Challenging History Making: Realism, Revolution and Utopia in The Timeless Land

Among the many historical novels written in Australia during the thirties and forties, The Timeless Land is unique for the way it foregrounds the journals, letters, and official documents on which it is based. In her prefatory remarks Dark acknowledges the sources from which she drew in writing her novel, even including a bibliography in some editions.

An examination of Dark's sources may prompt readers to reflect on The Timeless Land's status in relation to the 'facts', interrogating the 'common sense' view that historical novelists are in the business of re-creating bygone eras and bringing the 'facts' to 'life' (cf. Gilliam). Such a view informs the work of two major critics of Dark's novels, H.M. Green and G.A. Wilkes, both of whom focus on The Timeless Land's historical 'authenticity' or 'truth'. Also at issue here is the nature of genre criticism. Green begins his analysis of The Timeless Land and other historical novels by isolating certain features supposedly peculiar to this form (in the same spirit, he categorises Capricornia and Landtakers as novels of 'purpose' rather than 'historical novels', and discusses them separately) (Green 1091-92). When Wilkes outlines three distinct periods in Dark's 'progress', each corresponding to a discrete category or generic type, he reveals a similar understanding of literary genre (Wilkes 139, 141, 144). In contradistinction to this approach, we might usefully begin to think of historical fiction in a more flexible way. It may, for example, be just as interesting to observe how The Timeless Land conflicts with any pat definition of historical fiction as to note those features of the text that abide by the genre's 'laws'. But in the final analysis there are no 'laws', and the traditional understanding of genre criticism as a classificatory operation is not very productive when it comes to reading this (or any other) historical novel (cf. Freadman 95, James on 107, 145). The Timeless Land combines several narrative paradigms and modes of discourse, and an analysis of any of its strands must yield to a recognition of its heterogeneity.

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Published 1 May 1995 in Volume 17 No. 1. Subjects: Australia - Literary portrayal, Australian literary criticism, Defining an Australian literature, Historical fiction, Imagery, Narrative techniques, Writer's research & sources.

Cite as: Doecke, Brenton. ‘Challenging History Making: Realism, Revolution and Utopia in The Timeless Land.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 1995. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.997d541668.