by Jennifer Cameron-Smith

HM Green in his monumental History of Australian Literature (1961) wrote: “The Timeless Land (1941) and Storm of Time (1948) raise again the old question whether fiction may not come nearer to the truth than history if it so illumes some aspect of the past as to make it more real and living than is possible to the historian ..” He notes that the third volume in the trilogy, No Barrier (1953) was being published as he wrote.

Last week we looked at the re-telling of Elizabeth Macarthur’s story. In Storm of Time in particular, Dark tells the Macarthur story as it was then understood, meaning, sadly, it’s nearly all John

The Timeless Land

Bennilong and his father had come down to the cliffs again, alone.’

The Timeless Land  is a work of historical fiction by Eleanor Dark (1901–1985). It is the first novel in The Timeless Land trilogy, which is about the European settlement and exploration of Australia.

The narrative is told from English and Aboriginal points of view. It opens with Bennilong’s memory of being with his father Wunbula, waiting for the boat with wings which Wunbula had seen some time earlier. When the boat does not return, its sighting becomes less significant. But when the First Fleet arrives in January 1788, Bennilong remembers what his father had seen and spoken of.

The novel describes the first years of the colony, the attempts by Captain Arthur Phillips to impose European values and standards on the Aborigines and to involve them in European settlement. It also describes the famine suffered by the settlement, and the devastating effects of introduced disease (particularly smallpox) on the Aboriginal population. The novel ends in 1792, but the epilogue returns focus to Bennilong and provides a glimpse of how his life has been dislocated.
I first read this novel in the early 1970s, and loved it. It was the first novel I’d read that tried to look at the European settlement in 1788 from both an Aboriginal and a European perspective. And Australia itself, the ‘timeless land’ seen through very different eyes.

Lieutenant Tench thought: ‘This place did not welcome you, like Rio; it did not look particularly fertile, and it was certainly not languorous. Nor did it repel you, like Table Bay; it offered no enmity, no resistance. It simply waited.’

Wunbula’s earlier knowledge was that ‘Nothing could change the land, the eternal land, to which each generation of men was but one indrawn breath of its endless survival.’

Rereading this novel reminded me of the joy I found in reading it the first time, my sense that Eleanor Dark had captured something of the mystery of the land, as well as a sense of the impact of European arrival on both Europeans and Aboriginals. There are always some elements of the past which we could wish were handled differently.

Storm of Time

‘Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.’

Storm of Time opens in 1799, in Sydney Cove, three years after Governor Arthur Phillip left the settlement. This novel covers the period from 1799 to 1808, under governors John Hunter, Philip Gidley King and William Bligh. In 1799, eleven years after European settlement, the settlements have expanded. Famine continues to be a problem as flood and drought hinder efforts towards self-sufficiency. An influx of Irish rebels convicted for political crimes adds to the complexity of the issues faced by the settlement where a battle between the New South Wales Corps and successive governors over the rum trade continues.

The Mannion family are established on the land, supported by convict labour. Ellen Prentice and her children are part of Stephen Mannion’s household at Beltrasna. The Mannion sons, Patrick and Miles are intended to reside only temporarily in New South Wales: they will in time return ‘home’. Stephen Mannion remarries, Conor Moore from Ireland, and brings her to Beltrasna. And Johnny Prentice lives in the bush, preferring to be with the natives, harbouring a deep grudge against Stephen Mannion.

‘At night the land took back the silence of its centuries, and lay passive as it had done since the dawn of time under the indifferent stars.’

Storm of Time is a more complex novel than The Timeless Land. As European settlement expands, government of the colony becomes more difficult. Tensions between convicts and masters, between the Aboriginals and the Europeans are depicted well. As is the ongoing battle between the New South Wales Corps and the Governor.

I enjoyed the way in which Dark bought her characters to life in their historic setting. While much of the focus is on the European settlers – the fictional Mannions and Johnny Prentice, and the historical figures such as William Bligh, John Macarthur and Samuel Marsden, the Aboriginal community is more peripheral. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for the (fictional) Dilboong taken into service by Stephen Mannion. I first read this novel during the 1970s and I am finding this reread rewarding.

No Barrier

Only the wind, blowing steadily from the West, failed to welcome the new Governor.’

This novel, the final in the trilogy opens with the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810, while the period from the end of the second novel at the beginning of 1808 to the arrival of Governor Macquarie is covered using extracts from Conor Mannion’s journal and letters. Tragedy and the Bligh rebellion have had an impact on both the Mannions and the settlement at Sydney Cove. But the settlement continues to grow, and there are young men – including Miles Mannion – who dream of crossing the Blue Mountains looking for suitable land for settlement on the other side.

The expansion of the settlement provides a number of challenges. Not only is it more difficult to govern expanding settlements effectively, continually expanding settlements displace even more of the Aboriginal people.

From his secluded eyrie, Johnny Prentice is torn between European and Aboriginal cultures. Patrick Mannion has his own set of cares and responsibilities. And when his brother Miles returns to Australia, with a wife, Patrick’s life becomes more difficult.

I reread this novel with mixed feelings. While in many ways it is my least favourite of the trilogy, this is a consequence of my unrealistic expectations rather than any failure on the part of the author. The trilogy must come to an end, and not all of the characters will find happiness. I especially liked the way in which Dark set out the challenges faced by Governor Macquarie, and how he determined to meet them. The Mannions will have mixed success, the Aborigines very little success, while Conor Mannion herself will flourish. And Johnny Prentice? Can he find happiness?

I finished the novel wanting more, yet knowing that no amount of ‘more’ would really satisfy. If you are interested in Australia’s colonial history, then this trilogy gives a wonderfully detailed, nuanced picture of it. The good, the bad and the ugly.

The Timeless Land
first pub. 1941
554 pp

Storm of Time
first pub. 1948
590 pp

No Barrier
first pub. 1953
384 pp

Jennifer Cameron-Smith is an expatriate Tasmanian who has lived in Canberra for the last fifty years. Once a nurse and then a Commonwealth public servant, she is now retired from paid work, reads voraciously and shares her thoughts about books on Goodreads, The Storygraph and her blog at Tasmanian Bibliophile@large.