Feminise Your Canon - Eleanor Dark

This essay first appeared in The Paris Review Daily on January 9, 2019.

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By Emma Garman

As 1936 turned into 1937, the Australian novelist Eleanor Dark found herself embroiled in an epistolary skirmish with her U.S. literary agents. At stake was the fate of Prelude to Christopher, Dark’s startling second book. The story of one man’s calamitous quest for a socially engineered paradise, Prelude melds a gothic plot with a modernist style. At the time, fascism was spreading through Europe. Yet judging by the reaction from Dark’s agents and publisher, America wasn’t interested in a woman’s bleak take on biological determinism and utopianism.


Prelude opens with Nigel Hendon, a middle-age doctor in a small rural town in New South Wales, getting into a car accident which leaves him badly injured. Through a semiconscious haze, he anticipates death as a relief, a solution to the “vast inimical burden” of living. As his mind slides into the past (“disappointed, futile years”), his memories are interspersed with the stream-of-consciousness perspectives of other characters, including his mother, his wife, and the young hospital nurse who secretly loves him (and who has chosen their future son’s name: Christopher). We soon learn that, as a gifted medical graduate in the years before World War I, Nigel formed his own breakaway society. An island utopia, where only the carefully screened “mentally and physically fit” could live, was to be the culmination of his every ambition, the realization of his scientific potential, a shimmering dream whose original preciousness still beckons:


Flat on his back with the gauze mask over his face he went questing as ardently as any knight after his vision of the Holy Grail; and, still again on the white table under the glaring lights, he found it—the island that had become his symbol of attainment. It lay there in his mind, a half-translucent vision, motionless as his own body, born of pictures all but forgotten, of tales told in childhood, even, perhaps, of some remote ancestral legend of Hy-Brazil, the lost Eden, the island of the blessed…


His wife, the intelligent and charismatic Linda, has an alleged family history of homicidal lunacy. For her, Nigel waived the entry requirements, albeit reluctantly. But the central principle of raising “healthy children” from “untainted stock” was, he decreed, inviolable. He and Linda would not—must not—become parents. In the present of the narrative, both weigh the consequences of their youthful decisions: a ruined marriage, indelible trauma from the experiment’s horrific demise, and permanent notoriety. “Hendon’s Colony: What goes on there?” ran the sensational newspaper headlines. “Abominations Practised in the Name of Science; Powers of Evil Reign on Lonely Island.”


Linda, whose all too brief visits to Nigel’s hospital bed raise eyebrows, has a reputation for being unhinged and dangerous, as foreboded by her “tainted stock.” She has witchy sex appeal, with black hair and “indolent” green eyes, and she considers herself “bad all through.” She is treated accordingly by the small-minded locals, no matter how hard she tries to appear calm and poised. “What it would be,” she thinks, “to give up eternally struggling! What kind of voluptuous, evilly exhilarating sensation would one have when one felt one’s self-control slip a cog—and let it slip another—and then let go altogether—all—all—to scream, laugh, fight…”


On its 1934 publication in Australia, when Dark was thirty-three, Prelude was hailed by one critic as “the most mature piece of fiction yet written and published in this country” and by another as “the most distinguished achievement by an Australian writer.” Nevertheless, Curtis Brown’s New York office relayed to Dark that although Macmillan U.S. had recently published Return to Coolami (Dark’s third book, but her American and British debut), they were rejecting Prelude. The publisher contended, dubiously to anyone who has read both, that Prelude was “neither as subtle nor as well executed” as Coolami, a structurally sophisticated but far more anodyne story. Curtis Brown therefore urged Dark to give up altogether on a U.S. edition of Prelude, since if she placed the book with another firm it would “annoy Macmillan considerably.”


From her home in New South Wales, Dark pushed back against this advice. The idea that Prelude was inferior to Coolami, she wrote, “is one that I simply can’t take seriously or finally. Was this the opinion of one reader or several? All the really competent criticism I have had supports my own view that it is an infinitely better book.” In addition, Prelude had just been published to excellent reviews in the UK, where it was named the Evening Standard’s Book of the Month in November 1936. “She has given us a book,” said the newspaper, “that is exciting in the best sense of the word: that doesn’t dope us but wakes us up.”


When Dark enjoyed the further vindication of Prelude’s British edition outselling Coolami’s, she dispatched another letter to New York. The case for Prelude, she argued, “seems to be a pretty sound one, quite apart from my own conviction that it is a far better, if less pleasant, book than Coolami. Without exception the best critics in England and Australia have supported this view.” But Curtis Brown and Macmillan were unmoved. This wasn’t a story that would please the palate of American readers, they maintained, and publishing it would be a strategic error. The Australian author Drusilla Modjeska, who has written about Prelude’s checkered publication history, believes sexist expectations were at play. The story was likely too challenging, too morally ambiguous—in a word, too dark—to sit comfortably with popular notions of a woman writer, especially one from the uncultured colonies down under.


Dark’s passionate advocacy for Prelude was a marked departure from her attitude about her 1932 debut, Slow Dawning, a conventional romance about the travails of a young woman doctor. Dark was embarrassed by the book, dismissing it as a “potboiler” that she wrote “dishonestly” simply to make money. Very few copies remain in circulation, possibly due to Dark’s supposed habit of buying up a bookshop’s stock and burning it. When Prelude came out, some reviewers assumed it was Dark’s first novel, no doubt to her relief. Unlike her real debut, Prelude is neither trite nor dishonest. People and events in Dark’s own life inspired the story, to an extent that has only emerged in recent years. Dark was a private person who disliked the hoopla of book publicity, and she didn’t readily disclose her work’s autobiographical underpinnings. “If I could arrange the literature world to my satisfaction,” she once wrote, “writers would never be photographed, and would be known by numbers instead of names.” But as scholarship by her relative Helen O’Reilly has revealed, Prelude’s high-wire portrayal of insanity, heredity, and misguided idealism has fascinating roots in the history and secrets of the family.


Dark was born in 1901 in the suburbs of Sydney, the middle child of Dowell O’Reilly, a writer, teacher, and politician, and his wife, Eleanor, a talented pianist. Money was tight but the house was full of books, and as a child Dark read Dickens, Shakespeare, and George Eliot. Dark and her younger brother often played outside, picking apples, catching tadpoles, and playing with tame possums; indoors they would sit under the grand piano, listening to their mother play. The summer that Dark was twelve, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in a hospital for the insane. Shortly before Dark’s thirteenth birthday in August 1914, as World War I began on the other side of the world, Eleanor O’Reilly died at age forty-two. While the official cause of death was “exhaustion,” Dowell referred to the “utter destruction” of his wife’s mind by “nightmare emotion.” She also may have had thyroid disease. For the rest of her life, Dark rarely talked about this formative trauma. But, Helen O’Reilly suggests, in depicting the psychological disintegration of Linda, Dark was “studying her mother in memory.”


Another important influence on the story was Dark’s paternal aunt, Marion Piddington, a well-known sex educator, feminist, and eugenicist who corresponded with Freud and the British birth-control campaigner Marie Stopes. As with Stopes and her U.S. counterpart, Margaret Sanger, Piddington’s feminism was inextricable from her espousal of eugenics. She worked with the grimly named Racial Hygiene Society of New South Wales and attended the 1912 International Eugenics Conference in London, led by Charles Darwin’s son Leonard. Alongside delegates from various governments, including Winston Churchill (then Lord of the Admiralty), Piddington listened to detailed arguments for compulsory sterilization. Implementing principles of “better breeding” for humans, Darwin warned, would require “moral courage.” It is no coincidence that Nigel’s island experiment takes place during those pre–World War I years, when proponents of eugenics began to wield their influence.


As a young girl Dark was close to Piddington, and went to stay with her when Eleanor O’Reilly was hospitalized. But their relationship was to end abruptly. After three years of widowerhood, Dowell O’Reilly proposed to an English cousin, Marie Miles. Piddington vociferously objected to the marriage, resulting in a permanent family rift. The depth of bitterness and bad blood between the siblings, the most important adults in sixteen-year-old Dark’s life, was revealed by family correspondence inherited by Helen O’Reilly. Kept from public view until all the involved parties were dead, the letters are, in Helen’s words, “sexually explosive.” Writing to Dowell, Piddington accused him of being a vile predator who had caused his wife’s death, who had no right to marry again. She charged him with a litany of crimes including raping and abusing Eleanor, promiscuously cheating on her, and systematically destroying her mental health. “For years before her death she shrank into her own four walls broken and ashamed and distraught. It is a marvel her sanity held out as long as it did.”


The question of whether Eleanor O’Reilly succumbed to, in the parlance of the time, an inherent mental weakness or, as Piddington insisted, was robbed of her sanity by abuse is dramatized to gripping effect in Dark’s novel. Linda is raised by a biologist uncle who takes sadistic pleasure in reiterating that her father is criminally insane, and that she, too, may be overtaken by murderous madness at any time. She never escapes the terror deliberately inculcated in her:


she had lived out her stormy, haunted childhood with her uncle’s gently-spoken promise of ultimate lunacy peering at her from every shadow, lying in wait for her at every corner; the family tree which he had so painstakingly compiled and so beautifully set out on a great sheet of yellowish parchment, with the names of the “afflicted” in red ink, appearing like plague spots…


Such torment, Dark conveys, cannot be untangled from any organic cause of mental illness, muddying deterministic theories of heredity. Like Antoinette Cosway in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, constantly taunted about madness in her blood (“Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother”), Linda can never know if being labeled potentially insane is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is one of literature’s most frightening depictions of gaslighting, written several years before Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light premiered.

Dark persisted in trying to find a U.S. publisher for Prelude—at one point she suggested sending it to Bette Davis, lest the Hollywood diva be interested in playing Linda—but to no avail. The novel, Dark decided, was cursed. In fact, Prelude’s career has been marked by both bad luck and blessings. Its original one-man-band Australian publisher, P.R. Stephensen, went into liquidation after only five hundred copies were sold. Then, despite being homeless, the book won the Australian Literature Society’s prestigious Gold Medal, and Collins in London acquired it. A couple of years later Tauchnitz, the august German press, published an edition as part of their English-language classics series, which was sold in continental Europe. Such imprimaturs of literary respect might bode well for a book’s longevity. However, aside from an Australian reissue in 1961 (which didn’t sell), Prelude fell out of print for the rest of the twentieth century, until the independent Sydney press Halstead reissued it in 1999. As of 2012, U.S. and UK readers can read the book on Kindle from Allen & Unwin, who bill it as “Australia’s first modernist novel.”

After Prelude and Coolami, which also won an ALS Gold Medal, Dark published seven more novels. In the forties and fifties she enjoyed great success for her historical trilogy starting with The Timeless Land: expansive, traditional novels that chart the European colonization of her homeland. In the U.S., The Timeless Land was a Book of the Month Club choice, an accolade previously given to only one other Australian author. Yet it is the bold experimentalism of Prelude that stands the artistic test of time. Especially today, when its central theme—utopianism and tyranny are two sides of the same coin—is being played out on the world stage.

In the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, a happier offshoot of utopianism exists in Dark’s old country house, which is now a writing retreat. Bequeathed to the Eleanor Dark Foundation by her son, Michael, the Varuna Writers’ House offers residencies to new and emerging Australian poets, essayists, dramatists, and authors. The nightmare, in other words, of the young doctor in Prelude who broods, with his hyperrationality:

Artists! The ruthless conceit of them! Painting as they felt, writing as they felt, making music; never caring whom they flayed and tortured, what unendurable agonies of human suffering, what hardly more endurable summits of human joy they captured and bound within the limits of their insatiable art…
Dark’s legacy honors creative freedom and individuality: irrepressible, insatiable, and timeless.

Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications.

Rebecca Goosen