Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2019

The Little Company, by Eleanor Dark

Though it’s been reported internationally some readers may not know about Australia’s bushfire crisis. Fires in NSW have been burning for weeks, and in the last couple of days here in Victoria, vast swathes of the state are on fire as large out-of-control fires join up with each other to form mega fires with a massive fire front.   Many of us here in not-quite-completely-safe Melbourne have spent the past 48 hours in a state of anxiety: obsessively checking the news on radio, TV and the Twitternet; occasionally weeping over the destruction of well-loved small towns; vacillating over whether or when it might be appropriate to distract ourselves from the almost unbearable stress; and worrying about what catastrophe might happen next.

In The Little Company Eleanor Dark has captured this sense of background anxiety about a different kind of existential threat: the fear of military defeat in Australia.  The novel was published in 1945, but the characters are responding to the advance of the Japanese army into Malaya (December 1941-January 1942); the fall of Singapore (February 1942), the submarine raid on Sydney Harbour (May-June 1942).  While war in Europe seemed no closer to an end, the war in the Pacific was coming ever closer to home.

During these early days of November his first waking thoughts were always of the morning headlines, his breakfast a tasteless something which he swallowed mechanically while his mind fastened on El Alamein and Stalingrad.  Yet though this overwhelming world-worry claimed priority over all lesser worries, the lesser worries were there.  (p.264)

However, as Drusilla Modjeska writes in the Introduction, The Little Company is less concerned with the fact of war than with the meaning of war. It is there every day in its mundane impacts: studying their newly-acquired ration books, writing letters to the papers, taking sides on trivial domestic issues, growing vegetables, practising for air-raids, grumbling, quarrelling, laughing, filling the war loans, going to the movies—but it’s the political, ethical, personal questions [which] are critical.  By focussing on the conflicting experiences and responses of one family and its circle, Dark ensures that the problems posed in the text are political and intellectual.   

The central character is a successful middle-aged author called Gilbert Massey, trapped in an unsuitable marriage with Phyllis, a woman who liked small communities, small problems, small issues, small scandals and small talk.  All the members of his family and circle are in different positions on the political spectrum, ranging from his stolidly conservative wife to his brother Nick who is a member of the Communist Party and sees everything through the prism of Marxist dialectics.  His sister Marty, also a writer, is married to a liberal intellectual.

As we saw in David Day’s biography of Maurice Blackburn, these differences are not merely theoretical: wartime security measures against Communists were harsh, and the presence of ‘incriminating’ books in a home could bring peril down upon their possessor.  What amounts to an almost humorous episode of a Keystone Kops raid looking for subversive books in the library of Gerald’s flat, (the sergeant pouncing on ‘the political works of Shelley’ only to be gently corrected as ‘poetical’) is followed by Gilbert’s musings on the incident:

He hadn’t found it funny.  He had been conscious all the time of this democracy as a fraying rope, snapping strand by strand as they all hung on it over a precipice.  And curiously enough, his main concern had been for the policemen themselves.  Decent fellows, Gerald had said.  But what had happened to the decency of fellows whose minds had never been trained to liberal, analytical thinking, whose education had denied them access to culture, but who had been for years subjected to a discipline with no standard of behaviour save to ‘obey orders’? (p.104)

These musings prefigure Nazi Germany’s defence that they were only ‘obeying orders’.

As you could see in the Sensational Snippet I posted last week, Gilbert is stymied by writer’s block, and one of the central themes of this novel is the importance of literature, perhaps never more so than during a war.

Intelligent people, they resist the simplistic propaganda they find around them.  Marty rails against it, furious that ‘apart from its stupidity, and its vulgarity’ the authorities have no right to assume that we need lectures on morale. Nick’s response is more pragmatic.  Since their leaders are commercially-minded people, he says, they only know about marketing consumer goods, and they don’t understand that morale is like digestion—the less you think about it the better it is. 

Although this is a novel of ideas, Dark never loses sight of the humanity of her characters.  Dear old Aunt Bee, estranged from the family until the death of Gilbert’s overbearing father,  is bewildered by the war:

‘You know, Gilbert, we went to Japan for a trip once, my husband and I.  Such a lovely clean place, Richard, and the gardens so perfect, though somehow not very comfortable gardens, I thought, I mean to lounge about in and for children to romp in, but I may be wrong of course, or perhaps it was just because my own children had such miles and miles of country to ride about in, and it seemed a little bit—well, restricted; and very polite people they seemed, and I always did think The Mikado quite the most charming of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and then there’s Madame Butterfly too, and their wonderful flower paintings, I mean you can hardly imagine that they would…’ (p.145)

The title comes from the medieval epic The Song of Roland.  Two doomed knights, betrayed and trapped are a very little company facing their fate against the Muslim Saracens.  As the Japanese army advances and Batavia and Rangoon fall, there are Japanese landings in New Guinea and Port Moresby is bombed.  The cruisers Perth and Yarra are lost and Darwin is bombed for the fourth time. As this invasion streamed south like a dark glacier, Marty quotes this passage in full awareness of how feeble Australia’s defences were.

This review of The Little Company is my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 (Australian Women Writers Generation 3 Week 12-18 Jan. 2020).

Author: Eleanor Dark
Title: The Little Company
Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska
Cover art: detail from’Breakfast Piece’ by Herbert Badham, with permission from the Art Gallery of NSW.
Publisher:  Virago (Penguin), 1986, (first published 1945) 319 pages
ISBN: 0140161503
Source: Port Phillip Library

The Little Company is long out of print, but there were two secondhand copies at Abebooks on the day I searched.


Responses

  1. Regarding the bushfire crisis in VIC – what about Goroke? is it at stake?

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    • Hello, and thank you for your concern. I know why you’re asking, that’s the very small town in the west of Victoria where Gerald Murnane lives. As of this moment, there are no warnings for Goroke or anywhere near it, but things can change very rapidly. You can check anytime at this site: https://www.emergency.vic.gov.au/respond/ Just type Goroke into the search box at the top.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Lisa. Your guess was correct about why I was asking. We have been watching the Australian bushfires on tv here (I’m based in Israel). Horrifying!! In 2010 we had a huge bushfire on Mount Carmel which is not far from my previous place (Haifa town). The fire claimed 44 lives including 1 firefighter and 2 police officers; one of them was the Head of the police station in Haifa who was the first woman to hold such a major command.

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        • It’s terrible, I agree, and these events sear themselves into our memories. It’s a frightening future for our children…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. It sounds like an excellent, and very pertinent, read Lisa. We are seeing the reports of the fires on the news here in the UK and feel so helpless. I wish there was something we could do to help, apart from praying for rain… :(

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    • Rain would indeed be a great help.
      But in the mean time we are heartened by the realisation that although we cannot put these fires out the authorities here have planned for this contingency and although it seems like a miracle that so few have perished thus far, it is in fact the result of strategies put in place after previous catastrophic bushfires which took the lives of nearly 200 people.
      When I think of the organisation behind getting those 4000 holidaymakers onto the beach at Mallacoota and the firefighters defending the perimeter I am quite overwhelmed. Some of those people would have been panicking, kids would have been frightened, inevitably some would have been uncooperative, none of them would have drilled what to do in this situation, yet there they are. The town has sustained a lot of damage, but those people are still here to tell the tale. It’s a magnificent effort.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve often wondered what everyday life was like during the War, here in Australia I mean, where we were relatively remote, though rightly fearful of invasion. Mum’s not much help as she was relatively young (7-13) and isolated on a farm without radio or daily newspapers. I wonder what Dark would think of our frayed freedoms now, given up so easily in the face of confected conflicts.

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    • I imagine she would be outraged. Reading this book contemporaneously with the one about Maurice Blackburn made me understand more about these political constraints. The Blackburn book showed me that people were locked up, for months at a time in some cases, for breaches of the wartime security acts, but at least there were open courts and the usual provisions for legal representation applied. Whereas now, here, people can be locked up on suspicion of terrorist links, denied legal representation (not permanently but in the beginning, as I understand it) and they can be held incommunicado for certain periods of time. Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist showed what could happen if authorities got it wrong.

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  4. Have not read that volume but I have a well-thumbed copy of Eleanor’s 1941 classic ‘The Timeless Land’ so I can only hope the title will remain true.

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    • Indeed.
      I think she’s a wonderful author, ahead of her time in every way.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Agreed!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We have heard of the fires here too. It must be terribly stressful.

    I’ve never heard of this writer and didn’t know that Australia feared a Japanese invasion during WWII. Thanks for the explanation, I learnt something.

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    • It’s such a catastrophe, the news is going around the world…

      Re the threat of invasion: after the war, it became apparent that the Japanese never had plans to invade Australia: they bombed the northern coastline to knock out shipping and prevent it from being used as a US base. It would actually be very difficult to invade Australia, as you’ve now seen for yourself.
      But at the time, Australians didn’t know what the Japanese intended…

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      • Another reportage about the fires in Australia in the news today. *sigh* Poor people. And the animals!

        It must have been a stressful time for Australians as well. Here we mostly see WWII through the European perspectives and European battles. Without American films we wouldn’t know anything about the operations in the Pacific.

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  7. […] to date – Eleanor Dark, The Little Company, ANZLitLovers Ruth Park, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, Travellin Penguin Dora Birtles, The Overlanders, […]

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  8. […] Strangers (1937, on my TBR) by Katherine Susannah Prichard, The Little Company (1945, see my review) by Eleanor Dark, How Beautiful Are Thy Feet (1949) by Alan Marshall, and Power without […]

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  9. […] Dark, The Little Company, ANZLitLovers Ruth Park, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, Travellin Penguin Dora Birtles, The Overlanders, Luvvie’s […]

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