Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

A writer’s life


‘Marty and the Twentieth Century were born together… The century had grown with her in the slow, slow tempo of their mutual childhood… and only now she realised that a life which had then seemed so solidly inevitable, was unstable, fluid, breaking down into chaos.’ – Eleanor Dark, The Little Company.

The words this Blue Mountains writer chose to describe the character Marty could just as easily have been used to describe her own reality. The story of Eleanor Dark’s life reads like a history of twentieth century Australia – spanning both World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War and its fractured end. Had it not been for her biographer, Barbara Brooks, the story of Eleanor Dark’s life may have been largely forgotten.

“Eleanor was a very private woman. She does not give much away in her diaries and letters,” Barbara says. “But it was such an important story to tell. She lived from 1901-1985, through all the social changes Australia went through. And she wrote about all the major issues of the twentieth century: environmental conservation, feminism, and social justice.”

Eleanor Dark is most famous for her novel, A Timeless Land, which became a best seller in the United States before its 1941 release in Australia. When Barbara Brooks began researching this writer’s life, Eleanor had already passed away, taking her life’s story and secrets with her to the grave. Fortunately, Eleanor’s husband Eric was alive and well, and still living at Varuna – the house the couple shared in the Blue Mountains for over half a century.

“Eric Dark was 97 years old when Judith Clark and I began researching the book. He had always been a really active person – a rock climber, and a bush walker. But now he was living at Varuna all by himself, a little wiry man all alone in a big double bed. And he just poured his heart out to us.

“Eleanor was in a way very lucky for a woman of her times. Eric fell in love with her as a writer – somebody who made sense of the world around her through the stories she wrote. They married in Sydney and arrived in Katoomba in 1923, staying there for 63 years.”

The Darks were well known social activists in the Blue Mountains. Eric practised as a local doctor, who refused to charge poor patients during the depression. Eleanor worked on schemes to open a children’s library, and to provide free lunches for school children during World War II.

The world then ruptured into the left and right divides that expressed the nuclear armaments power-struggle of the cold war. Eric Dark became very active in the Communist Party, although he was never an official member. Eleanor shared the same political persuasion, but focused her attention on addressing social justice issues in her writing.

“People’s attitudes were shaped by the fear generated by the ‘Reds Under the Beds’ scare campaign. Any connections with the Communist Party were considered dangerous and subversive. So Eric was accused in Federal Parliament of being a member of the communist party,” Barbara reveals.

It wasn’t the only disturbing accusation the Darks faced. The couple were always keen bush walkers, and were thoroughly familiar with the rugged Blue Mountains terrain. After finding a secret cave near Mt York, they exploded the cave floor with dynamite to create an inner space large enough to accommodate them during weekend jaunts in the bush. The rumour mill began circulating myths that Eleanor wrote her novels in the cave. But rumours of a more arresting nature soon emerged.

During World War II Eric Dark trained volunteer defence forces at the cave, in case the Japanese invaded Australia. Later, the Darks were accused of training a private guerrilla army there. They were also accused of sending signals to the Japanese with a lamp from Echo Point, which is quite close to their home.

Varuna may not have been the safe-house for the Communists that Katoomba society believed it to be, but it was certainly a safe haven for this prolific writer to practice her art. Eleanor Dark’s work includes 10 published novels and countless literary articles. Her works chart the social changes occurring in the turbulent world that surrounded her – a place where political extremists shut her family out for daring to follow their convictions, and a time that quickly changed from the Victorian era to which she was born.

Eleanor’s writing studio still houses her cigarette-burnt desk, her books, paper and pens, and two incomplete novels. Varuna now belongs to the Eleanor Dark Foundation, and is a Writers’ Centre.

Eleanor Dark, A Writer’s Life is published by Macmillan, rrp $39.95

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