Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2019

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by M. Barnard Eldershaw

Oh, dear, it feels disloyal to The Sisterhood and the feminist Virago publishing project to say this, but Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a really dreary book.  I’m not surprised that the censored (1947) edition wasn’t popular with the reading public, and now, having read the uncensored (1983) version, I’m inclined to think that the rejection of this novel had little to do with the censor’s scissors.  There are two reasons why I persisted with it: I wanted to contribute to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week at The Australian Legend; and the book is very rare now and hard to get hold of, and it’s part of Australia’s literary history.

Alas, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow has a history more interesting than the story within its pages…

Firstly, it is a work of collaborative writing, by Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw.  Both born in 1897 into middle-class professional families, they met at Sydney University but established themselves as independent of their families before turning to writing.  Flora Eldershaw became a teacher, and eventually Head of PLC in Sydney.  Margery Barnard, who had been offered a place at Oxford after winning the University medal, reluctantly became a librarian because her father would not let her take up the place.

In 1928 The Bulletin offered a prize for an Australian novel, and this was the catalyst for them to begin writing together.  Barnard and Eldershaw’s A House is Built shared first prize with Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and they went on to write five more novels during the turbulent 1930s.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was their last novel, and it suffered from the hands of the zealous Australian censor.  (To see just how zealous he could be, see my review of The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore.) However, the censor’s cuts weren’t made because of prudery as I had first thought, it was because it ruffled political feathers during the emerging Cold War.

To quote from the introduction by Anne Chisholm:

It is a deeply political book and a brave one, considering that it was written at the height of World War Two.  At the heart of it is the story of how the aftermath of the First World War—the Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe—impinged on the lives of a group of working-class families in Sydney, in particular on Harry Munster and his family and circle.  But Barnard Eldershaw do not stop the story at the outbreak of World War Two.  Writing before the war was half over, they postulate a series of events leading to the invasion of Australia by a right-wing international police force, a revolutionary uprising by left wingers and the destruction and abandonment of Sydney.

It is hardly surprising that the book, when it came to the attention of war-time censors, caused them concern.  Although they confined their cuts to the fictional ending and the build up to the rising, the whole book is in fact provocative in the extreme.  It reveals Barnard Eldershaw’s deep hostility to capitalism, materialism and competition, and to the way that Australia, as they saw it, had been exploited and manipulated by Britain and the United States.  (p.xii)

Well, you can see the potential for the authors to lose control of their material, and IMO they did.  The story of Harry Munster and his circle is Misery 101, piled on with a trowel and with a surprisingly unsympathetic portrayal of his feckless, selfish wife as the source of most of his troubles.  At first the representation of Harry as the Everyman had my sympathy: he endured the two world wars, the Depression and the inability to escape from poverty in an unfair economy. But then he ceases to be poor, and any moral authority has vanishes because a quixotic (and not very credible) bequest of £200 pounds is hoarded, kept secret from his family, and not used to enable the brightest of his children to get an apprenticeship, because she is a girl.  The opportunity for Barnard’s autobiographical experience of this kind of sexism is wasted because Wanda’s point of view about it is never explored. IMO the characterisation of women is surprisingly weak, reverting to easy stereotypes like female jealousy over a man and portraying the lives of working-class women with a loftiness that contrasts unfavourably with Ruth Park’s authentic stories of slum life in Sydney.

But what really kills this novel is its unwieldy structure.  Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is structured as a novel within a novel, and it was the framing novel that really tested my resolve to finish the book.  It’s set in the future in the twenty-fourth century, centuries after the demise of Sydney and all that it represented within Harry’s story.  In this dystopia there is rule by an elite, threatened by a movement for democratic participation in the decision-making process.  None of the characters are well-rounded, and the plot trajectory is painfully obvious even though it keeps being interrupted by the ridiculous device of Knarf reading aloud his entire novel i.e. Harry’s story, to fellow historian Ord.  What these polemic punctuations in the framing novel mainly achieve is to make the reader lose track of the vast array of characters who form Harry’s circle in the ‘historical novel’.  But they also sabotage the power of what is sometimes great writing:

In the middle of the book in the section called ‘Afternoon’, there is a stunning summation of the war.  It’s not entirely accurate, but when you consider that it was written during the war when propaganda and censorship blurred knowledge of the war, it is remarkable that it conveys so powerfully both the big picture of events and their consequences, and also the mood of the people.  After five pages it concludes like this:

The strange old-new life of the armies seeped back to the people at home, altering too the minds of those who waited.  The lives of civilians were regimented.  They learned the value of bread.  They formed new habits.  They learned new tempos and rhythms of work.  In danger they went back to mother earth.  They shared fear and emotion.  A clarification was taking place in the confusion of men’s thinking, sides took more distinct shape, the crisscross faded, the main divisions deepened.  The Right must call Russia ally, however unpalatable the word, the Left must support the war, for the Socialist Fatherland was at stake.  So some of the fissures were closed for the time being, and war became more real, peace more remote.

In Australia war was more than an echo, it was a vibration under foot.

But the impact of these words is promptly undercut by a reversion to Knarf and Ord pontificating in the 24th century:

Knarf paused and looked across at Ord, something more than thought struggling in his eyes.  ‘I can see the pattern of those days clearly enough, an iron framework laid down on the soft tissues of life, and within that framework, like tender, necessary, human breath in an iron lung, life springing anew, under the name of adjustment, repeating its ancient design.  Beyond this again I see an enormous sweep of event, not mechanic, not planned, but the logical outcome of the vast aggregate of human planning.  Beyond its authors’ control, probably beyond their apprehension. We can see it because the astringent of time has simplified and stilled it.  World events in the making must be like a mountain range in the making. Only after centuries is the outline plain and set.  The turmoil of the rock is stilled, the heaving strata fixed.  One is as logical a process as the other, as fore-ordained by the law of cause and effect, as much in ease at one moment as at another.’ Knarf stopped and frowned.

‘Plenty of heaving strata in mind,’ Ord thought, watching him, waiting to see how he would extricate himself from his own thoughts. (p.270)

As does the hapless reader.  There’s another whole half page of Knarf’s frustration that he can’t recapture or even imagine the emotion of living among events raised to the nth.  This happens again and again: occasional fine, purposeful prose that recreates the world of wartime Sydney, is steamrollered by polemics.

Taken as a whole, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow IMO is an unmitigated mess.

But, hey! no less than my literary hero Patrick White admired it. In The Burning Library Geordie Williamson, devoting a chapter to M Barnard Eldershw, tells us that White…

…thought so highly of their final novel, a blend of social realism and science fiction called Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow published in 1947, that he recommended it to his US publishers. ‘I…am amazed it is not better known,’ he wrote to his editor, Ben Huebsch. ‘It is one of the few mature Australian novels, and at the same time it is of universal interest.  The shell is, admittetdly, a little tough, but do get inside it, and I think you will be surprised.  It is full of passion and truth.’

A tough shell, full of passion and truth: here White captures something of the contradictory spirit that animates Barnard’s and Eldershaw’s lives and work.  (The Burning Library, p. 19. See my review of this book here.)

Williamson is an admirer too, though he isn’t blind to the novel’s flaws:

If the monologic intensity with which Barnard attacks economic determinism, militarism and technological modernity in these pages seems overly earnest, a kind of orgasmic Fabian Socialism, it’s worth asking how well irony, our current detault setting, has worked to analyse similar phenomena in the present.  Frantic notation of the everyday, horrified recoil from the inorganic, a sense of community atomised and individual spirit crushed: remove the phonograph crackle from this passage and you can hear Ginsberg’s Howl and Saul Bellow’s Augie March anticipated. From the corporate autists of David Foster Wallace to the poetic diatribes of London psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, Barnard stands firmly in a tradition as old as William Blake and as contemporary as Michel Houellebecq: writers who stand against the virulent strains of the modern. (p.30)

Monologic intensity… orgasmic Fabian Socialism…yes indeed. But I also disliked the portrayal of helplessness:  Harry’s story is more than an individual spirit crushed.  He is Everyman. Having made his daughter aware of the risks she’s taking by hiding ‘Red’ pamphlets for her friend, this veteran of WW1 muses on the balcony:

Harry wasn’t satisfied, but he knew he couldn’t go any further now.  Ruth felt it too.  She withdrew her hand and walked quickly into the dark room behind them.  Harry stayed, looking out at the houses across the street, but seeing nothing.  Himself, Gwen, Ruth.  Oh hell.  Softly, with the lilt of strong emotion, he began to swear as he had not sworn since he was in the army, words like an unconscious incantation, smooth and natural, for all their ugliness, as the springing of natural sap.  He could do nothing but beat frantically in the web that held him, unable to free himself from his own nature, from the ceaseless entanglement of lives not his own, and conditions to which he did not consent, unable to reach others caught like himself.

The web of a thousand million flies. (p.262)

Harry represents all the trapped and helpless victims of what Anne Chisholm in the Introduction recognises as Barnard Eldershaw’s deep hostility to capitalism, materialism and competition, and to the way that Australia, as they saw it, had been exploited and manipulated by Britain and the United States.  As in the characterisation of the women, there is a middle-class loftiness about this representation that has as its fundamental premise, that these helpless working-class victims have no agency, and no capacity to change anything — this, in a democratic country that had had universal suffrage since Federation, that had repulsed conscription twice, and that was internationally famous as an egalitarian social laboratory in its earliest years. (I am not referring to the characters’ inability to change anything in the 24th century; as in the conclusion of Orwell’s 1984, that is part of the authors’ point about totalitarian regimes).

Since this post is very long already, there’s no harm in sharing one more opinion that’s different to mine.  The anonymous reader who borrowed this book before me, has annotated her thoughts: on the frontispiece, she has written: Why does a major work remain virtually unknown?  Hmm, I think I know why…

I know that I ought to admire this book, but instead I found it graceless, heavy-handed and boring. It took considerable effort of will to plod on with it. I have A House is Built on my TBR and I’m hoping that it will be a different experience!

The cover art is a detail from ‘Mirmande’ by Dorrit Black, reproduced by permission of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

PS The next day: I’ve found another authoritative source who disagrees with me!  Nicholas Jose recommends it as one of the Five Best Australian Novels at Five Books. (His other four are Merry Go Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (see my review), Capricornia by Alexis Wright, An Imaginary Life by David Malouf and Bliss by Peter Carey.

Author: M. Barnard Eldershaw (the collaborative writing duo Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw)
Title:  Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Publisher: Virago UK, first uncensored edition 1983, first published 1947, 456 pages
Introduction by Anne Chisholm
ISBN: 0860683834
Source: Port Phillip Library

Availability: this library copy is the only copy available in the Victorian public library network, so Victorian readers can only get it by inter-library loan.  AbeBooks is advertising just one copy in Australia, and it’s priced at $75.


Responses

  1. It sounds a bit of a mess

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    • Well, that’s the thing. I think we have all become used to disjointed narratives but this one is something else. Particularly #SpoilerAlert after Harry dies and then the C20th narrative brings in people from his circle old and new without him to tie them together. So the reader, (well, me anyway) is often floundering around trying to remember who Paula is, or how Bowie fits into it and so on.

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  2. Thanks for making your way through this Lisa, and thanks for promoting AWW Gen 3 Week. The framing device the authors have used seems to me to have been popular for a while, and from what I remember there are similarities in both the structure and the politics to Jack London’s The Iron Heel, which I’m sure would have been known to them. I wonder if the novel within would stand up on its own.

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    • Well, yes, I think it might, though the ending is terribly far-fetched. Faced with an existential threat from the combined (not very credible) forces against them, the entire population of Sydney is evacuated, in much the same was Pol Pot’s evacuation of the cities into the countryside. Even allowing for the much smaller population then, it’s clear that the authors had not the foggiest idea how to represent this or how to tidy it up for a satisfying conclusion. (I kept thinking of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise about the exodus from Paris in WW2).

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  3. Thanks for this write-up Lisa. I have read it in reasonable detail because if I ever get to the book I will have forgotten what you said.

    I was aware that it was censored for political reasons. Barnard and Eldershaw were politically active as many of their cohort were. But it’s that complex structure with th futuristic aspect that has always made me not seek it out – which is just as well as it is clearly hard to seek out!! It does sound a challenging read (and not in ideas but in just getting through it, as you say).

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    • It’s just occurred to me to check the Text Publishing website to see if it’s been reissued as a Text Classic, as have many of the books referenced in The Burning Library.
      It doesn’t come up in a search, so I wonder if there’s any significance in that…
      Here’s a tip: find this book at Goodreads and copy the URL for this post into the ‘private notes’ at the bottom!

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      • SNAP, Lisa, I look there too as soon as I read your email! It may be that they don’t have access to the Ms? The rights should be OK I’d say. Or, they just don’t thing this novel is worth it, but none of the Barnard Eldershaw books came up in my search, which suggests that there’s some issue.

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        • I don’t know… Text seems to have slowed down in the publication of Australian classics (only two to come in the first half of 2020, according to their catalogue) so maybe they’ve already chosen the best of them.

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          • Yes, I noticed that too … you’re probably right, but I do hope they keep sussing out more older books.

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            • LOL I don’t think I will have encouraged them to reissue this one…

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh dear…. I own exactly the edition pictured, picked up at the local Oxfam years ago. I thought it sounded intriguing, though perhaps the brick like size of it has put me off. I’m not sure I should invest good reading time in it anymore…. :s

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    • Oh please do… I know mine is an off-putting opinion, but then (as I’ve indicated) there are others who think highly of it, and I’d love to know what you think of it. It is modernism, maybe ‘high modernism’ — I’m not sure of the difference between them, and there are not many examples of women writing in that style as you know.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] be of any use in a generally corrupt society.  Yes, hard on the heels of Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow which posited the hopelessness of individual effort to achieve social mobility or even to keep […]

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