its witty account of life in the Lane, as she and fellow farmers called the “mile-long strip of glassy bitumen” that was their home, workplace and playground “round the corner from the world” of Cold War politics, mass culture, and 1950s Big Government. In fact, it was a critique of Australian society, expressing Dark’s disillusionment and growing sense of alienation.

Dark’s family circumstances dictated that in the last 25 years of her life she would never publish again and her name has faded from general view. Fortunately, her reputation in Australia itself is secure.

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