Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2019

Sensational Snippets: The Little Company, by Eleanor Dark

In the leadup to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 (Australian Women Writers Generation 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020), I am reading Eleanor Dark’s The Little Company (1945). Written contemporaneously  with World War II, it’s a fascinating book, and I’ll have more to say about that later when I’ve finished reading it.

The central character is a successful middle-aged author called Gilbert, and in chapter 5 he irritates his sister Marty, also a writer, by offering misguided optimism about her angst over the writers’ block with which they are both afflicted.  Writers and readers alike will find Eleanor Dark’s representation of writer’s block illuminating:

He knew her danger signs by now.  She was not in a good conversational mood, so he left her to her silence and set his own mind methodically to work on what she had said.  He himself knew to his sorrow the long torment of unfruitful hours, of scribbled pages scored through with rejecting lines, of a room suddenly gone blank and lonely with the departure of the creative impulse.  He suspected that the very simplicity of writing might be its terror.  Along with your sheet of paper, he thought, you know that there are no rules.  Nothing but your thoughts—and words.  Ranks, armies, a whole world of words, but not helping you, not ordered or catalogued, not to be used (except, indeed, by politicians) in groups or sets, but single, elusive, uncompromising, each perfect for its purpose.  From this mass you must somehow extract your thought, not building it so much as finding it, whole and inevitable, so that what you feel as it flows from your pen is not accomplishment, but recognition.  Perhaps, as Marty seemed to suggest, all this talk of ‘technique’ was just a frightened denial of so baffling a simplicity.  Perhaps it was nothing but a pathetic gesture of self-importance.  A buttress of self-respect in a world of technicians.  Perhaps the poor writer, lest he be bereft of the glory which a chemist or a mechanic wears as an undisputed right, must invent his patter and his jargon, make his rules and formulae, classify his plots and climaxes, jabber of characterisation, timing contrast, style, understatement, tension and what have you.

If so, then Marty must be right.  There is no ‘beginning’ and no ‘end’.  To recognise that was, perhaps, to achieve a proper humility—to recognise that ‘your’ art was not yours at all, but merely a minute contribution, possibly inept, possibly abortive, to a continuous human record.  No matter where you begin, someone else has brought the story to that point; no matter where you end, someone takes over from you and carries it on.  All you can do is to record a fragment of human experience—anywhere, any time, for every moment gathers in the past and propels the future.  No moment is more significant than any other moment, for all hold germ and growth, maturity and decay.  No ‘deciding on’ character, for a human being is not  a house to be planned, but an incalculable organism to be twisted and shaped by emotions and events.  Nor can you marshall events to some orderly pattern, for the human beings you create will disorder them, deflect them, rend them.  So you are no clever puppeteer pulling strings, but merely a fragment of human mind, groping in the chaos of ‘your’ art as you grope in the chaos of the life it mirrors.  You see the shadow of a place—what place is it?  How can you know until you give it existence by writing it down?  How can you write it down until you know?  Was this, he wondered, the whole burden of the writer’s art—to hold himself poised, receptive, while words and emotions flowed together in him and fused?  And when among thousands of ghost-ideas, clamorous for the substance of words, none achieve this fusion, the writer lives and moves and has his being in a very special, subtle kind of Hell.  He thought: ‘It’s like that agony of impotence in nightmares—trying to run, trying to climb, trying to hold…’

(The Little Company by Eleanor Dark, Virago (Penguin), 1986, (first published 1945) ISBN: 0140161503, pp.89-91)

If this excerpt has whetted your appetite, alas The Little Company is long out of print, but there were two secondhand copies at Abebooks on the day I searched.

Though I doubt I’ll read them all, the other books I have set aside for AWW Gen 3 are:

  • A House is Built, by M Barnard Eldershaw (1929)
  • Jungfrau, by Dymphna Cusack (1936)
  • All That Swagger, by Miles Franklin (1936)
  • Sugar Heaven, by Jean DeVenny (1936), and if I get time, two works of non fiction:
  • Henry Handel Richardson, a Study by Nettie Palmer (1950), and
  • Miles Franklin, (1967) by Marjorie Barnard (Outside Bill’s timeframe, but a bio whose subject is now the best-known author within it!)

Responses

  1. “All you can do is record a fragment of human experience.” How good is that!
    Thanks for the mention. I’ll post a bit of a reminder on Monday. And of your list, I’m barracking for Sugar Heaven.
    Also, I’m not worried so much about when books are written as I am about what period the author – and in the case of biography, the subject- belongs to.

    Like

    • It’s brilliant, isn’t it?!
      Yes, my priority is the Devanny: I’ve never read anything of hers before, and I was always going to start with that one first. The reason this Eleanor Dark has edged it out is because I saw it on the display shelves at the St Kilda Library and I want to have it finished to take it back next time I’m over that way. That library is not really close or convenient to home but it’s en route to a dear friend’s place, so I always include stopping in to see what they’ve got there. Apart from having a good collection of French books, too hard for me most of the time but I live in hope, they always have a display of books from the stacks. So there, conveniently all together in one place, are treasures from the past that are usually spurned by people who want to read the latest bestseller.
      Literary Activists: Writer-Intellectuals and Australian Public Life came from there, and so did Boyer Lectures 2012: The Quiet Revolution and Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow.

      Like

      • The library sounds marvellous, but too hard for me to get to either from Blackburn or from the industrial west.

        Like

        • If you have a Victorian library card you can borrow from a library in Blackburn via inter-library loan?

          Like

  2. Oh, I like this: “Nor can you marshall events to some orderly pattern, for the human beings you create will disorder them, deflect them, rend them. So you are no clever puppeteer pulling strings, but merely a fragment of human mind, groping in the chaos of ‘your’ art as you grope in the chaos of the life it mirrors.” I’ve added this to my book quotes document that I’ve not remembered to add to for ages.

    No beginning and no end is a good point too.

    Like

    • yes, we hear so many authors say that their characters take on a life of their own and they behave in unexpected ways, but I’ve never seen anyone express that in such a poetic way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So glad you are barracking for Jean Devanny. She was quite an amazing woman on so many levels and have read most of her books.

    Like

    • Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find her books now, and even second-hand they’re expensive. I keep hoping that Text Classics will resurrect more of these Australian writers from the past.

      Like

  4. That *does* whet my appetite and I think I might have an Eleanor Dark Virago somewhether in the stacks – not sure which one, but must check….

    Like

    • I think Bill (The Australian Legend) would be delighted if you read and reviewed it for his AWW Week:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well I’ve just checked and it’s Lantana Lane I have by her… :(

        Like

        • I think that was her last one. The intro to The Little Company says that Dark and her doctor husband had a hard time of it during the Cold War because of their left-leaning views. They had to move from where they were in the Blue Mountains because of the persecution, and turned to farming. She returned to writing her famous historical fiction trilogy that began with The Timeless Land so there was a gap of 14 years between writing about contemporary life as in this one and Lantana Lane.
          It was not until more enlightened times in 1977 that she was awarded an Order of Australia for her services to literature.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. So funny that I picked “A Prelude to Christopher” by Eleanor Dark as my Boxing Day read at the same time you are reading her 😊. I’m still processing the book – it was quite extraordinary!

    Like

    • Can I persuade you to write a Goodreads review of it than Bill can add to his AWW3 reviews??

      Like

      • Would love to Lisa but I’m very short of time at the moment.

        Like

        • How are things down there at the moment? Our thoughts are with you all.
          (I am a bit worried about The Offspring flying his light planes on charter in these conditions. Of course he’s not telling me where he’s going, I’ll find out long afterwards if he was doing anything in bushfire regions.)

          Like

          • We are not in the current fire area so we are feeling very lucky at the moment, it has been devastating. Light planes and bushfires don’t mix, I hope he stays safe.

            Like

            • All he has said so far is ‘it’s had its moments’.
              Gotta love the Australian male capacity for understatement…

              Like

  6. […] you could see in the Sensational Snippet I posted last week, he is stymied by writer’s block, and one of the central themes of this novel is the […]

    Like


Leave a Reply to kaggsysbookishramblings Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: