Q & A with Melinda Cooper, author of Middlebrow Modernism: Eleanor Dark's Interwar Fiction

Melinda Cooper’s research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century Australian literature. Her work on Australian modernism has been published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals. Melinda has taught in the department of English at the University of Sydney. She is the Publicity Officer for the Australasian Modernist Studies Network (AMSN).

Melinda holds her book and stands in front of a tree

What is it about Eleanor Dark’s writing that attracted you to it? Why have you chosen to focus on her work specifically?

When I came to design a research project I knew I wanted to investigate Australian modernism. I knew I wanted to look at women writers.

As I investigated the different women writing in that period, I was drawn to Eleanor Dark because I had read some of her work before. I had read Prelude to Christopher, her early novel, many years before and found it such a compelling and unusual book, so it had stayed with me. When I came to look at the rest of Dark’s body of work, I was really surprised and intrigued to discover how varied it was from short stories and poems to more recognisably modernist texts like Prelude to Christopher and Waterway to historical fiction such as The Timeless Land. I thought it would be interesting to look at why there was such variety in her work and how that was a product of the material conditions that were operating at the time. But Dark’s body of work is really extensive. She has ten published novels and a whole lot of other work that wasn’t published. I chose the interwar period because I thought Eleanor Dark’s work provided an interesting window into what was happening in Australian literature more broadly in that period.


You give a strong sense of Eleanor Dark as a writer who broke moulds, who refuses neat classification. Do you believe Eleanor Dark was/is a misrepresented writer? Do you believe Eleanor Dark’s writing has received the attention it deserves?

That’s a very interesting question. In terms of Australian writers of the period, Eleanor Dark has fared fairly well in terms of critical attention. Most Australian literary scholars know of her work. Also the Australian creative writing community tends to know of Eleanor Dark, mostly because of the work of Varuna, the national writer’s house – Dark’s former home – which is now used for writing residencies. It means she is now part of our national story.

In terms of the general public, I don’t think many writers of that period are known, although some people do remember studying The Timeless Land at school. A lot of other people tell me they’ve never heard of Eleanor Dark. In terms of critical attention, it’s been quite sporadic and piecemeal over the years. There hasn’t been a lot of sustained scholarly work on Eleanor Dark’s writing. Perhaps that’s in part due to the fact that her work is really extensive. Particular books have come in and out of fashion at particular times and others have been overlooked. That’s really due to the prevailing trends in literary criticism at the time. For instance, for a long time after the Second World War period, Dark’s body of work was defined by The Timeless Land historical trilogy. She was seen as a writer of historical fiction. In more recent years – I’d say over the last two decades – as modernism has received renewed energy, attention has shifted to Eleanor Dark’s more contemporary and recognisably modernist works. Then there are the novels by Eleanor Dark such as Sun Across the Sky, which has never really attracted much critical attention.

In my book, Middlebrow Modernism, I wanted to look at the varied ways that Dark responded to Australian modernity and international modernity and the range of fiction by Dark – her short stories, her romance fiction, her more obviously modernist works and her historical fiction. It’s only by examining all those varied forms that we can appreciate what a flexible, engaged and creative writer Dark was.


Do you believe that Australia’s cultural cringe has shaped the treatment of middlebrow modernist writing – both among literary critics and the broader public?

Firstly I’d say that in any context, the middlebrow tends to be dismissed, overlooked and often viewed as a lesser category. In fact, when the term ‘middlebrow’ was coined in the 1920s, it was a pejorative term. Even from its very formation as a category, the middlebrow was seen as a little bit laughable, a bit stodgy, a bit boring.

In Australia though I think it’s not only taken a while to recognise middlebrow modernism; it’s taken a while to recognise that modernism itself developed and emerged here, rather than as something that was imported from elsewhere. But over the last few decades critics in art, history and literature have been identifying Australian modernisms and talking in really exciting ways about how we have formed our own modernisms that were different from more metropolitan locations such as England or America or Europe. But perhaps what has been less obvious in those questions about Australian modernism is that, in Australia, modernisms did not always emerge through high culture channels as they often did in those metropolitan contexts. In fact they often emerged in Australia through the middlebrow. I argue in the book, drawing on the work of David Carter who has written a lot about the Australian middlebrow, that one reason why modernism emerged through these middlebrow channels was that Australia lacked the high culture institutions that other places had. Australia didn’t have many small university presses or independent presses that would publish a small print run. Because of Australia’s settler-colonial status, writers needed to navigate what publishers both here and overseas wanted them to write. That often meant that writers and artists had to have a very flexible approach where they could produce some commercial work and some that was more in line with what they wanted to produce. The fact we are slow to recognise middlebrow modernism is less a product of a deliberate cultural cringe than a larger difficulty faced in settler colonial countries.


Who do you see as the target audience for this book? Is it only literature studies, specialists and students? Or do you think the book appeals to a wider cross section of the population?

As a book that addresses and tries to intervene in some particular critical questions, I’d say that the primary audience of the book is literary studies specialists and students. The book attempts to negotiate questions such as: what is settler colonial modernity? And how did that differ from other forms of international modernity? What does it mean to be a cosmopolitan writer who is also negotiating forms of national culture? What is the relationship between liberal humanism and modernism? How does the middlebrow relate to modernism? So those are questions that literary studies specialists would be particularly interested in, and also perhaps a broader range of scholars such as those working in cultural studies, or art history or just history.

At the same time, though, I hope that someone who’s interested in Eleanor Dark’s writing or the interwar period could pick up the book and find that there’s something in there for them. I have tried to keep the book grounded in the story of Eleanor Dark’s publication history and the way that she negotiated both local and international forms of culture. Although the book isn’t a biography, it does explore her novels and her writing in relation to that bigger story of her life and the way that she, sometimes strategically, sometimes with frustration, but always flexibly and intelligently, negotiated all these different constraints and conditions.


What would your advice be for postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and early career academics hoping to have their first book published?
I suppose my main piece of advice would be to keep persevering if this is something that you really want to do. With our precariously employed academic situations, for many postdoctoral students and early career researchers, it usually means that some of the time we will be working on our first book without institutional support or a wage. And that’s a really difficult and often lonely path to take. It certainly often was for me. In my case, I was finishing the book during the year when I had my first baby. It certainly wasn’t ideal conditions. But I kept at it because I realised it mattered to me to have this project out in the world. I had so enjoyed doing the research, particularly the archival research that I undertook at the National Library of Australia, the State Library of Australia and at Varuna. I was lucky enough to have lots of time at those places, and to really delve into the archives. I felt that I wanted that material to be read by people, that I had something that was worth hearing. So having good people around me who could encourage me when I wanted to give up was really important. Also, remind yourself of why you care about the project, why you want it to be out there.

If you’re a postgraduate student, I think it’s worth thinking about your doctoral thesis in terms of the eventual book you’d like to publish. Think about how you can structure your thesis in a way that might work for publication later down the track. There will be more that you have to do to your thesis after it’s been accepted in order to prepare it for publication, but, if you can have the bones of it there in your doctoral thesis, that will really help with turning it into a book.

I suppose the last piece of advice is something that the person who edited my book, Robert Dixon, told to me and that is to keep thinking about your reader: what they would be expecting from the book and what they need to find in the book. The project is so familiar to you, but not to them. Keep them in mind throughout the writing process. And good luck.

Middlebrow Modernism: Eleanor Dark's Interwar Fiction is out 1 October 2022. Order your copy here.