Dark, Eleanor (1901–1985)

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Dark, Eleanor (1901–1985)

Australian novelist, mainly of contemporary fiction, whose historical trilogy brought her fame and fortune. Name variations: (pseudonyms) P.O'R. and Patricia O'Rane. Born Eleanor ("Pixie") O'Reilly in the year of Australian Federation 1901 in Sydney, Australia; died of osteoporosis in Katoomba, New South Wales (NSW), in 1985; daughter of Dowell O'Reilly (a poet, short-story writer, and sometime Labor politician) and Eleanor (McCulloch) O'Reilly (a housewife); attended several private schools before boarding at Redlands, an exclusive all-girls' school in Sydney, where she graduated, 1919; married Eric Payten Dark (a medical doctor and Military Cross recipient in the Great War), in 1922; children: one son, Michael.

Lived most of her 63 years of married life in Katoomba, a small town in the Blue Mountains southwest of Sydney; wrote verse from age seven but turned eventually and solely to prose; published Slow Dawning (1932), the first and least successful of ten published novels; published The Timeless Land (1941), bringing her wide acclaim at home and overseas; published last novel Lantana Lane (1959), which closed with a flourish one of the most successful writing careers of an Australian woman writer of her generation.


twice-winner of Australia's then most coveted literary prize, the Australian Literature Society's gold medal for best novel (1936 and 1938); The Timeless Land selected U.S. Book-of-the-Month (October 1941); awarded the Order of Australia for "services to Australian literature" (1977).

Selected publications:

(contemporary fiction) Slow Dawning (1932, only known surviving copy in Humphrey McQueen papers in National Library of Australia), Prelude to Christopher (1934), Return to Coolami (1936), Sun Across the Sky (1937), Waterway (1938), The Little Company (1945), Lantana Lane (1959); (historical trilogy) The Timeless Land (1941), Storm of Time (1948) and No Barrier (1953). Early verse of the 1920s and early '30s published in Australia in a wide variety of journals (The Triad, Bulletin, Woman's Mirror); some 20 short stories also published in journals, such as the Bulletin, The Triad, Motoring News, Home and Ink. Selected nonfiction: "Caroline Chisholm and Her Times" in Flora S. Eldershaw, ed., The Peaceful Army: A Memorial to the Pioneer Women of Australia, 1788–1938 (Sydney, Women's Executive Committee and Advisory Council of Australia's 150th Anniversary Celebrations, 1938); "Australia and the Australians," in Australian Week-End Book (No. 3, 1944); "Drawing a Line Around It," in Writer (U.S., Vol. 59, October 1946); "A world damned a man, but what does it mean?" in Daily Telegraph(April 23, 1948); (introduction) G. Farwell and F.H. Johnston, eds., This Land of Ours: Australia (Sydney, 1949); "They All Come Back," in Walkabout (Vol. 17, 1951) and "The Blackall Range Country," in Walkabout (Vol. 21, 1955).

Eleanor Dark was born Eleanor O'Reilly in Sydney, Australia, in 1901. Her life and work spanned most of the 20th century. For the artist she thought herself to be, this "coincidence of birth," as she called it, continued to shape the way she perceived her world and her role in it. The fact that 1901 was also the year of Australia's Federation, the birth of the nation, placed other sets of challenges upon her. She was an Australian writer whose offerings were intended equally for art and country. It is only fitting that her most celebrated novel should have been the artist's rendition of the essence of her Australia: the timeless land. Unlike most of her fellow writers, Dark did not pine for other lands and cultures. Australia was her spiritual, as well as physical, home. A most enduring tribute to the woman and artist is a residential writers' center established in her memory and housed in "Varuna," the "flash but not too flash" mountain residence that was home for most of her adult life.

In 1942, at the height of Dark's writing career, an American academic wrote requesting a brief biographical sketch. Though Dark expressed herself "very willing to help," she explained there was "hardly material for such a thing, as my life has been uneventful to the point of being humdrum." Throughout her life, she sought futilely to deflect attention from the personal to her work. This was partly to protect her privacy and partly because of a firm conviction that the text was all. She loathed publicity and once wrote to her American literary agent that: "If I could arrange the literature world to my satisfaction writers would never be photographed, and would be known by numbers instead of names." She may also have preferred to keep certain aspects of her personal experience away from the scrutiny of the public. Her life may not have been one of high drama, but it had elements of Greek tragedy. From childhood to old age, recurring themes of marriage breakups, insanity, and suicide, stalked her. It is in the story beneath the "uneventful" and "humdrum" texture of her days that the essence of the individual and her art are mostly found.

Long before writing became for Eleanor Dark her art, profession, or calling, it had been the daily bread of the young Eleanor, known as Pixie O'Reilly. It had belonged to the world of magic and play of the young child, of intellect and peer competition of the schoolgirl, of romance and fanciful illusions of the budding woman. It had been the flapper's principal weapon of rebelliousness, and the young bride's unit of barter for the little extra needed around the house. From the start, Dark later admitted, she had had "a remarkable facility" for verse, which "once broken into print" she had "no difficulty in selling." This skill allowed her to establish "a good trade in sonnets" which, at seven-and-sixpence each, were "the same price as a bag of manure for the garden." In time, as the young Mrs. Eric Payten Dark, she would extend her "flippant" attitude to her prose. Written in 1923, her first novel Slow Dawning would be produced "deliberately … with the object of making money," Dark confessed contritely at the peak of her literary career. "I regard it as a judgment upon me that it was not published till many years later, in 1932, which meant that what money I did make out of it—and it did as well as I expected—I did not get at the time I wanted it."

An accident of birth had invited her to see her life in a slick, chronological pattern; the century had grown with her.

—Eleanor Dark, The Little Company

Plaything, magic wand, protest banner, pocket-money and many other things became elevated to "art," writing had woven itself into the fabric of the little girl's life even before she could read or write. Like Lesley Channon of Waterway, one of many young heroines in her fiction whom she styled after herself: "Her earliest recollections were of lively debates between her father and any one of a dozen friends who haunted their home to talk to him. … Ideas and the words with which to express them, had been toys of her childhood along with books and dolls." The love and habit of books were things she acquired not through mother's milk but on father's lap. By the tender age of three, when she taught herself to read, Pixie had begun to internalize her father Dowell O'Reilly's hunger for the written word. His "habit with books," Dowell acknowledged, was not that of "the wine-taster, the gourmet" but of "a glutton, a drunkard." Indeed, to the little girl, the written word, either in the form of her own compositions or in her father's imposing library, appears to have been the beacon of an otherwise bleak childhood. By the time a confident and poised Eleanor Dark stepped out of her private world into the public limelight in 1936 as winner of Australia's most coveted literary award, the relationship had undergone a fundamental change. It had been formalized and consecrated. The little girl and one of the "toys of her childhood" were now a solemn pair: the artist and her art.

The story of Eleanor Dark—individual and artist—orders itself naturally into three parts. Two halves of the "private years" (1901–30 and 1950–85) frame her "public years" (1930s–1940s) as writer and would-be social reformer.

Until recently, the conventional view of Dark's early years among historians was of a quaint, unruffled and virtually motherless childhood spent amidst literary and political enthusiasms generated by a father to whom she was a devoted disciple. Dark herself encouraged and reinforced this singular version of her childhood, through the family anecdotes she fed those requesting biographical material.

Material released since her death explodes the myth of a happy, father-centered household. Pixie O'Reilly did not, it suggests, live in a house where literature and politics set the general tone of family discussions and social life. These were elements, but more as temporary and welcome distractions from a family life scarred by anxieties over health, finances, and the parents' basic incompatibilities. Hers was not in any sense a normal or happy childhood. The virtual absence of Eleanor McCulloch (O'Reilly) from the story of her daughter's young years does signify the mother's lack of influence upon her daughter's real and imagined lives. An aura of mystery and intrigue surrounds Eleanor McCulloch's history, fostered partly by the fact that her voice is utterly silent from the historical record and partly by the general lack of sources relating to her. Little is known about McCulloch, including the circumstances surrounding her last illness and her death in 1914, reportedly of thyrotoxis, a disease of the thyroid gland. Through the latter period of her life was she mentally ill (as her husband sometimes hinted) or merely emotionally distraught (as most of the evidence suggests)? Was she driven to despair by an unhappy marriage, or did she harbor the seeds of madness? One thing is clear; McCulloch was a disturbing presence in her daughter's life—her absence in many ways a far more potent presence than Dowell O'Reilly.

A loving but weak father, he was too insecure and preoccupied with his own misfortunes to be of much support to his daughter. There was also a definite emotional schism between father and mother, though they were clearly fond of one another. The sensitive question of Eleanor McCulloch's mental state remained a barrier between them. Over half a century later, the matter resurfaced when Dark, in her 60s, set out to compile and compose family histories for her son. "D O'Reilly says in letter that during last ten days her mind failed," she noted. A disturbing issue was involved. Its demons lay at the heart of Prelude to Christopher, dealing with the origins and manifestations of insanity, "particularly of hereditary insanity." With her first self-styled heroine, Anne of "Pilgrimage," Dark seemed to share "that strange, instinctive fear of her own mind which she had dimly realized in her far too early in childhood."

In terms of her work the role of the father has been overestimated at the expense of the mother. Dowell O'Reilly's influence on his daughter's thinking and writing remain undisputed. It was his influence that prompted Dark to take "the political scene for granted equally with the literary atmosphere." An early advocate of women's suffrage in the N.S.W. Parliament, Dowell O'Reilly endowed the "woman question" with keen relevance to Pixie. Distinct resonances of his Australia can be heard in her later evocations of the timeless land. Both shared an abiding love for an Australia mature and self-assured, without anger or nostalgia towards a Mother Country or Mother Culture. They also shared a conception (and celebration) of Australia as a fugitive from Western Civilization and its rigid and life-negating strictures of convention and tradition. Note, for example, Dowell O'Reilly's poem "Australia" (1894), which reads in part:

When Nature's heart was young and wild
She bore in secret a love-child,
And weeping, laughed—too glad to dress
Its lawless, naked loveliness.

O'Reilly offered his daughter one gift that had no equal, and which she cherished through her darkest moments. Offsetting the fears of mental illness from the McCulloch strain was the knowledge that through her blood also ran a very different kind of madness. She belonged to a long and honorable family tradition of artists, a fact to which she referred several times in the family history.

My father was a writer, and had some gift for drawing; his brother, Tom, and his sister, Rose, also did some writing though I think none of it was published except a very small book of verse. … My brother Pat drew well and, when he died, left among his belongings a few pages of MS, evidently the beginning of a novel; I have produced some books, Bim [her younger brother and a painter] you know about. My cousin … has written at least one play.

Ultimately, however, it was not "atmosphere," matters of sexual politics, love of country, or even an empowering heritage but more subterranean influences that fed the artist's Muse. It was McCulloch, and her complex legacy to her daughter of anxiety and shame, that appears to have been the principal animating force behind the writing itself. McCulloch's legacy to her daughter was an unhappy one. But while an artist's real and imagined lives are ultimately inextricable, elements that impoverish one often enrich the other. Such appears to have been the case with Dark. Her mother's legacy of suffering became a moving force behind her finest works, in many of whose characters, relationships, and passages reside the demons of Eleanor McCulloch. The prime example lies in her portrait of Linda Hendon in Prelude to Christopher, and her futile struggles to retain a grip on the two most precious and poisoned parts of her life: her sanity and her marriage.

With the mother's death in 1914, the family was split into its four surviving parts. Henceforth, the family history records, "there was no real home or family life." Dowell O'Reilly moved to a boarding house, the older son Pat worked on a farm, and the younger boy Bim boarded at a preparatory school. Thirteen-yearold Eleanor went to live with her maternal grandmother. A year later, she became a boarder at Redlands, her first happy home. The refugee from a broken home and veteran of five schools abandoned herself utterly to this new world. "I wouldn't leave for anything," she wrote a cousin a year after arriving there. Hopeless in mathematics, Dark excelled in the humanities, particularly literature. One of her compositions so impressed her teacher that she felt sure her student "must unmistakably possess the divine spark." But there was a price to pay when graduation day came. The school and its privileged population

of students had raised expectations—of university, overseas travel, a literary career—none of which her family could meet. A brief training course in secretarial work fitted her for her first (and only) salaried employment: as typist in a solicitors' firm in Sydney. Dark hated everything about her new life: from the working-class types she was forced to rub shoulders with, to the grimy crowded streets of the city, to the under-currents of sexual harassment she sensed between the male boss and the "girls in the office." The essence of this anger is distilled in her "flapper" literature of the '20s and early '30s.

Marriage to Eric Payten Dark, medical doctor and an old family friend 12 years her senior, rescued her immediately and permanently from what had become unbearable. For all her sneers at the tendency of women towards "compulsive domesticity," Dark slipped easily into her new domestic roles as doctor's wife and mistress of "Varuna." Eric Dark never quite recovered from the tragedy of his first wife's death, soon after the birth of their first child, but his grief was a life-affirming force. After his loss, Eleanor seemed all the more precious to him. From all accounts, it was a most successful partnership. Looking back on some six decades of their married life, Eric described the relationship simply as "Perfect love from her to me and from me to her." From the start, it was an orderly and conservative household with no blurring of the edges between the man's and the woman's place in the home. Eric was the breadwinner, and she, the one responsible for any social entertainment, sewing, curtain-mending, scone-baking, jampreserving, and the many other activities that filled her life. Eleanor Dark's domestic circumstances stood well apart from the norm, however, in one critical aspect: her husband's recognition of her right to her own career. As much in love with the woman as the artist, Eric Dark and his doctor's earnings gave her carte blanche to shape her literary life as she wished. The result was a decade-long apprenticeship from which she emerged in her own good time.

To a life that had borne so much tragedy and alienation, Eric Dark brought comfort and support, stability and security. Eleanor, it seems, never again lacked material or emotional riches. But there was a price for this bonanza. Eric's politics underwent a dramatic conversion during the Great Depression. As the Tory became a socialist, his process of "moving from Right to Left" seemed never ending—to his own and his family's detriment. Thus, the 1930s–1940s belonged to the public figure Eleanor Dark became against her better instincts. Even the family home, originally a quaint, small, weatherboard house, was replaced by a large imposing residence befitting her new stature (if not her new radical profile in Depression-scarred Australia). Driven by the advent of fascism, Dark joined in protest campaigns against State repression, particularly censorship, her bête noire. But her heart was never in politics, and it showed. She aimed to strike a radical pose in her novels of the late '30s and failed. She learned her lesson and never again attempted to write in the social-realist tradition. Her next project took her to a safe and distant past, a period far enough from contemporary reality to allow her natural bent towards giving philosophy and "long-term problems" full and honest scope. In The Timeless Land, she explored Australia's early European beginnings to find where and how early visions of the good society had soured and, in so doing, sought to revive them. The success of The Timeless Land in 1941 made her almost a household name in her own country.

The book was well received overseas. The timing of the American publication proved providential. Just when the American-Australian military alliance began to crystalize in the minds of both nations, Dark's tale of the birth of a British colony "down under" offered glimpses of shared bonds of British culture and oppression. Richard Casey, then Australian diplomatic envoy to Washington, D.C., thought the book created "a very good public for Australia"; its appeal was so widespread that on a train ride to New York one day, he had observed "several Americans absorbed in the book."

The outbreak of another world war paralyzed Dark's creative energies. It was only towards the end that she emerged from the cursed "artistic paralysis" to write The Little Company, one of her least successful novels. A disappointed colleague expressed what others must have felt of this unworthy successor to The Timeless Land: "Fancy wasting her lovely talent on such stuff as the mental and moral gropings of a pettybourgeois writer in days like these! It's being stuck in that beautiful home on top of a mountain."

The advent of the atom bomb, even before the peace agreement was signed, suddenly raised the specter of a nuclear holocaust. Dark—and an entire generation of Western radical intellectuals—watched helplessly as the promised land turned instead into a wasteland, where mass culture ruled and mass destruction threatened a population apparently oblivious to the dangers posed by either. Unlike the war, which had galvanized the citizen at the expense of the artist, the immediate postwar period sent electric shocks through both at once. H.G. Wells' call for fellow runners in the "race between education and disaster" captured her imagination.

While Eric Dark brandished his communist sympathies to all and sundry, in the process attracting powerful enemies that eventually thrust him from political, sentimental, and professional associations precious to him, Eleanor preferred to do her work quietly and unobtrusively. Storm of Time (1949), the second volume in the trilogy, proved an even greater tour de force than the first. Critics at home, in the States and England generally raved about it. It too, it seems, may have been selected by the U.S. Book-of-the-Month Club had it not been for its massive length at a time of serious paper shortages. Even after several cutting sessions, the book she called "The Monster" finished at an extraordinary 300,000 words.

The "public years" came to an abrupt and premature end in late 1949 when Cold War politics so soured community life with rumors and innuendoes of supposed subversive communist activities that in half-disgust, half-trepidation the Darks left for warmer climes—physical and political—in Australia's Deep North in the state of Queensland. No Barrier, the third volume in the trilogy, was written in this interlude and reflects the unsettled and unsatisfactory circumstances in which it was written. At its conclusion, Dark swore she would never write another historical novel.

During the second half of the "private years" (1950–85), Dark tasted some of the sweetest and most bitter fruits of her long life. The 1950s were largely sunlit years. In Montville, Queensland—a small farming village "round the corner from the world"—Dark found a rural Australia untouched by and largely unaware of the escalating political and military tensions throughout the West. The life of a hobby-farmer suited her. Every aspect of it—family, community, creativity—thrived in the carefree existence that was life at "The Lane." Lantana Lane is a witty and charming recreation of what were possibly her happiest years. Even as the inevitable march of progress signalled the beginning of the end of their little idyllic world, she and fellow farmers had no regrets. "The world and his wife will come whizzing past our doors, but we shall know, if they do not, that this mile-long strip of glassy bitumen was once Lantana Lane." A family crisis brought the Montville years to an abrupt end, and she returned permanently to Katoomba. She never published again.

Instead, the 1960s belonged to Dark, the family historian, whose carefully crafted and documented stories of the O'Reilly and Dark families constitute, among other things, an integral part of her own story. It is no accident that her diaries, punctiliously kept for some 40 years, fell silent. Life and its many blows had finally snuffed the one flame—the impulse to write and communicate her feelings—that had been her lifeline since childhood. An interview given by Eric Dark to Giulia Giuffre on his wife's behalf shortly before her death throws rare light into her mood in this last stage of her life. She regretted having written anything at all, he said; her books had caused more trouble than they were worth.

Drained of creative energies and bitter about the lack of community support she and others in Australian "high" literary society had received over the years, Dark turned instinctively to the source of her greatest comfort from childhood onwards: fellow artists of other times. Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony had been a favorite. So had William Blake's poetry, particularly his "Songs of Innocence and Experience." In her last communion with a kindred spirit, Eleanor Dark turned fittingly to Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality."


Boyd, J. "'That Dark Lady's Husband': The Forgotten Life of Dr Eric Payten Dark," B.A. Honors Thesis (University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, 1992).

Eleanor Dark papers, Mitchell Wing, State Library of New South Wales, Australia, ML MSS 4545.

Eleanor Dark papers, National Library of Australia, NLA MS 4998.

Giuffre, G. "Eric Dark—for Eleanor Dark," in A Writing Life: Interviews with Australian Women Writers. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990.

Papers relating to Eleanor and Eric Dark, in private collection of Michael Dark, Katoomba, N.S.W.

Papers relating to Eric Dark, in private collection of John Dark, Sydney, N.S.W.

Wyndham, M., "Eleanor Dark, 'the hard and lonely alternative,'" B.A. Honors Thesis (Australian National University, 1987).

suggested reading:

Devanny, J., "Writers at Home: Eleanor and Eric Dark," in Bird of Paradise. Sydney: Frank Johnson, 1945.

Ferrier, C., ed. As good as a yarn with you: letters between Miles Franklin, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Eleanor Dark. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Grove Day, A. Eleanor Dark. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Modjeska, D. Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945. Sirius Books, 1984.

Murray-Smith, S. "Darkness at Dark," in Australian Book Review. Vol. 2. September 1963.

Tennant, K. "A Little Company against the Bulldozer Mentality," in Sydney Morning Herald. February 14, 1974.

Thomson, A.K. Understanding the Novel: The Timeless Land. Brisbane, Jacaranda, 1966.

Wilkes, G.A. "The Progress of Eleanor Dark," in Southerly. Vol. XII, no. 3, 1951.


Correspondence, papers, memorabilia, photographs and portraits located in the Mitchell Wing, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney; and the National Library of Australia, Canberra, Australia.

Marivic Wyndham , Ph.D. scholar and author of Eleanor Dark: A World-Proof Life (Australian National University, 1995)