Eleanor Dark

Eleanor Dark (1901-1985), novelist, was born on 26 August l901 at Burwood, Sydney, daughter of Eleanor Grace (born McCulloch) and Dowell O'Reilly, poet and Labour politician. She was educated at Redlands, Sydney, and attended secretarial college before being employed as a stenographer in a legal office. On 1 February 1922 she married Eric Payten Dark, medical practitioner, and from 1923 lived at Katoomba except for the years 1951-57 when the Darks spent part of each year at Montville, Queensland. There was a stepson, John Oliver, and a son to the marriage, Brian Michael, born in 1929.

Her writing first appeared in Redlander, her school magazine; she also published in the Australian Women's Mirror, the Bulletin and other magazines using 'P.O'R.' (Pixie O'Reilly) and Patricia O'Rane. Her novels were published under her married name: Slow Dawning (1932), Prelude to Christopher (1934), Return to Coolami (1936), Sun Across the Sky (1937), Waterway (1938), The Timeless Land (1941), The Little Company (1945) Storm of Time (1948) and No Barrier (1953). The early novels (except Prelude to Christopher) were published first in London. They later appeared in Australian editions. Her work were published in the United States (The Timeless Land won Book of the Month Club selection), and in translation in France, Germany, Italy and Sweden. Lantana Lane, a loosely linked collection of stories of rural Queensland, appeared in 1959. She wrote scripts and broadcast for the ABC on history and literature. She won the Australian Literature Society gold medal in 1934 and 1936, the Australian Society of Women Writers' Alice award in 1978 and was awarded AO in 1977.

Eleanor Dark was privileged as a writer by a long and close relationship with Eric Dark which provided intellectual companionship, and financial, moral, and practical support for her writing. Although she said 'My books have been written at intervals snatched from years as a housewife', she had some domestic help and the boys went to boarding school. Their Katoomba home, 'Varuna', which she designed, had a separate writing room in the garden. She was socially committed and believed that writers should give 'a reflection, and perhaps an interpretation, of themselves and their community . . . a literature is as essential to the living growth of a people as agriculture or industry or sport'. The Darks were supporters of left-wing causes and though neither joined the Communist Party, they were attacked as Communists in the 1940s. She was always a private person and in later life withdrew from public and social life, disappointed with political and social directions in Australia during the 1950s. In her last years ill health and a habit of seclusion meant that she saw very few people and rarely left the house. She died in September 1985.

Eleanor Dark wrote fiction that expressed her socialist and feminist concerns. She used modernist techniques, including interior monologue and multiple character narration, to explore political and social themes: the role of women, class, spiritual versus technological progress, and war. Many of her concerns preshadow those of more recent feminist writing. Her best-known work is The Timeless Land, an historical novel, in which she presents history from the point of view of the Aboriginal people and the settlement of Australia as invasion. It was made into an ABC television series in 1980, much condensed, and with the radical thrust removed.

'For almost twenty years . . . the best-selling serious novelist in Australia', Eleanor Dark was largely neglected from the 1960s. Virago has recently republished Prelude to Christopher, The Little Company and Lantana Lane.

Barbara Brooks and Judith Clark

Drusilla Modjeska 'Eleanor Dark: Retrospective' Refractory Girl no 29 1986.