‘The Timeless Land’ by Eleanor Dark (Review)

It’s been a squeeze, but I’ve just managed to fit in a second review for Kim’s Australian Literature Month.  While last week I talked about a modern classic, today’s post focuses on a real classic, a book which looks back to the late eighteenth century.  There’s a boat on the horizon, and the First Fleet will soon be in sight…

*****
Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (one of the reissued Angus and Robertson Classics series, review copy courtesy of Harper Collins Australia) was first published in 1941, but tells of the first years of European settlement in Australia, from the arrival of the first fleet in 1788 to the departure of the first Governor in 1792.  It’s a meticulously-researched, fictionalised account of life and struggles in the new colony, where the British colonists (and convicts) attempt to obtain a first toehold on a vast, timeless continent.

We start though, not with the white men, but with Bennilong, a member of the local Aboriginal tribe.  He and his father, a famous Youara-gurrugin (a maker of songs), have long been expecting the return of the white men in their ‘winged boats’, and often trek out to the cliffs, hoping for a glimpse of the ships.  It is not until after his father’s death that Bennilong’s vision is realised, but the dream soon turns sour.  You see, unlike last time, when the white men soon went home, it appears that this time the visitors are here to stay.

Gradually, the natives realise that this is not a mere interlude in their timeless tribal story, but a turning point, a change in something they had considered changeless.  The Governor of the first colony, Arthur Phillip, does his best to accommodate the natives, and initial mistrust turns to uneasy cooperation, interspersed by conflict.  The native tribes are willing to share the land, even helping the white intruders in their initial difficulties, but it soon becomes clear that this is not a visit, but an invasion…

The Timeless Land is an excellent piece of historical fiction which, while not always literary, is a fascinating glimpse of life post-1788.  It’s a vivid picture of life in a new world, and the changing of a timeless culture – as such, it works better than any history book ever could.  Dark succeeds in evoking the sensations of the new country, the smells, the heat, the feeling of dust on the skin…  And it’s not just the white man’s view that we get to see – the writer also succeeds in showing us familiar ideas in a new way:

“The black man’s lean forefinger pointed urgently towards a gap between the tree-tops, and then, in the dust beside the fire, made marks to show the position of the stars he meant, so that Johnny was able to see them quite clearly.  There were four very bright ones, arranged something like a cross, and a fifth, dimmer and smaller nearby.  Two of the bright ones, Johnny was told, were great warriors who had fought for a woman called Namirra, and wounded each other so badly that they both died; and the other two were their brothers, who had been so overcome by grief that they killed Namirra, who was now the fifth pale star, and then killed themselves too.”
p.266 (Angus and Robertson Classics, 2013)

For white Australians, this is a new take on our most famous constellation, the Southern Cross…

The novel runs to almost six-hundred pages, and that gives the writer plenty of scope to explore the realities of life in a colony far from home.  Having begun as a place to dump undesirables from Mother England, the colony has a surplus of unhappy convicts (both male and female) and a lack of the people who would actually be useful (e.g. farmers and tradesmen).  There aren’t enough tools or decent clothing, and as the gaps between the arrival of supply ships stretches out into months, the threat of starvation looms ever closer.  Controlling the colony and constructing a town is hard enough then, so the frequent infighting and power struggles between the civilian and military authorities is not exactly going to help matters any.

Fascinating as the internal politics of the British are though, the main focus is, of course, on the clash of two very different cultures, each obeying their own tribal law.  The difference between the two is so great that the word ‘alien’ is unavoidable, and in fact some of the scenes could come out of a work of Science-Fiction (or Speculative Fiction).  When Bennilong muses about the Bereewolgal (‘the men from far, far away’), strange, hairless beings carrying gooroobera (magic firesticks), the image is not one of Australia, but of a remote, dusty planet…

Just as in any good space story, The Timeless Land has its moment of first contact, and Dark captures the meeting of the two leaders with stark, brutal honesty:

“Tirrawuul saw a smallish man, quite incredibly ugly, with a pale face and a very large nose.  He was covered from head to foot, and, though his coverings were not as splendid as those of the men with the weapons, Tirrawuul, himself a leader, could recognise in him a confidence and authority which required no outward trappings.
     Phillip saw an elderly savage, quite incredibly ugly, with greying tangled hair, and alert dark eyes.  He was stark naked, and strangely ornamented with raised scars across his body and upper arms.  But he stood very erect, and wore his air of leadership with unconscious dignity.  For the present, at all events, they assured each other wordlessly, there need be no bloodshed.” (p.40)

If only the two groups can find some more common ground…

One of the more surprising aspects of the novel though is that it’s not just a two-way conflict.  As wide as the gulf between the whites and the natives is, the gap between the colonists and the prisoners is every bit as wide.  The convicts make up a third, separate, group, and they have just as much (or as little) in common with their captors as with the original inhabitants of their new home.  Not that this means that the natives have sympathy with them.  Bennilong sees them as an inferior race, a group of men who allow themselves to be ordered around and sent to dishonourable deaths.  In his eyes, ‘the subordinate tribe’ are not real men…

While the novel (the first in a trilogy) has multiple strands and a whole host of characters, both real and imagined, the reader always comes back to two: Governor Phillip and the fiery Bennilong.  Fate has decreed that they be there at the start of something much bigger than themselves or their tribes, and both are changed (not necessarily for the better) by the encounter.  The two grow to admire aspects of the other culture, and they are formed by the land, making something new – the start of a new country.

The Timeless Land was written in the late 1930s, so by today’s standards, it may appear a little ethnocentric at times.  On occasion, the Aborigines are portrayed as being a little childlike in their thinking, and the idea of the noble savage is overplayed.  However, Dark casts just as critical an eye on the behaviour of the settlers (or, if you prefer, the invaders), and while some of the ideas of the first Europeans are praised, the actions and greed that corrupted these ideals are scrutinised.  Of course, seen from the other side, the European insistence on progress appears very strange indeed:

“They were like bees or ants, these white people, Daringha said.  They toiled and they swarmed, always moving, always going hurriedly from one place to another, always dragging things about, building, struggling, making a labour of their life.” (p.441)

That’s a view which I quite agree with…

The sequels will be coming out in new Angus and Robertson Classics versions later this year, and while historical fiction isn’t usually my thing, I’d love to read the rest of the story.  The Timeless Land takes us from 1788 to 1792, but the sequels will take us into the early nineteenth century to see what becomes of the tiny settlement at the bottom of the world…

…otherwise known as Sydney 😉

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