It’s a time of “political and intellectual crisis” in The Little Company. Sound familiar?

Drusilla Modjeska’s introduction situates readers in Dark’s depiction of ordinary life in Sydney and Katoomba, in this time of “recession, nuclear threat and more failed expectations” in Australia.

The Little Company is Dark’s seventh novel, and Modjeska succinctly explains the link between its characters’ political explorations and stances, particularly the married couple’s differing positions, and Eleanor’s and her husband’s evolving political views (left and left-leaning).

We come to understand how differently the two world wars were experienced in Australia (which is to say, active in both, but only directly threatened by invasion in the second).

And we witness and recognise Modjeska’s changing perspectives on Dark’s view of marriage, of the choices available to women (a sister, a wife, and daughters) in this story, from Modjeska’s reading of the novel at a younger age and a rereading undertaken in the 1980s to write this introduction, in a decade when talk of shattering glass ceilings took hold.

Eleanor Dark’s 1945 novel strikes me as relevant, surprisingly fresh. The idea of a “heavy, unhappy knowledge that in a disordered world you must, if you want truth, hunt for it, build it laboriously from a thousand tiny assembled scraps of data”. The “to and fro” and “the pull of unscrupulous propaganda”.

Most of all—the “issue which split the world in two, split nations, split parties, split friendships and families—do you believe in human beings, or don’t you?”

In combination with the complicated feelings looking back on a difficult year: “Where had it gone—this oppressive, menacing year, now almost ended?” In which there was some knitting, some lectures, some growing of “vegetables where once flowers grew” and dipping “into her purse for ‘worthy’ causes”. But, overall, “the conviction of a wasted year”.

But it’s the kind of time that makes a writer ask: “Why write?” And I particularly appreciated reading about Gilbert’s writing.

It’s been a few years since he’s published a book. And his wife, Phyllis, dedicated to “feigning a polite and admiring interest”, to express her “wifely duty”, is impatient. She has firm opinions: “Culture was right and proper.” But little interest.

And Gilbert’s endless reading “with an almost passionate concentration”, as though a student studying for exams, doesn’t cut it for her. “There was something solid abut a book with covers.” Her questions about his daily “work” become more pointed, and her tolerance ebbs.

Readers are drawn closer to Gilbert’s perspective. We feel his uncertainty keenly, his grappling with questions about how to and whether to shape narrative in times like these.

With how to start: “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.”

With the sense of inadequacy and futility twinned with necessity and compulsion: “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.”

A few scenes transport readers to the past, where we see Gilbert fall in love with notebooks and what he can do with them. (I can relate to this.) We witness his first purchase of a shiny-covered black notebook, for a week’s worth of pocket money, his “obscure creative urge to express himself”, how the “mere act of buying it was an assuagement of unrest” that “gave him a kind of affinity with Keats and Browning”.

There are so many great plot points in the novel, so many reasons to stick with the story (and as in any home-front war-time story, there are some significant losses).

Fiction about Writers

About Made-up Writers…

Mavis Gallant’s linked stories about Henri Grippes,
Abla Farhoud’s Hutchison Street (Trans. Judith Weisz Woodsworth),
Peter Unwin’s Searching for Petronius Totem,
Kate Taylor’s Serial Monogamy,
Blanche Howard’s The Ice Maiden,
Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset,
Sam Savage’s The Cry of the Sloth,

About For-reals Writers…

Steven Price’s Lampedusa,
Anita Szado’s Studio Saint-Ex,
Richard B. Wright’s Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastards,

Writers’ Memoirs and Biographies…

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood,
Magie Dominic’s The Queen of Peace Room,
The Diaries of Dawn Powell,
Kim Echlin’s Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue on Women and Creativity,
Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor,
Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye,
Noelle Boughton’s Margaret Laurence: A Gift of Grace, A Spiritual Biography,
Paule Marshall’s Triangular Road.

This writerly business is the least of it. So it doesn’t count as a spoiler to say that Gilbert does move out of this state of not-writing: “Writers live on their times: they have no material except the life around them.” Out of this concern: “For one-tenth of the world’s creative energy that has been effective, there’s probably been nine-tenths that was frustrated and lost.”

He emerges from this last year, which he inhabited “like a sleepwalker, awake only in his mind”.

He comes into another space, one with room for thoughts of a future:

“He felt an urgent, hungry desire to get on with his task of recording and interpreting even a trivial fragment of this enormous world-story, and he walked fast along the road towards the flat, like a man with a tryst to keep.”

Thanks to Bill for hosting Australian Women Writers Reading Week, Generation Three (Part Two) in 2020; I’ve had Eleanor Dark’s fiction on my shelves for a couple of decades, but at last I am grateful to have it, for company in these years characterized by crises.