LITERATURE - THE TIMELESS LAND - INTRODUCTION
Introduction to 1989 edition, Angus and Robertson, pp. v-x.
Eleanor Dark performed two miracles in the first forty pages of The Timeless Land. She first enlivened a day – 26 January 1788 – whose basic events were too well known to Australians. Then she encouraged her readers to see the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney in a shocking way, that is, from the outlook of the Aborigines whom she shows as not at all surprised by the arrival of the Europeans, since the tribes had been looking forward to a return of the white ships that had sailed past almost twenty years before. In the aftermath of the Bicentenary, neither of these two achievements might sound as daring as they did fifty years ago when The Timeless Land appeared and New South Wales had just celebrated its Sesqui-Centenary with an official story which turned its back on the convicts and ignored the destruction of Aboriginal society.
Intervening years have in no sense lessened the appeal of the novel’s opening which, like Sydney Harbour itself, ceaselessly delights with its heart-stopping capaciousness as much as with the idiosyncrasies of each cove and bay. The reader stands beside the young Bennelong on South Head, sharing his impatience for the return of the huge white ships about whose first visit his father had created one of the corroborees that had established his reputation as a great storyteller. Unbeknown to Phillip and his company, a place existed for them in Aboriginal cosmology before their fleet sailed into Botany Bay and then Port Jackson: they would come, stay for a few days and then go away again.
Dark’s treatment of the Aborigines has been criticised for making them appear too good, too noble, an opinion usually tied to this quotation from her Preface: ‘I have been able to discover no vices save those which they learned from the white invaders …’. On the other hand, she is criticised sometimes for treating the Aborigines as little better than inquisitive monkeys or impulsive children. Speaking in her own voice she remained the prisoner of her times, more liberal-minded than most but still accepting the common sense of White Australia. To re-create the past she had to escape from these fetters so that the world she imagined was not governed by her articulated attitudes but became a universe in which fictionalised figures behave according to their several desires and logics. The action of the novel shows that the Aborigines did have vices before the Europeans came and their puzzling over the moral contrasts between their Law and those of the newcomers rises far above – yet others have complained too far above – the mental level of apes and infants. Character types are as diverse among her Blacks as in her Whites, with Bennilong standing out as that mixture of pride and generosity, energy and self-indulgence, courage and short-temper that guarantees the humanity of us all. If there is a weakly drawn portrait it is that of Phillip, who is a plaster saint, tormented in body and mind, but never stepping out of his rational character even when ordering a punitive mission against the Blacks who have killed his gamekeeper.
Dark’s earlier novels had prepared the way for the subject matter of The Timeless Land with its themes of class conflict, the subjugation of women, the spoliation of nature and the meaning of love. One surprise was in the form, which expanded to survey several years whereas her previous novels had been contracting until the action of the preceding two had been contained with a single day. The conflict between European and Aboriginal civilisations is reproduced in the disjuncture between the title with its stress on timelessness and the division of her material into five chapters with one for each year from 1788 to 1792. The timelessness of the land was enclosed by the colonists and by the novelist.
A few recent commentators have claimed The Timeless Land for an SF tradition because the meeting of the two cultures is like the exploration of a different planet, with the Sirius and the Supply acting the part of Wellsian time machines, conveying hatchets instead of ray-guns, mirrors in place of holograms; in the Epilogue, Bennilong becomes the space-time traveller by going to England with Phillip. The Australian environment appears no more alien to the invaders than the atmosphere of Venus proved to be for fictional space travellers. Providing SF stands for Speculative Fiction there can be no quibbling with this suggestion since Dark was concerned with the future as much as with the past. When Governor Arthur Phillip looks forward from the mean and brutish prison camp at Port Jackson to envisage a free and prosperous community, Eleanor Dark is standing beside him seeking the same goal beyond the economic depression and war-making of the 1930s. His confidence presents her hope just as her doubts echo through his reverses.
While the outline story would have been know to most Australians, the task of writing Australian history had hardly begun in the late 1930s so that Dark had few secondary sources to call on and was obliged to become her own authority as she quoted freely from diaries, letters and reports read in the Mitchell Library. Most of the incidents and much of the texture of daily experience came from these primary sources, but she was not constrained by what was in the record or frightened to reorder events for dramatic purpose. Telling stories always provokes a conflict between the champions of accuracy and the promoters of truth, the former refusing to go beyond what can be footnoted and the latter asserting that experience and empathy compel us to take up questions which the records do not ask. Finding out what happened is one of the joys of historical investigation but the most complete chronology leaves us aching to know how it happened and why. The best writers, whether they call themselves novelists or historians, appreciate that they were not the first to ask such questions and that any halfway accurate reconstruction of the past requires the inclusion of open-ended problems. Phillip commences his administration by asking ‘Why not?’ and Dark concludes her account of his years in the colony with a question to Bennilong: ‘What is it that is dead?’ No archives warrants either of these queries yet they raise two of the most important matters relating to the invasion.
Australians living in London in the 1930s said that reading an Eleanor Dark novel had the same effect on them as burning a handful of gum leaves in the open fireplace: sensuous memories of Australia overwhelmed them. This quality abounds in The Timeless Land, heightened by the Europeans’ encountering the bush for the first time so that their reactions provide a freshness for her description of the landscape. At almost every moment, the newcomers feel lost in the bush, distances are deceptive, and insurmountable gullies lie between explorers and their destination. The conviction that Dark brings to this convention of writing about Australia grew out of her experience as a bushwalker, one of the circle around Paddy Pallin. A ten-metre sandstone cliff was no stage-prop for her prose but yet another barrier to be skirted during a weekend outing on the north shore before the bridge was built, or near her home in the Blue Mountains. The explicit call for the preservation of the environment in Sun Across the Sky (1937) is restated here as a bush benediction.
Several times Dark refers to the Land exerting its influence on the Europeans, adjusting and transforming them to its realities. As with her comments about the Aborigines, this geographic determinism is belied in the action of the novel where the Reverend Johnson and the escaped convict, Andrew Prentice, remake themselves by working the land. The power of the land is inert whereas human labour makes new men of more than James Ruse farming at Rose Hill. Dark intimates that this remaking will not be confined to individuals but that the earlier social order will be subject to the dictates of hard work and money-grubbing. The cross-class friendship between Johnny Prentice and Patrick Mannion, as well as the relations between the doubly abandoned Ellen Prentice and widowed Mannion senior, point to how the gentry in Australia will be self-made and not just to the manor born.
Between readers and books falls the shadow of literary reputation and so The Timeless Land has suffered from being set as text for schools, emerging with an accolade for worthiness. Far from being a comforting tale of nation-building, The Timeless Land is subversive novel. If Phillip is its hero, th en his refusal to eat more than the poorest and most damned of the convicts stands in sharp contrast to Australia’s leaders in the 1930s depression, for whom ‘equality of sacrifice’ meant that millionaires and unemployed would each give up ten percent of their income. Dark may not have ben convinced that any of the alternate systems on offer would be perfect, but the contrasts she makes between European and Aboriginal societies are indelible question marks over the sanctity of a social order in which poverty and war are part of its normal functioning.
Since Lolita and Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover became available in the 1960s, readers’ expectations on sexual matters have altered considerably, leaving many books published in the preceding century to appear as if their authors thought that babies were harvested in the cabbage patch. In her earlier works, Dark had never been afraid to deal with sexual relations, but she knew from the experience of her fellow writers that censorship was becoming stricter and that any slight indelicacy could be used to ban a novel with a social or political outlook which gave offence. If the mechanics of sex are absent from The Timeless Land, its insistent urges are present for everyone except Arthur Phillip. She hints at homosexuality among the male convicts; to have gone further on that subject would have certainly brought down the censor’s pen.
Dark’s father, Dowell O’Reilly, had introduced a bill for women’s suffrage into the New South Wales parliament, considering him a feminist, and his daughter’s first three novels focused on ‘the woman question’. The Timeless Land is too big a book to be confined to any one aspect of human life, yet Dark’s concern for the position of women became one of its symphonic themes. Aboriginal women are shown as constantly on the receiving end of violence from their men. Though attempting no defence of this brutality, Dark brought out two contrasts with the treatment of women in the convict settlement: first, women there were liable to be knocked about as well as flogged, a punishment more calculating and cruel than almost any ill-treatment inflicted on Aboriginal women; secondly, they found support from other women of their clans whereas European women were mostly left to suffer alone. When Andrew Prentice takes an Aboriginal wife and builds a hut with a lock on the door to keep her and their child away from everybody else, Dark was mocking the creation of the suburban isolation that had spread through Australian life by the 1930s. Yet there is no doubt that the world of The Timeless Land is dominated by men; sharply drawn though several women characters are, none occupies centre stage. Briefly, Carangarang, Bennilong’s sister, demonstrates her independence of mind by displaying a talent for storytelling but Dark allows this tribal equivalent of her own role as novelist to fade from view.
If by mishap you have read this introduction before beginning Dark’s book perhaps you will not mind a further piece of advice: don’t read the Preface or the Epilogue as part of The Timeless Land. The former sets up too many prejudices that are not borne out in the novel, while the latter is a rickety bridge to the next volume in the trilogy and better kept as preparation for Storm of Time.
‘Flawed masterpiece’ is a phrase applied to every great novel from War and Peace down. If no fiction is flawless, perhaps critics should ask what is the positive contribution of flaws to successful novel writing? Yet ‘flawed masterpiece’ is not appropriate to The Timeless Land, which has blemishes, such as the insertion of apiece of hindsight, which could have been removed by a sympathetic editor in 1940. Every weak spot is outshone by thrilling strokes like the flash where the Aborigines suppose that Bennilong will challenge Phillip to fight. Fifty years later, the blemishes are barely noticeable among the push and pull of Dark’s characters, incidents, ideas and descriptions, so many of which stayed in my memory across the ten years since I last enjoyed them. Remaking their acquaintance has left me looking forward to meeting them again.