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Eleanor Dark (1901–1985)

by Marivic Wyndham

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Eleanor Dark (1901-1985), author, was born on 26 August 1901 at Croydon, Sydney, second of three children of Sydney-born parents Dowell O’Reilly, schoolteacher and author, and his wife Eleanor Grace, née McCulloch, who died in 1914 after an unhappy marriage and a period of ill health. Small, dark and elfin, 'Pixie', as she was known to her family, attended several private schools before boarding at Redlands, Neutral Bay, from 1916 to 1920. She became very fond of her stepmother, Marie (Mollie) Miles, whom her father had married in 1917.

Although Pixie had written verse from the age of 7, as the family’s finances grew tighter her hopes of university and a writing career faded. After attending Stott & Hoare’s Business College, she worked as a stenographer for a firm of solicitors, Makinson, Plunkett & d’Apice, for eighteen months. She married Eric Payten Dark, a medical practitioner and a widower with an infant son, John, on 1 February 1922 at St Matthias’s Church of England, Paddington. Eric and Eleanor shared many interests: literature, history, tennis, bushwalking, mountain-climbing and gardening. Next year they moved to Katoomba. In the relative isolation of the Blue Mountains she resumed writing. Eric enthusiastically encouraged her. They were absorbed in each other; John moved back and forth between them and his mother’s family and later boarded at Sydney Grammar School, visiting the Darks for occasional weekends. Their son Michael was born in 1929; Eleanor was and remained a devoted mother to him.

Dark used the pseudonyms 'P. O’R.' and 'Patricia O’Rane' for the verse which she wrote in the 1920s and early 1930s. It was published in Australia by journals including the Triad, Bulletin and Woman’s Mirror, but was not very significant. Her short stories were also published in these journals and in Motoring News, Home and Ink. She wrote most of her ten novels in the 1930s and 1940s. Seven had contemporary themes; the others formed a historical trilogy.

In Slow Dawning (1932), Dark explored the social and professional restrictions on a young woman doctor. This, her first published novel and by her own admission a `pot-boiler’, made little impact. However, she twice won the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal—for her second and third novels, Prelude to Christopher (1934) and Return to Coolami (1936). The former raised the issues of eugenics and insanity; the latter was a more conventional, romantic domestic drama. Both novels demonstrated her skills in the methods of psychological modernism. Her two novels set in the Depression, Sun Across the Sky (1937) and Waterway (1938), in which she attempted to assimilate techniques of social realism, were less successful.

The first volume of Dark’s trilogy, The Timeless Land (1941), brought her acclaim both at home and overseas, especially in the United States of America, where it was the Book of the Month Club’s selection for October. A generation of Australian students learned the history of their country through her fictionalised account of the beginnings of European settlement; the book was for a time set on the school syllabus in New South Wales and Victoria. Her historical trilogy proceeded unevenly. The second book, Storm of Time (1948), matched the first in critical reception and, arguably, surpassed it in quality. The third, No Barrier (1953), did not find an American publisher and was the poor relation of the earlier two.

The Little Company (1945), a novel set in wartime Australia, was a manifesto from a writer alienated from all that she saw as petty, shallow and coarse in society. It disappointed most readers. But Lantana Lane (1959) surprised and pleased the critics with its sunniness and light-hearted wit. Set in small-town rural Australia, it was based on the community at Montville, Queensland, where the Darks lived on a hobby farm for part of each year in the 1950s. It proved to be her last published work.

Most of Dark’s novels were initially published by Collins. The advent of the feminist Virago Press in the mid-1980s rescued two of them from oblivion. Among several short non-fiction pieces were an essay on Caroline Chisholm for The Peaceful Army (1938), edited by Flora Eldershaw, and two travel articles for Walkabout. She regarded literary criticism as loathsome and parasitic, and refused to engage in it. An unpublished novel, 'Pilgrimage', and three unpublished plays are among her papers.

Although Dark experimented across a range of genres well into her seventies, the novel was her principal medium. She had a facility for popular romances that she exploited fully when her artistic conscience allowed her. She experimented widely with technique, and was among the pioneers of modernist writing in Australia. Her best writing derived from intimate knowledge of her material and firsthand experience of the characters and worlds she created. She knew educated middle-class Australia from the inside, and could capture its nature with a few strokes of the pen. Mostly disapproving of suburban values, she disassociated herself from the middle class by reserving for it her most scathing social comments.

Psychology fascinated Dark, and the bush was her physical and spiritual solace. She drew compelling landscapes of the mind and of the Australian natural environment. In 1959 the Australian poet John Manifold caught the confluence of these two streams in her work:

It was not principally for their human characters that I used to read and re-read these early novels of Eleanor Dark, but for the feel of sunlight and the smell of boronia. The characters were living such intensely inward lives, so wrapped in reminiscence and self-analysis, that I didn’t find them very good company … But the landscape, the Australianism of the background, that was dinkum!

Dark loathed publicity. She wrote to her American literary agent, Nellie Sukerman: 'If I could arrange the literary world to my satisfaction writers would never be photographed, and would be known by numbers instead of names!' In 1942, at the height of her career, an American academic, Bruce Sutherland, wrote requesting a brief biographical sketch. She was willing to help, but explained that 'there’s hardly material for such a thing, as my life has been uneventful to the point of being humdrum!' She sought futilely to deflect attention from the personal to the work, partly because of a firm conviction that the text was all and partly to protect her privacy. Her life may not have seemed one of high drama but it had elements of tragedy that influenced her writing. Her mother died aged 43, her brother at 26, and her father at 58, and her stepmother committed suicide.

Although not heavily involved in the politics of her profession, Dark joined the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1939. She also became a vice-president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties that year. In 1951 she signed a petition supporting Frank Hardy when he was prosecuted for criminal libel for his novel Power Without Glory. She contributed a chapter to the unpublished FAW volume 'Australian Writers in Defence of Freedom', criticising Nazi Germany’s back-to-the-kitchen directives to women. Dark had socialist views but was not a member of any political party.

It was fitting that Dark’s 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, she did not pine for other lands and cultures. Australia was not only her physical, but also her spiritual, home. A residential writers’ centre was established in her memory at Varuna, the spacious, solid, brick home in the Blue Mountains that she had designed in 1939 and lived in for most of her adult life. She was appointed AO in 1977 and next year was given the Alice Award by the Society of Women Writers (Australia). Survived by her husband and their son, she died on 11 September 1985 at Katoomba and was buried in the Anglican section of Blackheath cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Day, Eleanor Dark (1976)
  • B. Brooks and J. Clark, Eleanor Dark (1998)
  • Overland, July 1959, p 39
  • M. Wyndham, Eleanor Dark (BA Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1987)
  • M. Wyndham Luther-Davies, A 'World-Proof Life' (PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1995)
  • Eleanor Dark papers (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Marivic Wyndham, 'Dark, Eleanor (1901–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • O'Reilly, Eleanor
  • O'Rane, Patricia
  • P. O'R.

26 August, 1901
Croydon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 September, 1985 (aged 84)
Katoomba, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.