Fixed in a sweet meniscus, out of Time,
Out of the torrent, like the fainter land
Lensed in a bubble’s ghostly camera . . .
– Kenneth Slessor, ‘Out of Time’, 1939
In 1958, Patrick White famously distinguished between the experimental styles of his own novels and the ‘dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’ that he associated with the Australian novel (‘Prodigal’ 270). White’s comments reflect the values of cultural elites in the post-war period; nonetheless, they have remained remarkably persistent in shaping accounts of Australian modernism. According to White’s terms, in the decades leading up to the 1950s, Australian literature consisted of either nationalist-realism, or the literary modernism that would emerge from expatriate writers such as White himself, or Christina Stead. We might conclude that Australian literary modernism was missing between the wars, or that it only took place overseas, as ‘the only novelists who can really be said to have made the shift into an idiom and aesthetic of modernism were those who left the country’ (Modjeska 74).
The work of Eleanor Dark problematises this binary between nationalist-realism and experimental modernism. Her novels from the interwar period were significantly invested in cultural-nationalist ideas; however, they were also open to aesthetic experimentation and to techniques adapted from international modernism. While cultural-nationalist commentators such as P. R. Stephensen, Miles Franklin and Vance and Nettie Palmer largely advocated the narrative mode of realism against other experimental literary styles which they associated with cultural imperialism, Dark’s fiction contained a number of recognisably modernist practices, including compressed timeframes, multi-focal narration and an emphasis on interior states. In addition, Dark’s writing did something of which neither the interwar cultural-nationalists nor post-war elites such as White would have approved: it showed enthusiasm about aspects of mass culture, including motor travel and American cinema, and drew on middlebrow forms such as women’s magazine fiction.
What are we to make of a writer who was nationalist as well as modernist; modernist while also popular and middlebrow? Critics at the time took issue with the unusual blend of aesthetic practices in Dark’s work. In the first serious study of Dark’s novels in Essays in Australian Fiction (1938), M. Barnard Eldershaw noted her use of ‘the stream-of-consciousness method’ and a ‘difficult and involved technique, especially in respect to the handling of time’, but also identified an ‘unwilling or thinly disguised romanticism’ which made her plots ‘conventional’ (184, 195–6). Both the modernist and popular elements of Dark’s writing represented problems for Barnard Eldershaw: her modernist style lacked ‘the plasticity and variation . . . of the true stream-of-consciousness as recognized by the psychologist or practised by James Joyce’, and her novels were filled with ‘the stuff of melodrama’ (189, 197). This critique underscores David Carter’s point that Australian writers who experimented with international techniques were often criticised for their ‘belated uptake of modernist styles and understandings’, and demonstrates the resistance to middlebrow and popular forms within cultural-nationalist discourse (Carter, Always ix; Dixon and Rooney xiii).
I want to propose that the combination of modernist experimentation with popular and middlebrow styles was less of a problem in Dark’s work than an attribute of a broader cultural phenomenon which I will call interwar settler modernism. This is the modernism produced by settler writers and artists through the complex negotiation of elite, middlebrow and popular forms of culture available to them, at a time when the need for a national, ‘indigenised’ settler culture took on a sense of urgency. The result was a distinctive convergence of aesthetic modernism with more vernacular modes and settler nationalist desires. Dark’s work belongs to neither the high modernist experimentation of expatriate writers such as Stead and White, nor the nationalist-realism of Franklin and Katharine Susannah Prichard; instead, it works to destabilise these very distinctions, expanding cultural-nationalist aesthetics beyond the bounds of realism, drawing attention to the way modernist styles often converged with settler nationalist desires, and pointing to mass culture and the middlebrow as crucial sites where settler modernism was forged in the years between the wars. In this way, it affirms arguments made by Carter (Always, ‘Modernising’), Robert Dixon (Photography, ‘Shooting’), Peter Kirkpatrick (‘Jindy’) and Ellen Smith (‘Local’), that the relationship between modernism, nationalism and vernacular and middlebrow modes was far more complex and intertwined than has often been acknowledged.
Dark was not the only proponent of interwar settler modernism. I will use her novel Return to Coolami (1936) as well as Kenneth Slessor’s poetry and the work of modernist photographers Max Dupain and Olive Cotton to outline some of the distinct qualities of the modernist work produced by settler artists and writers between the wars. These include a blending of high, middlebrow and vernacular aesthetic practices; the combination of internationalist ideas (for example, relating to time, memory and human consciousness) with settler desires for belonging; the use of experimental form to depict local or regional subjects; and both an openness to and ambivalence about technological modernity. We can account for these distinct qualities of interwar settler modernism by considering the various imperatives that shaped the period between the wars: Australian writers and artists in the 1920s and 1930s found themselves experimenting with new aesthetic styles and experiencing the pleasures of vernacular modernity at precisely the same point when the desire for a national, post-Federation settler culture came to the fore.
Return to Coolami and Vernacular Culture
Return to Coolami was Dark’s third novel and the first to be accepted for publication in both London and New York; it also won her the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for the second time. The action of the novel takes place over two days, on a road trip from suburban Sydney, over the Blue Mountains, to central-western New South Wales. The four main characters, Tom Drew, his wife Millicent, their daughter Susan and her husband Bret, are preoccupied with their pasts, which intrude upon the present day in the form of vivid memories. The novel follows the tangled love plot of a popular romance. Through the narrative developments, including two near-fatal accidents, all complications are resolved: Bret realises that he is indeed in love with his wife Susan, and they happily return to Bret’s pastoral holding, Coolami. At the same time, Tom’s materialistic suburban values are transformed into a true appreciation of the Australian outback. By the end of the novel, Tom and Millicent make plans to leave suburbia and purchase Wondabyne, a sheep station that neighbours Coolami.
Of all Dark’s novels, Return to Coolami is most engaged with the technological developments of interwar Australia, including, as one character remarks, ‘such luxuries as electric light and wireless and the talkies and, presently, television’ (58). As well as drawing significantly on a romance plot, it contains a number of references to popular culture, including contemporary songs and the genre of the American western; one character is described as having ‘an intriguing air of mixed Beau Brummel and Tom Mix!’ (19). (Mix was an American actor who commonly performed in westerns.) In writing a popular romance that drew on recognisably modernist narrative techniques such as interior monologue and a compressed temporal scale, Dark provided the ‘combination of imperative and pleasure’ which we can now see as characteristic of middlebrow book culture: the style and contemporary ideas of Return to Coolami provided ‘quality’, and this was packaged in a pleasurable and accessible plot (Carter, ‘Some’ 333). Australian reviewers in commercial magazines immediately noted the novel’s modernity and its importance, with one Bulletin reviewer commenting in 1936 that the novel’s ‘modernness – by which is meant its being directly in tune, in the beat of the life-rhythm of this present time – gives it an importance in Australian literary effort which seems very great today’ (qtd. in Day 54). Dark’s novel also seems to have helped Australia to appear modern to a more international audience; in one of several enthusiastic reviews which appeared in America, a critic in the Nashville Tennessee Banner expressed surprise that Australia was ‘inhabited by people very much like ourselves’, claiming that Dark’s characters could have come from ‘the middle stretches of Tennessee’ (qtd. in Brooks with Clark 145).
The publishing history of Dark’s novel is important, and can be used to demonstrate why Australian modernism in the interwar period often had a particularly middlebrow and commercial flavour. Dark’s London publishers, Collins, were reluctant to publish her more experimental, earlier novel Prelude to Christopher (1934), even though it had already been published in Australia by Stephensen. Collins only accepted it after the more conventional Return to Coolami was first released in England. This was a period when Australian writers often had to rely on the overseas book publishing market to gain local visibility, as opportunities to publish locally were scarce and the tastes of many Australian readers and book buyers, which were ‘largely international and middlebrow’, were shaped by reviews and prizes from London and New York (Dixon, ‘Australian’ 226–27). Hence the ‘benign subject matter’ of Return to Coolami can be read as Dark’s attempt to produce ‘the kind of writing expected of a woman and a colonial’ by international publishers and local readers (Gildfind 157–58; Modjeska 79).
Did Return to Coolami symbolise a move away from literary modernism, both in Dark’s work and, as Drusilla Modjeska suggests, in Australian literature more generally (74)? According to Modjeska, ‘it is difficult to make any modernist claims at all’ about Return to Coolami, as its ‘jaunty journey and love’s happy outcome replace psychosis, eugenics and suicide [in Prelude to Christopher]’ (82, 85). This reading concurs with Dark’s own view, which was that Prelude to Christopher was a much stronger novel than Return to Coolami; in an oft-quoted letter, she spoke disparagingly of Return to Coolami to Miles Franklin, saying ‘[a]nything less highbrow could hardly be imagined’.1 We must, however, keep in mind the values of the interwar period, in which middlebrow forms were often denigrated by cultural elites as ‘too easy, too insular, too smug’ (Humble 1), and, in Australia, associated with the invasive potential of ‘the new low and middlebrow culture of the United States’ (Dixon and Rooney xiii). Dark was anxious to establish herself as a serious Australian writer amongst influential cultural-nationalists such as Franklin and Nettie Palmer, and her comments about Return to Coolami should be read in this light.
I want to suggest that Dark’s modernism emerged not in spite of her engagement with popular romance, cinema and middlebrow women’s fiction, but through a negotiation with these forms. Her first forays into fiction were short stories that she published in commercial magazines such as the Triad, Home, the Australian Woman’s Mirror and the Bulletin in the 1920s and 30s. These magazines may have rejected what they saw as ‘extreme modernism’; however, as Carter shows, they were on ‘the cusp of a new “modern” understanding of culture’ and ‘had a strong sense of their own contemporaneity’ (Always 20; ‘Literary’ 248). In these middlebrow publications, Dark was able to experiment with genres such as romance, detective fiction and science fiction, and it is here that she first wrote about ideas such as medical science, time travel and the ‘New Woman’. It makes sense that the modernist styles and ideas which appeared in her novels were forged through writing for middlebrow audiences.
Australian modernist photographers of the 1930s, including Cotton and Dupain, also relied on commercial employment and used this as an ‘opportunity for experimentation’ (Ennis 75). Dupain produced photographs for a wide range of advertising campaigns that spanned architecture, fashion and home appliances (Crombie 135–37). In a number of these, he employed modernist photographic techniques to promote new products; the photograph he took for Amalgamated Wireless Australasia to advertise the Hoover vacuum cleaner (1937), for example, adopted a modernist approach to light and shadow that was reminiscent of the style of Hungarian photographer André Kertész (National Gallery of Australia). Cotton adopted a similar approach when commissioned to take a photograph for an advertisement for spectacle frames, with her photograph ‘Glasses’ (circa 1937) emphasising the beauty and simplicity of the frames through the use of stark studio lighting and attention to patterns of shadow. Helen Ennis points out that the Australian public was much more likely to encounter artistic modernism through such advertisements and illustrations than through the high modernist art shown in gallery exhibitions and art schools (82).
Dark’s work, which has been described as ‘the most recognisably modernist of Australia’s predominantly realist canon of women’s writing from this period’ (Moore 20), emerged through an engagement with popular film culture. Techniques such as simultaneity and multiperspectivalism were conventions that developed in literary culture alongside parallel techniques used in the cinema (Seed 48, 70; Cohen 208). Dark was a frequent attendee of the cinema – she had what she described as a ‘plebian passion for the screen’2 – and, in 1934, she and her husband Eric made a financial investment in a film about Ned Kelly shot in the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains.3 The influence of cinema on her modernist style has been noted in her use of cinematic flashbacks, sudden close ups, cross-cuts between scenes, and compressed timescales (Dixon, ‘Australian’ 244; Carson, ‘Girl’s Guide’ 180). Dark appears to have been drawn to the romance and pleasure associated with cinema in the interwar years. The first novel that she published, Slow Dawning (1932), portrayed the modern pleasures of the picture palace when the central protagonist, Doctor Valerie Spencer, goes to the pictures to escape the pressures of her professional and personal life: Valerie ‘fixed her eyes and her attention resolutely on the screen; it would be such a relief to lose oneself altogether for a little while’ (95). When Dark left Australia for the first and only time in 1937, her visit to America included a bus tour of Hollywood film stars’ houses (Brooks with Clark 194). She seems to have thought about her novels in relation to cinema and, in later years, television. When trying to interest her American publishers in Prelude to Christopher, she suggested they send the manuscript to Bette Davis, whom she felt would be the right choice to play the part of Linda Hendon (Brooks, ‘Rereading’ 186). Many years after the publication of Return to Coolami, her publishers suggested that it had potential for television (Gildfind 160), although The Timeless Land remains the only one of Dark’s works that was ever televised.
Slessor’s work also shows how the modernism of the interwar period emerged through a complex negotiation of popular and elite cultural practices. The light verse that he wrote for the populist newspaper Smith’s Weekly between 1928 and 1933 was crucial to the development of his poetry; as Kirkpatrick explains, these verses acted as ‘a bridging medium between the poet’s earlier Vision phase and the later, more mature collections’ (‘When’ 177). Slessor’s work as a film critic for Smith’s Weekly also had a significant impact on his modernist style. Philip Mead argues that the poem ‘Five Bells’ ‘could not have existed . . . without his (and Australia’s) specific historical experience of film and the cultural apparatus of the cinema’ (34).
Perhaps because of this blending of popular, middlebrow and elite cultural practices, we can observe a particular attitude towards modernity emerging in the work of many interwar modernists – one comprising both a celebration of technological modernity and ambivalence about its effects. Return to Coolami revels in some of the everyday experiences of modern life such as motor travel, and yet also expresses deep ambivalence about urban culture, as shown through the narrative structure of a flight from the city to the country. Whereas a number of Dark’s works challenged patriotic attachment (Carson, ‘Conversations’ 191; Gildersleeve 8–9), Return to Coolami is more straight-forward in its commitment to the settler nation. As a novel that depicts a journey into the interior of the continent, it locates the spiritual heart of the nation in the hinterland rather than in the metropolis. This is perhaps surprising for a writer who, in Waterway (1938), celebrated the cosmopolitan modernity of Sydney. There is some hint of this in Return to Coolami, captured by one character’s description of the recently-built Harbour Bridge: ‘this sudden miraculous beauty curving and spinning away over your head, this cobweb wizardry of steel, of soaring arches just touched by the first sunrays to a faint golden warmth’ (26). It is an image that celebrates industrial modernity and evokes the modernist photographs of the Harbour Bridge taken by Max Dupain in the mid-1930s. However, as in the work of many Australian modernist photographers, Dark’s ‘embrace of modernity was selective rather than unequivocal’ (Ennis 76). Ennis suggests that ‘it was not the engagement with the metropolis that energized the first phase of modernist practice in the late 1930s’ but rather other aspects of experience, including ‘the “primitive” and the natural world’ (63, 75–76). Similarly, in Dark’s novel, the city is connected with stultifying suburbia, and her characters escape it in favour of the mythic qualities of the bush. The novel’s focus on rural landscapes would have fitted well with state-based initiatives designed to encourage Australians to connect with regional environments and engage in the kinds of domestic tourism promoted in commercial magazines such as Walkabout (Ennis 63). Return to Coolami seems to be aware of these contexts; in one scene, a character even launches into a parody of a tourism advertisement: ‘“The Blue Mountains offer panoramic views of unparalleled magnificence. Nowhere else in the world are to be found scenes of more majestic splendour, while the bracing atmosphere, sparkling water, exquisite flora and intriguing fauna provide endless attractions for the tourist . . .”’ (124).
Australian modernist photographers displayed similarly ambivalent attitudes about industrial modernity. Even as they employed modernist forms, Dupain, Cotton and Harold Cazneaux often turned to the natural world, including beach landscapes and country towns, to express ‘a desire for simplicity, authenticity and purity which were threatened by the demands of a modern (and implicitly decadent) urban life’ (Ennis 63–64). This quality of ambivalence was much less apparent in their commercial work, which, for obvious reasons, promoted the consumption of modern products (Ennis 82). Taken together, their commercial and private work represents a blend of enthusiasm about and resistance to technological modernity. A similarly ambivalent attitude can be found in Slessor’s poetry. Although his more famous, mature poems are often associated with a modernist pessimism, the light verses he produced for Smith’s Weekly offer ‘another, more social side of his modernism’ and celebrate aspects of vernacular experience which ‘offered new sensory or imaginative pleasures’ (Kirkpatrick, ‘Slessor’ 8, 10).
Interwar settler modernism was produced not only through an engagement with vernacular culture but also in relation to the desires of settler nationalism. Modernism has traditionally been associated with a rejection of national commitments; however, this has been challenged by studies of ‘regional modernisms’ in the past few decades.4 As Ellen Smith shows, aesthetic modernism and Australian nationalism were not ‘opposite traditions’ in the interwar period, but rather ‘mutually enabled’ each other (‘Local’ 8–9). We can see this entanglement of modernism and settler nationalism in Dark’s work by examining her ideas about visual perception, which were drawn from cultural-nationalist discourse but given modernist expression in Return to Coolami.
In an essay published in 1944 entitled ‘Australia and the Australians’, Dark wrote that ‘the eye only sees what it brings with it the power of seeing, and there is evidence to suggest that this is a hard country for the average outsider to see’ (13). This comment suggests the close connection between the concept of vision and claims of cultural legitimacy in her work. Drawing on ideas expressed by other cultural-nationalist commentators in the post-Federation period, Dark used the metaphor of vision to convey the process of ‘settler indigenisation’, describing settler culture in terms of those ‘whose vision has become adjusted’ to the local environment (13). This imagery allowed for a sharp distinction to be drawn between the cultural products of ‘native-born’ Australians, and those of ‘outsiders’. D. H. Lawrence was one such ‘outsider’, and Dark described his Australia-based novel, Kangaroo (1923), as ‘one long, tormented effort to see’ (13). In contrast, she believed that people from settler culture had, through a ‘slow, resistant merging with their environment’, started to feel ‘at home’ in the landscape (10, 12), a process facilitated through the local production of art and literature.
Dark’s ideas about an ‘adjusted’ settler vision were not unique; they can be understood within the broader framework of settler-colonial nationalism, in which settler culture seeks to distinguish itself from imperial culture, in part through claiming a sense of settler ‘indigeneity’ (Tout, ‘Stephensen’ 76; ‘Nationalists’ 3). The imagery that Dark used can be found in much earlier articulations of cultural nationalism; A. G. Stephens wrote in his introduction to the Bulletin Story Book in 1901, for example, ‘let us look at our country and its fauna and flora, its trees and streams and mountains, through clear Australian eyes, not through bias-bleared English spectacles’ (qtd. in Hanna 236). In 1916, Australian expressionist painter Frederick McCubbin suggested that only ‘a native-born artist . . . whose vision had never been disturbed by the schools of the old world’ could accurately render the ‘difficult nuances’ of the Australian natural environment (qtd. in McQueen). In the interwar period, when cultural nationalism took on new energy, Stephensen drew on similar imagery to assert the cultural legitimacy of Australian writers and artists. Of English-born landscape painter Conrad Martens’ paintings of Australia, Stephensen wrote, ‘Martens’ colour is murky, his trees droop and spread like English trees; he painted our paddocks as if they were meadows; over his eyes there must have been a European film’ (76).
The metaphor of settler belonging as an ‘adjusted’ form of ocular vision occurs frequently in Dark’s interwar novels. In Waterway (1938), the young writer Leslie Channon undertakes archival research in the Mitchell Library, and reflects that an ‘obscuring veil’ clouded the vision of colonial sketch artists who drew Sydney Harbour (185). She marvels that these artists were ‘drawing, by some odd convention . . . oaks and elms instead of gum trees!’ In contrast, Leslie’s own vision has been adjusted by ‘a hundred and fifty years’ (186–87) of settler occupation. In her 1944 essay, Dark described the development of Australian landscape painting in terms of an enhanced ability to ‘see’ the natural environment:
Painters began to see the elusive beauty of unfamiliar forms, to capture on canvas the clear emptiness of the light, to paint heat, and loneliness, and distance. So, by degrees, we made friends with our country; we began to be at home. (12)
Dark represented a similar process in Waterway when Professor Channon visits the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Looking at a painting entitled ‘Bougainvillea, Townsville’, Channon feels ‘a poignant stab of recognition’; another artwork, ‘In the Path of the Westerly’, makes him think ‘Yes, there were places in the Blue Mountains where you found gums just like that’ (242–43). Although it is mostly ‘representational’ and ‘conservative’ art that allows Channon to ‘see . . . his native land’, Dark suggests that other, more ‘modern’ works can also speak to the viewer; the paintings of artist character Lois Denning, with their dream-like, surrealist qualities, also contain ‘flashes of vision’ (243, 245).
It was not only visual artists who could supposedly see ‘through clear Australian eyes’, but also settler writers. Dark argued that the bush ballads of Henry Lawson, while not ‘“poetry” in any sophisticated sense’, were able to ‘light a spark of recognition in the minds of the people; to make them think, “I’ve seen that place”’ (‘Australia’ 11–12). Lawson’s clear and accurate vision was ‘produced’ by the land itself, whereas the vision of ‘outsiders’ such as Lawrence was more occluded (11). Dark wrote of Kangaroo, Lawrence ‘wanders through the pages of that book peering like a man half-blind, almost frantic with irritation because the beauty of other lands which he has seen hangs like a veil between him and a beauty which, here, he can only feel’ (13; see also Carson ‘Seeing’, ‘Conversations’ 191–93). Lawrence used the vision metaphor to great effect in his novel, writing about an ‘invisible beauty of Australia, which is undeniably there, but which seems to lurk just beyond the range of our white vision . . . as if your eyes hadn’t the vision in them to correspond with the outside landscape’ (77, original emphasis). Dark was one of many interwar Australian writers and artists whose work was significantly influenced by Lawrence’s Vitalist ideas, and yet here she took issue with his claim that the beauty of Australia was ‘invisible’ to ‘white vision’, suggesting that any lack of clarity was due to his ‘outsider’ status.
It is not surprising that Australian cultural-nationalist commentators used vision as such an important metaphor for cultural legitimacy. The act of seeing has long been associated with that of knowing (Jacobs 7; Jay 10); at issue here is settler culture’s ability to ‘know’ and represent local landscapes in a way that is distinct from, and superior to, colonial (British) culture. Australian cultural-nationalists in the interwar period saw themselves as postcolonial subjects involved in an anti-imperial struggle; indeed, they were fighting against material constraints such as the dominance of English and American publishers over the local Australian book market (Dixon, ‘Australian’ 225; Jordan 92). And yet, because settler nationalism not only operates against the original colonial power, but also through the ongoing, structural erasure of Indigenous presence, these claims for legitimacy were part of ‘the unceasing process of . . . dispossession’ (Rees 3). As Peter Limbrick remarks, ‘no matter how much settlers choose to define themselves against the imperial authority that first set them in the colony, their situation in relation to indigenous [sic] populations has remained, structurally, one of colonization’ (9). It is therefore possible to see the cultural-nationalist discourse of settler vision as one of ‘the visual regimes of colonization’ (T. Smith 267) – part of a ‘quest to belong’ that involved both the appropriation of an Indigenous identity and the erasure of Aboriginal people’s claims to country (Leane 2).
Settler-colonial fantasies of belonging were often expressed through a paradoxical identification with ‘the Aboriginal figure and her unquestioned claim to be born of the land’ (E. Smith, ‘White’ 104). Dark’s fiction registers this paradox, often offering a sympathetic identification with Aboriginal peoples, and yet also styling modern settler culture as a new form of ‘native’ presence. In her essay, Dark referred to settler culture’s ‘dealings with the black Australians whose land we stole’ as the ‘darkest of all blunders, heaviest upon our conscience’ (10), going further than many other writers of the period in recognising colonisation as an act of invasion (Carson, ‘Conversations’ 193). Nonetheless, Dark’s politics were limited by available discourses that associated Aboriginal people with romanticism and timelessness, and her works frequently perpetuated the ‘dying race’ trope (see Muecke 19–35).
A number of Dark’s novels work to naturalise the idea of ‘settler indigenisation’. In Sun Across the Sky (1937), the doctor, Oliver Denning, ponders what kind of people will emerge from the ‘strange blending of Northern race and southern climate’, and imagines a race who are ‘[l]ean and brown – almost as lean and almost as brown as the people whose land they had stolen’ (29–30). Waterway and The Timeless Land (1941) are similarly concerned with the ‘moulding process of the land’ on settler identity (Timeless Land 81). In Return to Coolami, Dark presents a powerful image of a settler Australian who has become acclimatised to the natural environment. Bret’s late mother is remembered for her cultivation of native plants at Coolami:
Bret’s mother had seen, Millicent thought, better than any one, the strange loveliness of an ancient land. She more than most of her countrymen had been able to escape a gospel of beauty handed down from generations which had dwelt on a milder and gentler soil. She had abandoned, somehow, an ancestral reverence for landscapes softly painted in lush greens for sappy, fragile flowers and the smooth charm of an unfailing fruitfulness. She’d seen new and more difficult beauty; beauty that rioted opulently in a frothing mass of honey-scented gold, and then a step farther on, in a vast tree, dead, skeleton-white, lifting naked branches to the sky, took on a wild and tragic aloofness. (139)
Drawing on the imagery provided by cultural-nationalist commentators, Dark depicted Bret’s mother's affinity with the land in terms of an ability to ‘see’ a ‘new and more difficult beauty’ – that is, an adjusted form of vision. Bret's mother rejects the ‘gospel of beauty handed down’ by European landscape artists, instead demonstrating respect for Australia’s distinctiveness by cultivating native flora. Her acclimatisation to the Australian landscape is captured symbolically through the description of Coolami as ‘weathered to subdued greys, almost windowless so that it seemed like some vast rock flung there in prehistoric ages’ (138). Millicent remarks that the house ‘might have grown there’ (59), thus providing a benign image of settler indigenisation that obscures the historical reality of dispossession. Dark makes reference to a range of native plants nurtured by Bret's mother, including ‘Silver Wattle’, a ‘crooked Coolabah’, ‘boronia with feathery leaves’, ‘tea-tree and pink melaleuca and white star-flowered eriostemon’ (138–39). This description represents Dark’s ideal conception of an ethical relationship between settler culture and the natural environment – an ideal influenced by her ecological and conservationist commitment, which was expressed through her support of the Blue Gum Forest Campaign and participation with husband Eric in local bushwalking activities (Carson, ‘Conversations’ 191). In symbolic terms, cultural-nationalist writers often used the nurturing of a plant as a key symbol of the development of a distinctive Australian culture, and here Bret's mother is showing a commitment to cultivating local culture.
Dark’s ideas about visual perception were evidently drawn from cultural-nationalist discourse, so in what sense were they also modern and modernist? In Return to Coolami, Dark’s interest in the subjectivity of vision (‘the eye only sees what it brings with it the power of seeing’) is expressed through a number of modernist devices, including the multi-focal narrative style, use of interior monologue, and striking ways of representing human consciousness. The novel is also fascinated with mechanised ways of seeing, whether through the lens of a camera or from the window of a moving motor vehicle, and Dark embraces these vernacular, modern experiences as crucial metaphors for the settler relationship to the natural environment and to the past. If seeing operated as an important metaphor for belonging in interwar cultural-nationalist discourse, then technological innovations which altered sensory perception, including photography, cinema and motoring, allowed writers such as Dark to express claims for cultural legitimacy in new and strikingly modern(ist) ways.
Return to Coolami employs a form of ‘camera consciousness’, a term used by Lara Feigel to capture the ways in which modernist writers in the 1930s depicted human consciousness ‘itself as a camera or projector’ (122). Christopher Isherwood’s statement in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), ‘I am a camera with its shutter open’, is a famous example of this camera consciousness (qtd. in Feigel 122). Dark provides another instance of this trope when, in a climactic scene, Bret performs a precarious night-time climb of the mountain Jungaburra. Dark writes, ‘His whole widely roving consciousness suddenly narrowed, contracted like the lens of a camera, focused itself with a tremendous, an agonising intentness on that one stride ahead of him’ (226). In this description, Bret’s vision is figured as a wide angled shot moving to a focused close-up to convey the intensity of concentration required when navigating mountainous terrain. This is followed by another shift when, ‘with a click the lens of his consciousness was wide open again, collecting from everywhere, avidly, a medley of sensations, thoughts, emotions’ (226–27). Dark’s image of ‘the click [of] the lens of his consciousness’ is a highly arresting one, and suggests that Return to Coolami, for all its adherence to a romance plot, should be considered seriously as an example of Australian modernist styles. The description resonates with Slessor’s image of Sydney, ‘[l]ensed in a bubble’s ghostly camera’, in the poem ‘Out of Time’ (1939). Both Dark and Slessor exhibit a camera consciousness that was influenced by and adapted from their experiences of international cinema. Dark’s image is also nationalist, providing a powerful depiction of Vitalist masculinity ‘at home’ in the Australian outback. Dupain’s photographs similarly employed modernist forms in ways that naturalised ideas of Vitalism, eugenics and nationalism. His photographs of human subjects reflected the ‘body culture’ ethos of the 1930s, and used the techniques of the New Photography movement to showcase ‘a new homegrown generation of white Australians whose bodies were honed through time spent lying in the sun and swimming in the ocean’ (Crombie 26, 65). In the case of the iconic ‘Sunbaker’ (1937), these photographs would eventually come to be viewed as quintessentially nationalist images.
Return to Coolami also reflects a modernist and modern interest in ways of seeing in motion. Dark’s characters traverse the landscape at great speed; the pleasure they take in mobility constitutes their modernity and mediates their sense of belonging in the landscape. Motoring demanded ‘new levels of visual alertness for seeing in motion’ (Duffy 7). Aldous Huxley, whose writing Dark greatly admired, wrote in 1931 of speed as ‘the one genuinely modern pleasure’ (227):
The automobile is sufficiently small and sufficiently near the ground to be able to compete, as an intoxicating speed-purveyor, with the galloping horse . . . When the car has passed seventy-two, or thereabouts, one begins to feel an unprecedented sensation – a sensation which no man in the days of horses ever felt. It grows intenser with every increase of velocity. (228)
Dark’s novel captures this modern pleasure of travelling at speed. Much of the novel’s action takes place inside Tom Drew’s car, a ‘Madison’ tourer with a ‘lustrous olive-green . . . bonnet, satin-smooth, mirror-bright’ (8). Tom likens the speed of the automobile to magic, thinking:
Forty-five and you hardly knew you were moving! Fifty. Fifty-five. A miracle really, this conversion of a few gallons of petrol into annihilated miles! A liquid, a vapour that could spin you like the carpet of Bagdad from Ballool to Coolami! (36)
In the first half of the twentieth century, Australia had one of the highest rates of automobile ownership in the world, with the car often representing ‘the conquering of Australia’s vast distances and the mastering of its natural environment’ (Knott 3, 26). Eric and Eleanor enjoyed taking road trips to rural New South Wales; their friend Eric Lowe believed that one trip he took with the Darks to the Warrumbungle Range became ‘molded into the road traveled by Bret and Susan’ in Return to Coolami (qtd. in Day 53).
Motoring had particular cultural meanings in a settler-colonial context such as Australia. Anne Rees has recently argued that mobility was ‘a defining characteristic of the Australian modern’, as ‘[r]eal and imagined mobilities across stolen land were (and are) essential for settlers to claim Australia as their own’ (3, 6). Speed allows Dark’s characters to traverse the landscape with great ease and in a relatively short amount of time – a point emphasised by the combination of the compressed temporal scale with the range of geographical settings described in the novel. Dark describes the process of observing the landscape from a car as a form of cinematic pleasure. As Dixon notes in examining the work of Frank Hurley, ‘the automobile driver experiences it [the landscape] unfolding before him like a film’ (‘Shooting’ 44). Dark makes this same point in Return to Coolami as the passengers observe and become acclimatised to the changing landscape from the luxurious comfort of the Madison. In one scene, Millicent watches the change of scene from Blue Mountains to the flatter terrain of central-western New South Wales:
The sudden transition from mountain to plain country was intriguing, Millicent thought, watching green, wet paddocks where for the last few hours she’d been seeing the bush and the blue depth and distance of far-away gullies. She . . . [was] glad to relax into her well-upholstered corner of the seat and watch the landscape absently from eyes half focused, seeing it only as a strip of moving, slightly hypnotising colour. (130)
Sitting in ‘her well-upholstered corner’ and viewing the passing landscape as ‘a strip of moving . . . colour’, Millicent could just as easily be in a modern picture palace. In describing Millicent’s vision, Dark uses a number of technical terms related to the composition of a photograph or film shot, including ‘depth’, ‘distance’ and ‘focus’. Even the phrase ‘sudden transition’ evokes the fast cut from one scene to another in a film sequence. Millicent’s eyes are ‘half focused’ like the lens of a camera, providing another instance of camera consciousness whereby a settler character becomes attuned to the distinctive qualities of the Australian natural landscape.
The changes to sensory perception created by motor travel and, by extension, used to express settler belonging, are showcased through the character development of Tom. Tom’s initial, exploitative approach to the natural world is captured through his reflections on his ostentatious ‘villa’ in the fictional Sydney suburb of Ballool:
The cypress hedge that he’d planted was growing well, and the pergola was fairly smothered in yellow roses. The lawn, he noticed with a slight frown, needed clipping round the edges . . . Here, he thought, looking along his own high brick wall towards the high brick walls of his neighbours, there was dignity, security. Roads were smooth for the passing of costly cars; footpaths were well-kept; gardens . . . were properly looked after, they were assets. (15–16)
Through the interior monologue, Dark provides a leftist critique of Tom’s suburban values, pointing to his materialistic and exploitative approach to the natural environment. The inclusion of non-native plants in Tom’s garden creates an implicit contrast with the pastoral property of Coolami, which is filled with native flora and is harmoniously integrated into the natural environment. In contrast to Bret's mother, Tom is not interested in nurturing Australian culture, but rather insulates himself from it in suburbia. Tom is ‘[j]ealous’ and ‘[f]iercely touchy’ about the rural environment where his wife spent her childhood (20). On the car journey, he responds to Aboriginal place names with derision:
Parramatta. It had a silly sound, a jabbering sound, the kind of sound that a child might make experimenting with vocal noises! And over there to his left still another – Kirribilli! Well, they sounded just exactly what they were – the language of savages! (19–20)
As Meg Brayshaw, Brooks (‘Waterway’), Brenton Doecke and Harriet Edquist observe, Dark’s novels frequently entangle different temporal scales of past and present, so that Sydney operates as ‘a palimpsest where the past and present co-exist in an uneasy relationship’ (Edquist 254). In Return to Coolami, place names evoking Aboriginal naming,5 such as Bullaburra, Kalangadoo and Parramatta, are used to register the presence of a pre-colonial past that exists beneath the surface of modernity; Tom’s lack of appreciation for these place names indicates his inability to perceive what Stephensen called the ‘Spirit of the Place’ (11).
The car journey through the ‘timeless’ bush landscape exerts a powerful, Vitalist force on Tom that involves an adjustment of visual perception and a recognition of Australia’s pre-colonial past. As Millicent reflects when standing at a Blue Mountains lookout, ‘a sight like that broke down your defences, opened your heart, made you in an instant mysteriously receptive’ (76). Through traversing ‘that vast and adventurous expanse’ of the outback – a journey only made possible by the speed and mobility of the motor vehicle – Tom comes to realise that his life has hitherto been confined to ‘a very little circle indeed’ (204). He feels a ‘stirring of excitement in the mere thought of distance, an urge . . . for some sense of spaciousness’ (235). In particular, it is the immersive quality of driving that provides him with access to the natural landscape; as he slows down and begins ‘to look about him’, Tom finds, ‘with eyes suddenly opened’ (54–55), a new kind of beauty:
It was the sun doing things to the leaves. Turning a young gum sapling into something that dripped rubies. Flaming suddenly behind a dead leaf so that it became a topaz. Plunging into a bush with dark glossy leaves and finding purple there – bursting out again leaving streaks of silver in its wake . . . Every gum leaf, hanging motionless with its edge to the sun, looked burnished . . . (55)
The comparison of the native flora to jewels and precious metals conveys Tom’s newfound discovery of the richness of the natural environment, in contrast to the superficial wealth of owning ‘two cars and a house at Ballool and a cottage at the seaside’ (138). This ability to ‘see . . . for the first time, his native bushland’ is described as ‘a moment of perception, flashed and gone’ (60). Tom reassesses his opinion of his Ballool home, and even develops an appreciation for the place names he formerly derided, catching ‘for the first time a hint of music in outlandish names’ (235).
It is significant that Tom’s vision is ‘adjusted’ as he travels along the Western Highway, a road which Dark depicts as one ‘of inconceivable glamour and romance’ (205). Not only is the highway associated with ideas of progress, it is also an important originary site of settler colonialism. Dark was well aware of its colonial significance; in 1940, while writing The Timeless Land, Eleanor and Eric followed the footsteps of the 1789 expedition led by William Dawes from Emu Plains to Mount Hay, and their re-enactment was reported in local newspapers (Brooks with Clark 345). In Return to Coolami, the road connects the modern characters to the colonial past; Bret marvels, ‘What a feat they’d performed, those chaps, those pioneers! Almost incredible that they should ever have got through at all!’ (76). In a striking moment of cinematic vision, Tom imagines himself as part of this settler history:
He said to Bret:
“Who made the Western Road?”
Bret answered between puffs:
“Chap called Cox. In six months from Penrith to Bathurst.”
“Six months with a gang of thirty. Mostly convicts, I think they were.”
Drew stared down at the map. Perhaps because he’d had a long day and was beginning to feel tired, the black line of the road faded by some optical illusion into the moving winding strip that his eyes had been watching since early morning. The darkly shaded valleys, stretching out like talons towards it, became blue and luminous, incredibly deep, dreadfully remote, so that he had a brief sensation of vertigo, and a ridiculous momentary feeling that he, Tom Drew, in clothes with arrows on them, and chains about his ankles, was toiling perilously on a moving road that stretched like a tightrope with blue death on either side – (205)
In this scene, Tom’s vision moves from the topographical perspective of the highway as a ‘black line’ on a map to a cinematic experience of the road as a ‘moving winding strip’. Importantly, Tom imagines himself as part of this historical scene, costumed in the role of convict, seeing the road from the point of view of history or as an actor within a film set. The Tom who drives an expensive 1930s car is fused with a nineteenth century convict ‘toiling perilously on a moving road’ through the chronotope of the highway, creating a modernist sense of synchronicity between past and present that is similar to the one Brigid Rooney associates with Sydney Harbour in Waterway (109). Through a cinematic form of vision, Tom is able to imagine himself as part of a colonial drama, inscribed into the nation’s history.
Modernist Time and Memory
The entanglement of nationalism, modernism and vernacular modernity in Dark’s work can also be traced through her ideas about time, memory and interior psychological states. Drawing on a familiar trope in Australian literature, Return to Coolami depicts the journey into the physical interior of the Australian continent as an extended metaphor for a psychic journey into the tortured places of the unconscious. Dark links physical spaces with interior states in phrases such as the ‘unexplained territory in one’s own mind’ (131), a description that foreshadows Patrick White’s (451) ‘country of the mind’ in Voss (1957). However, she also frequently undercuts the seriousness of her novel’s investment in Freudian ideas; for instance, Bret laments that ‘[h]e couldn’t . . . walk across a veranda without beginning to analyse his motives like some blasted be-spectacled highbrow dabbling in psychological bunk!’ (270). Here Dark’s novel, like other instances of middlebrow print culture, distinguishes itself from elite culture or ‘ultra-modernism’, employing the term ‘highbrow’ in a pejorative sense to denote ‘faddishness, fraudulence, and oversophistication’ (Carter, ‘Literary’ 260). Dark seems to have been mindful of her middlebrow readership, presenting modern ideas about psychology in ways that might suit their tastes.
Dark imbues her characters’ recollections with a highly visual, cinematic quality in order to show the effects of subconscious memories on the present. Bret finds ‘in his memory a picture so bright, so detailed and clearly defined, that he wondered fleetingly that some unconscious self should have stored and guarded it so jealously’ (258). Characters’ memories are described as unfolding like a ‘sequence of pictures’ (283), or as ‘a succession of scenes like the lights that waver across your ceiling at night from passing trams or cars’ (128). Dark uses the same imagery to describe the interior vision of memory and the exterior vision of the landscape; the flickering strip of memory is reminiscent of the ‘strip of moving, slightly hypnotising colour’ that Millicent observes from the car. There is a distinctly Bergsonian quality to this idea of the mind as ‘a kind of cinematograph inside us’ (Bergson qtd. in Seed 51), an influence also seen in Slessor’s poem ‘Last Trams’ (1939), where, from a moving tram, human figures appear like the frames of a film reel: ‘Their faces brush you as they fly,/ Fixed in the shutters of a blink’.
Like Slessor’s modernist poetry, Dark’s novels frequently explore the subjective, lived experience of time. In Return to Coolami, after the car skids to the edge of a precipice, Bret wonders about the contingencies of time: ‘what the devil was it? Absurd to contend that the minute or less during which they had all been so close to death was the same as any minute during which they travelled uneventfully over an unremarkable half-mile!’ (120). Similarly in Waterway, Dark likens the heightened consciousness brought about by the ferry collision to the widened focus of a camera lens or the rapid pace of a ‘movie-film’:
In such a crisis time is no longer the steadily moving vehicle of human consciousness, advancing unhurriedly in minutes as regular and unvarying as the tramp of soldiers on parade. A second expands, becomes monstrous, a minute stretches achingly into eternity, burdened with the intensity of ten years of normal life . . . senses expand, widening their focus like the lens of a camera, recording avidly, and thought accelerates with the mad accuracy of a racing movie-film. (320)
Just as Virginia Woolf contrasts the clock time of Big Ben to the subjective experience of time in Mrs Dalloway (1925), so Dark distinguishes between the ‘regular and unvarying’ forward trajectory of minutes to the ‘eternity’ encompassed in a single moment of crisis. The contracted temporal scale of two days, which in Sun Across the Sky and Waterway is compressed even further into one day, allowed Dark to explore the ways in which a finite unit of time could contain characters’ histories and memories.
In Return to Coolami, the frequent use of ‘cinematic’ flashbacks allows Dark to move seamlessly between past and present. Flashbacks were a popular device used in both the silent era of film and avant-garde films of the 1920s (Turim, Flashbacks 106; ‘Trauma’ 207). The disruption of linear chronology to return to past events was not unique to film, occurring prior to this in both literature and theatre; however, it took on a distinctive quality in cinema because of the ‘speed with which cinematic editing was able to cut decisively to another space and time’, and in this way, the cinematic flashback was related to ‘modern notions of speed, movement, energy, of the relativity of spatio-temporal relationships’ (Turim, Flashbacks 3–6). Dark’s novel emphasises the speed with which a repressed memory can arise from the subconscious to disrupt the modern present. On the car journey, Susan re-encounters ‘a willow-fringed creek where she’d lunched once with Jim’ and experiences ‘a whole remembered scene flung back at her with such brutal vividness that she seemed to feel suddenly on her lips the kisses he’d taken, [and] hear his very voice, ghost-like’ (152). In this moment, the present rapidly collapses into the past in an emotionally-charged landscape, as Susan literally sees and hears the remembered scene with the ‘vividness’ of a talkie.
The porous relationship between past and present in Return to Coolami allowed for one of the central tenets of Dark’s fiction to emerge – that of the ‘timelessness’ of the Australian landscape. Tom reflects on ‘the strangeness of Time arrested, Time suspended’ (290), thinking, ‘[i]n the mountains the records of a thousand years were written across the cliff faces; and in the gullies . . . you might walk under tree-ferns whose ancestors had been tree-ferns before you grew legs and came to live on dry land!’ (291). Stephensen drew on similar ideas in his collection of essays, The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay towards National Self Respect (1936), writing about an environment ‘geologically so old that Time seems to have stood still here for a million years’ (11). The discourse of primitivism is an established trope of literary and artistic modernism (see Torgovnick); however, it also had particular meanings in a settler nationalist context. By reminding readers that a ‘timeless’ and ‘primitive’ continent had existed prior to colonial invasion, Dark and other writers such as Stephensen and the Jindyworobak poets located a pre-imperial past that they felt could also provide settler culture with a post-imperial, nationalist future. In Return to Coolami, Tom reflects on the limitations of the imperialist narrative of Australia’s beginnings, realising that ‘until now he had always felt that this land of his had been born out of the womb of Mother England in the year 1770 with Captain James Cook for midwife’ (290). Moving through the landscape allows him to recover a sense of the nation prior to settler occupation, and this ‘timeless’ landscape is framed as available to modern settler characters. For example, Dark imbues the mountain Jungaburra with a mythic quality; Bret reflects that it ‘had an almost insubstantial look as though it were something you were dreaming about rather than seeing’ and thinks, ‘[n]o wonder . . . the natives had called it Jungaburra – “a spirit place”’ (163). Millicent similarly reflects on Jungaburra as a ‘spirit place so utterly unchanged, dreaming its immortality away’, reiterating the idea that the natural landscape exists in a dream-state that is outside of time. In the shadow of Jungaburra, Bret experiences ‘a feeling that all the time between then and now was an illusion’ (213). It is significant that it is on this mountain that Bret realises his love for Susan, for it shows Dark’s idea that the mythic, transformative qualities of the land are available not only to the ‘natives’ who named it (and who are curiously absent from the contemporary life of the novel) but also to modern settler Australians. Bret and Susan are now the beneficiaries of this ‘spirit place’, and this mythic collapsing of past and present is framed as a seamless transaction that obscures any contestation over land ownership in the present. Dark’s ideas about time were not only strikingly modernist, then, in their focus on subjective experience and the effects of repressed memories or trauma, but also facilitated settler claims to belonging.
As this discussion of Return to Coolami suggests, Dark’s work contains a profound ambivalence about technological modernity. Although she drew on the new, modern pleasures of motor travel and cinema to convey her ideas, she ultimately invoked these elements of mass culture to stage a return to what she saw as the mythic, ‘timeless’ and pre-modern qualities of the Australian environment. This deep ambivalence is registered in the contradictory meanings that she associates with the Madison car: it is a symbol of Tom’s materialistic values; a focus of modern speed, mobility and pleasure; and a magic time machine that is capable of transporting the characters into a more authentic past, ‘less a mechanical means by which they voluntarily travelled, than a mysterious and omnipotent force bearing them, passive, tranced and pleasantly comatose, towards some destiny which they would not . . . avoid’ (306). The car not only takes the passengers forward in time, towards ‘a future coming endlessly upon them’ (307), but also into the past, as the place names associated with Aboriginal languages evoke ‘something you had forgotten a thousand years ago and to which you were returning now, not only in miles along a road but in spirit through a dissolving barrier of time’ (290).
By the post-war period of the late 1940s and 1950s, Dark was even more sceptical about the effects of technological modernity. In the last instalment of her historical trilogy, No Barrier (1953), she no longer associated the Western Highway with ‘glamour and romance’, but treated it as a symbol of capitalist greed and urban expansion. Her novel laments the exploitation of the natural environment by wealthy gentry who use it as ‘a road through the mountains to rich country, ripe for plunder’ (162). The highway operates as a metonym for the distorted values of the ruling classes: ‘their wealth, their greed, their cruelty and their arrogance’ (162). One character equates the building of the highway to a rape, describing it as ‘all taking, and no love’ (339). This class-based critique can be read as part of Dark’s reaction to the rapid capitalist development of post-war Reconstruction, and her increasing sense of alienation from Menzies-era Australia (see Carson, ‘Surveillance’). The final novel that she published, Lantana Lane (1959), similarly laments the destruction of the natural environment in mid-century Australia. Whereas in Return to Coolami, speed and mobility operate as vehicles for settler belonging, in Lantana Lane the small-scale farmers of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland are ‘not entirely convinced that speed and convenience add up to civilisation’ (252). The novel registers a mid-century sense of exhaustion with the promises of modernity (Cooper, ‘[W]hen’ 214), reflecting a broader cultural shift in which the ‘initial enthusiasm’ about speed in the interwar years gave way to ‘dystopian skepticism’ in the 1950s (Dimendberg 94).
It is possible to see interwar settler modernism as part of a larger phenomenon of mid-century vernacular modernisms, reflecting what Hansen (59) describes as ‘the modernity of mass production, mass consumption, and mass annihilation’ in the period encompassing the 1920s to the 1950s. What I have tried to capture in the term interwar settler modernism, however, is a particular attitude to the ‘adventure of modernity’ or the ‘romance of the modern’ (Matthews 2, 5) – an attitude that invested technological modernity with utopic potential and hence embraced such experiences as cinema and motor travel as available metaphors for representing settler belonging. Dark’s interwar writing involved a combination of optimism and ambivalence about technological modernity which I argue is characteristic of Australian settler modernism in the interwar period. By the 1950s, this had largely transformed into deep-seated anxiety about the negative effects of post-war consumer culture, registered in the use of satire in settler modernist texts (Sheridan 262). No wonder White failed to locate examples of modernism when looking back at the interwar period from the distance of the 1950s; according to his post-war view, mass culture and middlebrow aspirations constituted only ‘the march of material ugliness’ (‘Prodigal’ 270).
Whether or not we find examples of settler modernism in the interwar period is, to borrow a metaphor from Dark, precisely a matter of where we are prepared to look. Andreas Huyssen suggests that we need to engage self-reflexively with the criteria of modernist aesthetics, so that, ‘rather than privilege the radically new in Western avant-gardist fashion’, we focus on other aspects of texts which ‘expand . . . our understanding of innovation’ (15). Are we willing to locate instances of Australian modernism in an advertisement for a vacuum cleaner, for example, or in a middlebrow romance novel? Australian settler modernism between the wars emerged through the complex negotiation of elite, middlebrow and popular forms of culture, and its expression was both different from but also connected to and contemporaneous with the modernisms produced elsewhere.
The idea that modernism and settler nationalism were mutually constitutive in the interwar period is important for studies of Australian settler literature,6 as it helps to destabilise established narratives which view experimental modernism and nationalist-realism as two parallel but separate paths. The study of settler modernisms can have a ‘provincialising’ or ‘disciplining’ effect on studies of European or metropolitan modernisms (Carter, Always ix; Dixon and Rooney xxii-xxiii), by hinting at the close and interconnected relationship between modernism and colonialism in many contexts, including those where colonialism’s effects may be more submerged or deferred onto ‘elsewhere’. As Mary Louise Pratt argues, modernity and colonialism share ‘constitutive relations’ across the globe, and these relations must be unmasked if we are to produce ‘a global and relational account of modernity’ (29, original emphasis).
Return to Coolami ultimately presents an optimistic perspective about the ability of settler culture to find an authentic and unmediated source of cultural belonging. Dark believed that, while Lawrence could only see Australia through a ‘veil’ of imperial assumptions, she and other ‘native-born’ settler writers and artists were able to see with a clear and ‘adjusted’ vision. However, Dark’s representation of settler vision was mediated – through the techniques she adapted from global modernism; by the desires of settler nationalism and available discourses about Aboriginal culture; by the experiences of vernacular modernity and the expectations of international publishers and middlebrow readers. Dark seems to have ultimately lost hope that technological modernity could facilitate the kind of ‘adjusted’ settler vision that she desired. Nonetheless, Return to Coolami remains an intriguing example of the complex negotiation of modernist experimentation, cultural-nationalist ideas, and vernacular and middlebrow styles that characterised settler modernism in the interwar period.
MLMSS 364/26/427, qtd. in Brooks with Clark 150.↩
Eleanor Dark to Nettie Palmer, NLA 1174/1/4332, qtd. in Carson, ‘Making’ 70.↩
The film was entitled When the Kellys Rode (1934) and was directed by the English filmmaker Harry Southwell for Imperial Feature Films. It was censored in New South Wales due to the prohibition on representing bushrangers.↩
See, for example, Neal Alexander and James Moran; Jessica Berman; Jed Esty; David James; Alexandra Harris; Scott Herring.↩
Dark used place names associated with Aboriginal languages as an important symbol in a number of her novels; however, she also invented or borrowed names in ways that we would see as highly problematic today. In Return to Coolami, the town called ‘Kerrajellanbong’, which Bret explains means ‘the place in the shadow of the mountain’ (125), and the property name ‘Coolami’, which is said to mean ‘birthplace of heroes’ (126), appear to be words that Dark has invented to suggest Aboriginal naming. The Timeless Land (1941) shows a similar tendency to take liberties with naming. Dark writes of her depiction of Aboriginal peoples, ‘where I have wanted to introduce songs, words, legends, customs, for which I have been able to find no record for these particular groups, I have borrowed shamelessly from other tribes, often far distant . . . I am not really very repentant . . . The important thing has seemed to me to be that these were the kind of songs they sang, the kind of legends they loved . . .’ (‘Preface’ 9). These instances of borrowing, appropriating and inventing underscore Jeanine Leane’s point that such texts should be read primarily as ‘examples of settlers’ changing consciousnesses of Aboriginal presence, of their own presence here and of their quest to belong’, rather than for what they have to say about Aboriginal peoples or cultures (2).↩
It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore examples of Aboriginal modernisms or modernities. In demarcating Dark’s work as an instance of settler modernism, I have tried to address the unacknowledged Eurocentrism often reflected in the term ‘Australian modernism’, and to leave space for others to explore examples of Aboriginal modernisms in similar and different historical periods.↩