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Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark - Book Review and Companion

Updated on August 3, 2014

Is Eleanor Dark's Lantana Lane a Forgotten Australian Novel?

I'm an avid reader but I'd never heard of Lantana Lane or it's author, Eleanor Dark,until just recently. Why not? This is a novel packed with complex ideas, beautifully written but with a simple narrative: an affectionate portrait of a tiny farming community in New South Wales, Australia. A group of colourful farmers and other characters, who are all neighbours on Lantana Lane.

The farmers are engaged in a continuous fight against nature, symbolised by the invasive plant, Lantana Camara, to try to scratch a living from the harsh land. It's a hopeless fight; we know it, they know it, but all stay in the Lane and on the pineapple farms through an irrational love of farming. The tale is told with much razor-sharp humour, combining the charm of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prarie with Stella Gibbon's cutting wit in Cold Comfort Farm.

Being English, I had to look up quite a few things, which is very time-consuming, so I came up with the idea of creating a guide for the uninitiated, those who, like me, are not au fait with Australia, pineapple farms, Kookarurras and Utes.

Image Eleanor Dark, c. 1945, photograph Courtesy of Max Dupain and Creative Commons Public Domain Image

Who Was Eleanor Dark?

One of Australia's most distinguished writers

These are the bare bones of her life: born Eleanor O'Reilly at Croydon, Sydney, Australia, on the 26th August 1901, she was the daughter of the writer, schoolmaster and parliamentarian, Dowell Philip O'Reilly and Eleanor McCulloch O'Reilly. After a private education she went to business college and trained as a secretary before marrying Dr Eric Payten Dark and embarking on her career as a writer and novelist. She lived in Katoomba near Sydney, Australia, and on a farm in Queensland Australia. Her books include: The Timeless Land, The Little Company, Storm of Time, No barrier, Return to Coolami, Waterway, Prelude to Christopher, Sun Across the Sky and her last published work, Lantana Lane. Eleanor Dark died on the 11th September 1985.

Lantana Lane - by Eleanor Dark

Lantana Lane was written by Eleanor Dark in 1959, and this short novel was in striking contrast to her earlier works. It was originally published by Collins, but in 1989 it was rescued from oblivion, along with the works of many other excellent women writers, by the Virago Press.

I adore Dark's turn of phrase. So amusing, rhythmical and, above all, truthful. I adore words such as swink, ullage, squamata or squamiferous (I can't wait to work them into the conversation!), the latter two I've found in dictionaries, but not the former.

Lantana Lane
Lantana Lane

Lanatana Lane is a charmingly affectionate portrait of a farming community at Montville, Queensland, with a range of captivating characters, human, animal and mineral! The place names are quaint, at least to a foreigner: Tooloola, Dillillibill are impossible to spell! Light-hearted, witty, and without malice, you'll fall in love with these people who, despite all, love their land, their farms and their neighbours.


Meet the Residents of Lantana Lane

They all affirm that ..

"... farming means drudgery, misery, penury, monotony, bankruptcy and calamity - that it is, in short, a mug's game - they are all firmly and happily wedded to the land, and therefore, naturally, to the lanatana".

You'll be introduced to such characters as Aunt Isabelle; aunt to all in Lantana Lane, Ken Mulliner who 'looks', Jake the boxer dog, Kelly, Joe's wonderfully decrepit jalopy and Nelson, the one eyed kookaburra.

Throughout the book lurks the threat/opportunity of the deviation.

Image: Morris Minor Ute by Bidgee, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (I have no idea if this Ute was of the Lantana Lane vintage or not. At least I now know what a 'Ute' is now.)

Sir Frank Nicklin - On the farm, Palmwoods, ca. 1950

I hope that this photo would give a flavour of what the characters, field and housing would have been like. (Please leave a comment if you know of better illustrations).

In the picture you see Sir George Francis Reuben Nicklin,otherwise known as Sir Frank, (1895 - 1978), who was born at Murwillumbah, New South Wales and moved as a teenager with his family to Beerwah in Queensland about 1910 where he worked on his parents banana plantation before the First World War. After the war he returned to Queensland and bought a pineapple farm at Palmwoods. Sir Frank died at Nambour on 29 January 1978.

Photograph possibly taken at Sir Frank's pineapple plantation at Palmwoods. Sir Frank is on the left. Image held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Copyright expired.

Lantana Camara Flower

Looks quite pretty really

When I came to look up Lantana, I found photos like this and immediately recognised it as a plant that is widely sold in France as a pot plant, and it's used in municipal planting schemes - it seems a far cry from the plant described by Eleanor Dark. Upon further investigations, however, I found the lantana of Lantana Lane. A very different beast!

In the novel this invasive weed is used as a metaphore for the unconcious mind. Just as all sorts of items, large and small, are thrown into the lantana by the residents of Lantana Lane, so we throw all the things we don't want to think about into the deep, dark pit of the lantana patch of our minds.

Image: Lantana camara flower, courtesy of Frost, Creative Commons

Lantana the Alien Invader

Lantana is a top plant pest

One of the top ten invaders globally. Native to South America it was brought to Europe by Dutch explorers. It was then taken to India and is now widespread in India, South Africa and Australia. It grows in thickets to the height of a small tree and blocks out light and prevents grazing.

Part of it's success lies in the tasty berries. The birds love them, spreading the plants widely. No natural predators. In India it was linked with spreading the disease of Sandalwood in 1906. In 1950 it was said to have taken over large areas and nothing has worked so far to stop it's spread.

One idea is to use rather than to destroy the plant - make baskets or paper with it. This would create employment and also help to control it.

This Shows How Difficult It Is To Eradicate Lantana - You can see what they were up against!

Own Your Own Lantana Camara Plant - If you dare!

Parhaps the stamp is the safest option.


Home of Eleanor Dark from 1922

In 1922 Eleanor O'Reilly married Dr Eric Dark and they went to live togetherin Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. Here she wrote, acted as the wife of a doctor and raised two children. Her first novel, Slow Dawning, was published in 1932, followed by Prelude to Christopher, 1934 and Return to Coolami in 1936. She was awrded the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal for the latter two novels. In 1935 she joined the Fellowship of Australian Writers, membership of which included Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw, Dymphna Cusack and Kylie Tennant.

Eleanor Dark was not only a writer, but keenly interested in politics, taking an anti-fascist stance, and during the 30's and 40's this began to show in her novels. Indeed, their left wing links brought the Darks into disfavour with their neighbours and they were so harassed in the 50's that they had to leave Katoomba and they went to live within a small farming community in Montville, Queensland.

Image: Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales Courtesy of Adam.J.W.C, Creative Commons

The Blue Mountains from Katoomba

I wanted to include an image of the sort of landscape that Dark would have seen, loved and explored in her life and which informed her writing. As a non-Australian, it is only through such images that I can hope to get a flavour of her world.

Image Courtesy of Krismartin and Creative Commons


'... the stiff, tough, soldiery pineapples .... '

In the 50s the Darks bought a farm in Queensland where they spent part of the year for seven years and it was here that Eleanor Dark wrote Lantana Lane. Dark had a love for the land and she was a serious bush hiker and mapper. This love and respect of the ancientness of land can be seen in her novels. The pineapple fields are loveingly described in Lantana Lane, along with the unrelenting hard work that went into maintaining and marketing the crops. She contrasts the tangled, bushy and uncontrolable Lantana with the stiff, regimented, neat and tidy rows of pineapples. Nature v civilization.

Image: Eastern Cape Pineapples courtesy of Cazo3788, Creative Commons


And Aunt Isabelle

A splash of the farse is injected into Lantana Lane with the arrival of the Parisian Aunt Isabelle who arrives with the boxer pup Jake. There are so many charming stories within stories in this novel and the coming together of Aunt Isabell and Jake is just one of many.

Nelson is One of the Key Characters of the Lane

He's a oney-eyed Kookaburra

Well, British and ignorant, I had no idea what a Kookaburra looked like, although I might have hazarded a guess that it was a bird! Nelson is one of the key non-human characters of Lantana Lane along with Jake and Kelly, the jalopy. All the residents take it upon themselves to feed and take care of Nelson, who has no shame in accepting their charity.

Image courtesy of Adrian Pingstone, Creative Commons

More Novels by Eleanor Dark - Prelude to Christopher and others

What a shame that Eleanor Dark is so little known now that none of her books show covers on!

Letters and Biography - Books About Eleanor Dark - Shed light on Dark

Eleanor Dark: A writer's life
Eleanor Dark: A writer's life

The life of a write and the impact on her work


Other Books About Australia and New Zealand That I've Enjoyed - I hope that you'll enjoy these too!

An Angel at My Table : An Autobiography, Volume Two
An Angel at My Table : An Autobiography, Volume Two

This ia autor, Janet Frame's painful but moving autobiography which tells the story of her, frankly, unbelievably difficult life.

The Salt of Broken Tears
The Salt of Broken Tears

The farm on the salt flats of Australia is disturbed when a young woman turns up from nowhere .... The story is captivating.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Picnic at Hanging Rock

One hot, summer day in 1900 three girls from Appleyard College for Young Ladies went for a picnic at Hanging Rock. Three of the girls disappeared into the shadows of Hanging Rockand never returned. Is Picnic at Hanging Rock fact or fiction?

My Brilliant Career
My Brilliant Career

There is no other word to describe this book other than 'Brilliant'. Brilliant and inspiring. Give this to your daughters! Miles Franklin is non other than Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin 1879 -1954, Australian writer and feminist.

The Book Thief
The Book Thief

Unusually, this story by Australian author Markus Zusak, is narrated by Death. Set during World War II in Germany this book is the story of Liesel Meminger, a thief who loves books. Liesel shares these books with the Jewish man she hides in the basement ....


Where in the World are We?

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A markerOur guest house and holiday cottage deep in rural France -
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    • JoyfulReviewer profile image

      JoyfulReviewer 5 years ago

      I haven't read "Lantana Lane", but your review makes it sound like a great read.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 6 years ago from So Cal

      We have always had Lantana in our landscape. In Southern California it grows well and can be invasive. It doesn't smell good but the colors add. I will have to read this book. Queensland is very far away from us and I enjoy books in exotic locations. Thanks

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 6 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I haven't read Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark but it sounds very interesting.

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      Barbara Walton 6 years ago from France

      @AlleyCatLane: Many thanks for stopping by Carolyn. Was so pleased!

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      Barbara Walton 6 years ago from France

      @baby-strollers: Thanks so much, baby-strollers, for being the first to comment of my lens.

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      AlleyCatLane 6 years ago

      Congratulations on your purple star!

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      baby-strollers 6 years ago

      Nice Lens