by Debbie Robson
I first discovered that I really wanted to read Eleanor Dark‘s first novel way back in the early 1990s. I was researching my third manuscript set between the wars and as the tone of the times (as I like to think of it) is always very important to me I generally try and read at least a few books written during the time that I am researching.
By then I had read Prelude to Christopher and thought it marvellous so I was quite interested in reading her very first novel. I can’t recall the exact details but it became obvious that there were limited copies available and I think I had to either try and buy a copy online (which I never attempted) or read the book at the Mitchell Library. Also impossible with a young child and a very unsympathetic husband.
Life moved on. For me there was a divorce and a move up the coast, a World War II novel (Tomaree), a contemporary novel (Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel) and then a manuscript set during World War I (The Grey Silk Purse). As research for that book I thought I would finally attempt to read Slow Dawning and this is when the waiting really began.
Over the years 2011 – 2013 I made three failed attempts to read Slow Dawning at the Mitchell – a long story I relate in the post Waiting for Eleanor Dark – before I gave in and laboriously photocopied each page.
So, I have the book but I’m still not happy! I recently downloaded for free Betty Wayside by Louis Stone. This novel is from 1915 and is quite dated now but anyone can read it. The same should apply to Slow Dawning [Eleanor Dark (1905-1981) is not out of copyright].
In my opinion it has been forgotten because both the author and her biographer dismissed it as a potboiler. I argue that it is much more than that. I believe Eleanor Dark had serious intentions for this book but with the long delay in publication and the fact that sales were disappointing, she dismissed it as a potboiler to cover her disappointment.
What serious novelist with literary aspirations sets out to write her first novel purely for money, particularly a book with a prophetic paragraph such as this:
“It was in this way that she had seen her fellow-women. They would climb at last, she dreamed, to a height where they would perform not only the artistic or intellectual work to which their natures inclined, but the normal functions of wifehood and motherhood as well – carrying a double burden as only they were privileged to carry it. A terrible fight, and a slow one, but epic in its magnificence. Generations it would take, and thousands of women would be the most bitter enemies of their own sex.”
No, I really think Dark had fairly high hopes for this first of her babies, especially when you consider her next novel Prelude to Christopher. You DO NOT as a writer, I believe, intend to write a potboiler as your first published work and then write something of such high standing as Prelude to Christopher as your second.
But the waiting for Eleanor is not over. This book should be made available for the general public to read. It is the first book, a very enjoyable novel, of one of Australia’s major writers. It should be accessible to all (and the cataloguing problem at the Michell needs to be fixed!) Hopefully, something will be done about this sad state of affairs and Slow Dawning will eventually be available for everyone to read. So, to the novel …
In 1924 Valerie Spencer is 25 and returns to her home town of Kawarra to set up a medical practice. The locals of course are not welcoming and she has to fight prejudices and restrictions that society imposes on her because she is a woman. I was immediately surprised by Eleanor Dark tackling the tricky subject of sex. It is raised several times through the book, in particular when Kitty, a young woman she knew as a child visits Valerie to find out what she really will face on her wedding night.
Valerie is also tempted to seek physical satisfaction with a man (who she doesn’t love) simply because it looks like the career she has chosen may very well leave her unmarried her whole life.
Although there are aspects of a romantic potboiler – three men all interested in the main character (don’t forget it is a small town), a storm, a car accident – the novel rises above all this. For a start I found that Valerie reacts differently to each of them and they too, are depicted as quite different men. Dark also skilfully evokes the gossips and attitudes of a small town. I particularly like her creation of Kitty’s mother who cossets her daughter and tries to keep her as “pure” as possible.
I find it intriguing that Eleanor Dark was so disparaging of her first novel, writing of it to Nettie Palmer “that it was the only time in my life when I wrote dishonestly, deliberately wrote down with the object of making money”.
I really think she was being very hard on herself. Or perhaps taste has changed over the ninety years since she wrote Slow Dawning. I think also that something was lost during the time of writing the novel – 1926 to its publication in 1932. By the thirties, the ideas Dark presented would not have appeared so original.
I do feel that its impact may have been much stronger if it could have been published closer to the time of writing but then perhaps those very ideas prevented that happening. There is very little information that I can find which explains the delay only that there weren’t very many publishing opportunities for Australian women in the 1920s.
To me, as a reader in the 21st century the novel is not the melodrama that Dark and even her biographer, Barbara Brooks, claims it is. I found the book a wonderful barometer of the twenties. It gave me a real feel for Australia in the Twenties and it was ultimately an extremely readable book. Highly recommended. The only trouble is the book is no longer available. I have searched in vain for a copy to buy and Australian libraries only hold two copies. As I say, I had to visit the Mitchell in Sydney and photocopy the book to read it which is ridiculous for such a famous writer as Eleanor Dark. Her first novel should be available for all of us to read and enjoy!
see also: Meg Brayshaw, The Quiet Brilliance of Eleanor Dark (here) – AWWC post
Our Friday ‘extract’ will be a (favourable) review from the year of publication.
Debbie Robson lives on the NSW Central Coast. She is the the author of Tomaree, a WWII love story set in Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia and Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing novel.