by Whispering Gums
Over the last two months we’ve posted on the juvenilia of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce drawing from the work of Juvenilia Press. The Press has also published some of the juvenilia of Eleanor Dark, another significant Australian writer.
Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) 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 in the volume were written between 1916 and 1919, when Dark was 15 to 18 years old, although Wyndham records that she started writing verse at the age of 7. Like the Bruce volume, this one 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 – under 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. 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, Redlands 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”.
Eleanor Dark and her husband were politically radical, indeed socialist in leaning, something for which they were often persecuted. The Press’s Introduction says that the academic Marivic Wyndham, who has written on Dark, 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 titled, “The Gum Tree’s Story”. Just 2 pages long, it’s a beautiful piece: 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.
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. The piece includes gorgeous descriptions 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 from an early age – but 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 it. 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 enjoys Juvenilia but they can be not only enjoyable in their own right, but also provide insight into the writers to come.
Jane Sloan with students from Redlands, Sydney (ed). Eleanor Dark’s juvenilia. Juvenilia Press, Sydney, 2013
Marivic Wyndham, ‘Dark, Eleanor (1901–1985)‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 2007, accessed online 12 July 2022.
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.