Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia (Review)

Eleanor Dark's Juvenilia

Courtesy: Juvenilia Press

Eleanor Dark was quite a star in Australia’s literary firmament of the 1930s to 1950s, and has left an important legacy, not only in her most famous book The timeless land but also in the fact that her home Varuna in the Blue Mountains is now one of Australia’s most significant and loved writers’ retreats. It’s therefore wonderful that the Juvenilia Press was able to produce a book on her early work.

Unlike the Press’s volume on Mary Grant Bruce, which comprises works that push their definition of juvenilia, Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia fits clearly within their guidelines. All pieces were written between 1916 and 1919, when Dark was 15 to 18 years old. Like the Bruce volume, it was edited by secondary school students and their teacher, rather than the Press’s more usual practice of using tertiary students. (The Press is a teaching press). The decision to use secondary school students is particularly appropriate for this volume as the students come from the school, Redlands, which Dark attended, in her childhood name of Pixie O’Reilly. Research for the volume included the school’s own archives, and all the pieces come from the school magazine, The Redlander. A Foundation Day speech given by the (then) school’s archivist, Marguerite Gillezau, is one of the appendices.

Like other Juvenilia Press editions, this book includes useful extra matter such as Pixie O’Reilly’s school report! There is, too, an introduction, this one titled “Pixie to Eleanor: From a spark to a flame”. It is creatively, and entertainingly, organised under headings taken from the school report – “Making fair progress”, “Very promising indeed”, and so on. The volume is also illustrated with photographs and other images from Dark’s school days – and there is also the list of references consulted.

As with most juvenilia, the pieces here provide an insight not only into the author’s childhood but also into the passions and interests they’ll develop later. Dark went to Redlands school in 1914 (an auspicious year) after her mother died. Although it was a girl’s school – why do I say “although”? – the school did not seclude its students. Indeed the school archivist in her Foundation Day speech said that, since its establishment in 1884, the school “has been aware of the world outside its front gates”, including war. One of Dark’s pieces in this volume is a poem about the First World War, “Jerusalem set free”.

For those of you who don’t know Dark, she and her husband were politically radical – or – socialist in leaning, something for which they were often persecuted. Not having read biographies of her, I cannot say how much of this may have come from the family, but the Introduction says that one writer on Dark, Marivic Wyndham, stresses the importance of the school’s ethos on her development. Wyndham writes that the school provided her “not only with flesh-and-blood models of the new woman and the radical intellectual she eventually adopted, but also with models of community and sisterhood that later featured prominently in her vision of a ‘good society'”.

These values are evident in the piece most dear to my heart, “The Gum Tree’s Story”. I loved this little 2-page piece for three reasons: it contains delightful descriptions of Australian flora; it contains a story-within-a-story about that Australian archetype, “the lost child in the bush”; and it’s an allegory about inclusion rather than exclusion. The story concerns Waratah who wants to organise a party to enliven his drooping companions but wishes to exclude the interloper White Rose. (Is it girlish, that the Rose is white not red, do you think?).

The other story in the volume – there are two stories and four poems – encompasses another theme common to classic Australian literature, the bushranger. Titled “‘Thunderbolt’s’ Discovery”, it tells of young boys on a picnic who play bushrangers – Australian readers will be aware that Captain Thunderbolt was a famous bushranger – and come across an unconscious man who, they imagine, is a bushranger. What I love in this is her description of the bush:

It was very deep in the bush. A clear stream trickled down over the rocks, and there was the faint bush smell of damp earth and fallen gum leaves. Maiden-hair grew thickly, and clumps of pale wide violets and pretty, delicate ferns. Where the stream was at its wildest a huge old tree had fallen across it, and the damp bark was covered with soft green moss. Further up the hillside flannel-flowers and Christmas bells grew among the tall bulrushes, and Christmas bush was already nearly in full bloom.

Dark, it is clear from this and “The Gum Tree’s Story” knew her botany – but I think she evokes it well too, without going overboard as young writers can do.

The four poems speak to different aspects of Dark’s girlhood – from the war to hatred of exams. They show someone comfortable with language and with expressing ideas through them. They also show an ability to mix tone, to work in the serious and the light, in the grand and the more personal, in the fanciful and the real.

Not everyone, I know, enjoys Juvenilia but I am thoroughly enjoying these texts, and the insight they provide into the writers to come. I look forward to telling you about the next one in, hopefully, a month or so.

awwchallenge2014Eleanor Dark
(ed. Jane Sloan with students from Redlands, Sydney)
Eleanor Dark’s Juvenilia
Sydney: Juvenilia Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780733433733

* The book only costs $12 plus postage, from the Press.

My previous posts on the Juvenilia Press are: Monday Musings and Mary Grant Bruce.

Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Writers’ retreats

Eleanor Dark, c. 1945

Eleanor Dark, c1945, by Max Dupain (Presumed Public Domain, from State Library of New South Wales, via Wikipedia)

The last Monday Musings in June was on Christina Stead‘s house and the current owners’ plans to modify it in a way that would spoil some of its heritage significance. The commentary on the post included discussion of how writers’ homes can be used. One rather apposite way is as writers’ retreats.

We have a few in Australia:

  • Eleanor Dark‘s Varuna in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Varuna was the home of Australian novelist Eleanor Dark and her husband Eric, and was given to the Eleanor Dark Foundation in 1989 by their son. Varuna’s website describes the retreat as “an environment totally dedicated to writing and offers writers ideal conditions in which to concentrate on their work. The success of Varuna absolutely depends on writers respecting the needs of their fellow guests – hence a few routines & conditions of stay.” This is clearly a serious place! The site also tells us that the retreat’s library has been catalogued onto LibraryThing. It might be an old house but it certainly seems up to date in using modern technology to support its services. Writers like Kate Holden, Toni Jordan and Cate Kennedy have all used the retreat – and recommend it.
  • Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the hills around Perth, Western Australia. Established in 1985, it is located in Prichard’s home and is explicit about its twofold purpose: “Encouraging writing related activities in the Perth Hills whilst preserving the heritage value of the former home of leading Australian writer”.  The KSP website advertises that “the ambience of the Centre is excellent for creativity and inspiration. 20-60,000 words are frequently achieved by our Writers in Residence in a four week stay, in between enjoying the interaction with local writers”. I love the promise of productivity there!
  • Olvar Wood Writers Retreat, at Eudlo in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Having been established in 2008, it is the newest of the of the writers’ retreats and “sort of” meets the topic of this post. The Retreat was established by two Queensland writers, Nike Bourke and Inga Simpson, who bought a property with the purpose creating “an ethical, environmentally sustainable writers’ retreat”. It is their current home and a retreat: “Run by writers, for writers” is their catchphrase. For those who haven’t heard of them (like me, for example), Nike Bourke has a few books under her belt including The bone flute, her debut novel which won a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2000, and Inga Simpson won a Scarlet Stiletto award for her short story, “Operation Bluewater”.

All three retreats offer more than retreat opportunities for writers and would-be writers. They run all sorts of seminars and workshops (such as writing in specific genres/styles such as memoir, crime, short stories, screenwriting); they offer prizes; they run events such as literary dinners and author talks; they offer fellowships; and they provide practical services such as critiquing and manuscript development. I wonder if they run courses for litbloggers? I’d be there in a flash.

I suppose writers’ retreats aren’t for everyone, but if you were of mind to go, how much more inspiring would it be to be in the home of a writer. I’d love to hear about other writers’ retreats you’ve come across, particularly if they are run from writers’ homes.