Feature | Sci-fi realism: M Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a book that has remained an enigma since it was first published in a heavily censored form in 1947. Not only was it censored, but its publication was delayed due to wartime paper shortages, and one of the early uncensored manuscripts was lost between Adelaide and Melbourne. Even after the publication of an uncensored edition by Virago in 1983, the book continues to elude critics, and this elusive quality has only increased in the 21st century, with the book no longer in print. Nonetheless, it remains something of a cult classic among connoisseurs of Australian literary obscurities, with Patrick White as its most famous advocate. It is a book in which social realism is displaced by science fiction as the form best suited to combating Australian capitalism. Needless to say, it is a book that is very ambitious and very strange.

M Barnard Eldershaw and the Politics of Artistic Collaboration

Tomorrow was the fifth and final novel to be published by M Barnard Eldershaw. It is here that the mystery begins. Barnard Eldershaw was the creation of two female writers, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both were born in 1897 and they met at Sydney University during World War I. Alongside the novels, M Barnard Eldershaw wrote three historical works and one collection of literary criticism as well as a number of articles, short stories, radio plays and lectures. Their collection of literary criticism, Essays in Australian Fiction, from 1938 is significant, as the question of form and nation are central to the structure of Tomorrow.

The decision to employ a nom de plume is intriguing. One could interpret it as a disguise, following in the footsteps of Henry Handel Richardson, ensuring their work as female novelists would not be dismissed by male critics. And yet this does not seem to be consonant with the period in which the two were working. In the 1930s Australian female novelists were a distinct force on the national literary landscape. In the 1938 volume of criticism, Barnard Eldershaw alludes to this and includes Richardson, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Christina Stead and Eleanor Dark in its canon of Australian writers.

More to the point, the name M Barnard Eldershaw is not obviously male or female. It is an androgynous construction, composed of both authors’ family names. It is what we may describe as a literary entity. As Louise Rohrbacher notes (1973:24), it was known from the beginning that M Barnard Eldershaw was the creation of two female novelists. Thus it is an entity designed for the purposes of collaboration not concealment.

This collaborative enterprise was born out of conversation. As Marjorie Barnard notes, Flora had ‘ambitions to write, and we used to talk about the books we would write, and it occurred to us that it would be much more fun to write together’. Rather than a ‘fusion’, critic Maryanne Dever notes that their collaboration should be understood as thoroughly dialogical (2004:130). It was dialogic in the literal sense, as discussion was essential to the production of all their work. Barnard wrote:

We never had any trouble and the reason for this is that we talked things over very thoroughly before pen was put to paper … nothing was written until we’d decided just what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, and those preliminary talks were most valuable. The collaboration began in them. It didn’t matter very much who did the actual writing. We both contributed the ideas and we both criticised whatever one another did, and there was no harm done, neither to the book or to our friendship.

This conversational approach to literary composition was remarkably productive. M Barnard Eldershaw won the Bulletin prize for the historical novel A House is Built in 1928, tying with Coonardoo by Prichard. In the 1930s their creative and collaborative power increased with Green Memory (1931), The Glasshouse (1935) and Plaque with Laurel (1937). This latter novel is of particular interest as it concerns a group of writers at a literary conference in Canberra, and the dialogues and debates about the relation between writing and politics are taken up again in Tomorrow.

Barnard Eldershaw is keenly aware of the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Barnard and Eldershaw’s salon in Sydney was a meeting places for writers, activists and thinkers. Their political work included leadership of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW), which campaigned against the very censorship that Tomorrow would eventually suffer from. Marjorie Barnard wrote a pamphlet ‘Freedom of Speech, the Press and Association’ that began as a letter to Prime Minister Robert Menzies critiquing the national security regulations passed in 1939.

The attack on freedom of the press is directly addressed in Tomorrow. A raid is made on the house of a member of the Communist Party and his pamphlets and books are confiscated. We should not forget that even prior to the National Security Act 1939, books including Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) had been banned in Australia for obscenity. Huxley’s Ends and Means (1937) was cherished by Barnard, and his vision of the society of the future has affinities with the 24th century Australia portrayed in Tomorrow.

Barnard and Eldershaw were also involved in the revival of the Commonwealth Literary Fund (CLF), which granted federal government subsidies to writers. From 1939 to 1953 Eldershaw was a member of the fund’s advisory board. It was due to this connection that Tomorrow was condemned in a Parliamentary Estimates debate in 1952. William Wentworth, attacking the CLF for its leftist political affiliations, singled out Tomorrow for criticism: ‘How is it that, when a fellowship is granted for an historical research work, a trashy, tripey novel, with a Marxist slant, appears in its place.’ One wonders what exactly the word ‘trashy’ alludes to here? Is it the genre of science fiction? It is true that Tomorrow is certainly not a straightforward work of history, and Wentworth is not far off the mark in noting the political intent of the writers.

Could it be that literary collaboration is a microcosmic expression of the duo’s left-wing politics? Brecht famously described artistic collaboration as a model for socialism. This relation between the aesthetic and the political may not be so obvious in their case, but M Barnard Eldershaw propounds a form of socialist politics that condemns the logic of competition governing Australian life. In My Australia (1939) we read, ‘nothing corrupts a people more quickly than the desire to make a profit out of their fellows.’ In a similar tone during debates around postwar reconstruction, the FAW executive led by Eldershaw argued:

the development of culture in Australia cannot progress as it should for the benefit of the Australian people so long as the economic structure of our society is based on the profit motive, and that it is the Fellowship’s opinion that by the elimination of the profit motive the cultural life of this country can be developed to benefit the whole community.

Tomorrow is thus a work written with a distinct political intent. Yet unlike Prichard, who wholeheartedly adopted socialist realism in her Goldfields Trilogy (1946–50), Barnard Eldershaw cultivate a more nuanced approach to representing the political. If it is a work of socialist realism then it is one which brings out all that is most strange in that genre. Thus Tomorrow foregrounds the question of the novel’s capacity both to represent the past and to project itself into the distant future.

The Archaeologist, the Scientist and the Writer

Tomorrow is in a sense two books. One takes place in 24th century Australia, over the course of a single day in which a man named Knarf reads his recently completed novel to his friend Ord, an archaeologist. The other novel is the book that he has written, entitled Little World Left Behind after a Henry Lawson short story. It is a realist novel that begins in the early 1920s and depicts the trials of the working-class Munster family, who live in Sydney and struggle through the Depression and World War II.

Ord’s book becomes increasingly grandiose as it reaches the period in which Barnard Eldershaw are writing. A defeated Germany joins the Soviet Union as part of a left-wing bloc. Australia withdraws from the war and is invaded by an international coalition of the former Allied countries including the USA. The book culminates in an act of sabotage by the remaining forces of the Australian left, who coordinate the destruction of Sydney by fire. It was this section of the book that received the most censorship. It is unsurprising that this alternate history met with harsh criticism in a postwar Australia in Cold War conditions.

The interior novel is characterised as a work of fictive archaeology. Knarf first conceives of his book while visiting the recently unearthed Anzac memorial in what was once Sydney. ‘This brooding unheroic figure was immortal man. Knarf had one of those moments when his mind made what seemed to him a direct contact with reality, dead knowledge came to life in him, a world co-ordinated about this focal point’ (1983:15). While Ord is lost in debates as to whether the statue was created by the Dutchman Hoff or the Englishman Raynor, Knarf begins to write in order to return to the moment in which the statue had been conceived and built. For Knarf, writing is a work of excavation and a practice of time travel. It is also a technique of historical focalisation, zooming in on a particular life in the past in order to recreate the wider social milieu.

Knarf’s novel is an attempt to uncover the man ‘trapped within the stone’ of the Anzac statue. This man is Harry Munster, ‘the eternal homo tragicus’, a returned serviceman trying to eke out a living in 1920s Sydney. ‘Little Man. Everyman. Dust in history. Dust like stars, stars like dust. He does not matter, but if he does not matter, nothing matters. He is Man. Man throwing down a greasy paper in a back lane’ (1983:82). Tomorrow moves between the stars and the back lane, between grand theoretical statements and the greasy paper of poverty in the metropolis. The Munster family sell their farm in Toongabbie to move into the city, one of their children dies, the couple grow apart, debts accumulate and the Depression looms. In following the Munsters’ trials Tomorrow appears to be an emblematic work of social realism.

Tomorrow is a novel that feeds on the social reality it depicts. Barnard described the novel as a creature to be created and ‘nourished’.

Now it has come unstuck and in the last two days I’ve built up the whole skeleton. I’m in a predatory frame of mind roving round seeking what I may devour—literally snatching features off people’s faces and succulent morsels from all over the place. I’d tear down the sky and drag it into my den to nourish this book (1983:67).

The realism of Tomorrow appears to be cannibalistic, and the book consumes the city that surrounds it. Social realism is a form that, in the hands of Barnard Eldershaw, desires to swallow the whole.

From the Munster family, Knarf’s novel zooms outward to encompass other characters and social strata. The family are, according to Knarf, ‘no more than the dominant in a large pattern which I try to keep simultaneously alive’ (1983:89). These patterns grow into an organism, ‘A patch of fibrous, nervous tissue lifted off the pelt of the city, and other tissues clinging to it, the lorry drivers, men in pubs, Elsie Todd, the girl in the Marrickville shop …’ (1983:89–90). We meet volunteers returning from the war in Spain, the starving poet of the Cross, an ailing businessman and his daughter the aspiring pacifist. From an archaeologist the novelist becomes an experimental biologist who is testing the ‘nervous tissue’ of Sydney as if it were a sick organism. The novel recreates the social organism of 20th century Australia in laboratory conditions to identify the disease that rots the social body.

The sickness is diagnosed, unsurprisingly, as competition. ‘One element of the social ensemble suffered elephantitis. Competition … Competitive society was not a machine operated scientifically … it was a force of nature, an organism, a jungle that could only be cleared away by an ice age’ (1983:81). With such a diagnosis it is no wonder Barnard Eldershaw’s vision of the near future ends in fire, foreign invasion and the destruction of all arable land.

The novel reaches its most didactic in its discussion of the Depression, in which alienation obscures the collective character of the crisis. ‘Comparatively few realised that their struggle for existence was indistinguishable from their neighbours’, that it was the same struggle. They put an individual connotation upon it, to some it was one thing, to some another … They clung to property rights in the struggle for existence’ (1983:115). It is for this diagnostic acumen that the prominent Australian partisan of the New Left, Humphrey McQueen, praised the novel in an essay in 1990 and used it to develop a ‘modest proposal for reshaping Australia’. For McQueen the work had an uncanny ability to generate an accurate sociological assessment of Australian capitalism.

In Tomorrow the ‘Australians coming after the First People’ are understood to be caught in an ideological paradox.

They had drawn a hardy independence from the soil and had maintained it with pride and yet they had allowed themselves to be dispossessed by the most fantastic tyranny the world had ever known, money in the hands of the few, an unreal, an imaginary, system driving out reality. They had their hardbitten realism and yet they co-operated in a suicidal fiction of production for profit instead of for use. They thought of Australia as a land of plenty and yet they consented to starve among the plenty. They lost the reality of their land to the fantasy of the Banks (1983:9).

It is no coincidence that this passage frames capitalist ideology in literary terms. For Barnard Eldershaw capitalism is figured as a system in which a fantasy has taken over reality. Australia is a society in which irrationality rules: ‘Knarf could think of the Australians as living in a perpetual faze of unreason’ (1983:10). Barnard Eldershaw seem to be in step with the prevailing literary-political understanding of social realism, in which the novel is a blazing torch to illuminate the working of the social totality, to shed light on inequality and to inspire class consciousness in its reader.
An archetypal theoretical exponent of this understanding of realism was the Hungarian political philosopher György Lukács, who characterised the novel as a means of developing a rational counterpoint to the irrationality of capitalist social life. If capitalist ideology reifies the economy as inevitable and natural, the realist novel shows instead that it is a historical form marked by internal contradictions.

Only when the masterpieces of realism past and present are appreciated as wholes, will their topical, cultural and political value fully emerge … The process of appropriation enables readers to clarify their own experiences and understanding of life and to broaden their own horizons … Through the mediation of realist literature the soul of the masses is made receptive for an understanding of the great, progressive and democratic epochs of human history. This will prepare it for the new type of revolutionary democracy … (Lukács 1977:56).

The novel is that which ‘awakens men to consciousness’, by providing a map of the social totality through the building up of descriptive detail. Class consciousness does not ‘appear suddenly like a bolt from the blue’ but rather develops through the awareness of contradictions that ‘exist in life as a chain, the links of which develop out of each other and are interconnected among themselves’ (Lukács 1977:218). This is reminiscent of Knarf’s notion of ‘pattern’ and ‘connection’, which governs his own construction of Little World Left Behind. Following Lukács, we can understand Tomorrow as articulating the links in this chain.

Towards a Theory of Sci-Fi Realism

But Tomorrow eschews programmatic social realism. Firstly, Tomorrow takes up the question as to the capacity of the novel to represent historical transformation. In their conversations Knarf and Ord discuss the merits of the ancient technology of the novelistic form. ‘You did well to choose the antique form of the novel. It was the typical form of the period; large, rich, confused, intricate, it needs an elastic, free, inclusive, form. Strange how form sculptures to period, have you noticed? Those times were efflorescent, these are astringent’ (1983:80). The form becomes increasingly fragmented and ‘elastic’ as the work reaches the historical moment in which Barnard Eldershaw is writing, a time in which reality is being swallowed by war and chaos.

Lukács derided the modernism of Joyce and Kafka as mindlessly replicating the ideological confusion of capitalism. In their criticism Barnard Eldershaw also critiqued modernism for failing to ‘shape the chaos of life as we live it into a comprehensible whole’. Yet Tomorrow, while never submitting completely to a frenzy of stylistic heterogeneity, discards social realism and morphs into what may be termed sci-fi realism. As social reality becomes increasingly unreal, increasingly abstract literary techniques are required to generate mimetic effects. Free indirect discourse moves us in and out of the cast of characters’ voices and psyches. Reality is also composed of fantasy and visions. In one such vision Olaf Ramsay, a dying businessman, meets God, who resembles HG Wells and proceeds to engage him in a debate on free will and geopolitics.

The form becomes increasingly schematic, with narration cutting from the perspective of the historian-chronicler to soldiers and airmen caught in brutal technological warfare. This reaches a climax in the bombing of Sydney in which our hero Harry Munster dies and the Anzac statue sinks beneath the earth. This double annihilation signals the end of the realist hero’s struggle as the universe organised around him auto-destructs. Tomorrow thus questions whether a novel organised around the subject can ever contain the complexity of social life.

The novel nonetheless, in its sci-fi realist form, has miraculous aesthetic capacities. It is understood by Knarf and Ord as uniquely capable of representing historical change because of its formal openness. ‘The novel is the organ of becoming, the voice of a world in flux’ (1983:80). To render this world in flux, the political commentary that is key to social realism must escape the confines of a single voice and enter a whirlwind of agonistic contention.

The success of Tomorrow’s sci-fi realism lies in its manner of giving social analysis and political discourse an affective quality. The political is never merely a frame through which to comment on the 20th century by the author of the future. It is part of the texture of Australian life. The 1930s are understood as the ‘fateful decade’ characterised by an ‘orgy of ideologies’ and debate. It is ‘the last chance before the cataclysm. The graveyard of lost causes’ (1983:135). JG Ballard argued that science fiction was inspired by the ‘invisible literature’ of anonymous government reports and technical manuals. Barnard Eldershaw’s sci-fi realism is influenced by the very visible literature of political pamphlets, posters and public debate. In a particularly potent evocation of this we follow Harry’s daughter Ruthie as she and her lover walk through the Domain on a Sunday. There we encounter a cacophonic maelstrom of voices. Preachers, pacifists and communists all compete for the attention of the crowd, who add to the mounting noise. Barnard Eldershaw cannot register their own time without rendering political debate in the discordant noise of chopped up voices.

Tomorrow is full of political arguments, back and forth, between the characters in the novel, between Knarf and Ord commenting on the period and, in a section entitled ‘Symposium’, between citizens in the future Australia. There is an interesting paradox: political arguments are incapable of averting the ‘crisis’ of World War II. There is a sense that a rational view of the Australian totality is insufficient for generating Lukács’s much vaunted ‘class consciousness’. Yet the vitality of this argument illuminates the utopian possibilities inherent within this period. For the future observers the political cacophony gives the period a creative tension that is missing from their own world. It is significant that the futuristic Australia is ambiguously cast as neither utopian nor dystopian. For commentators at the time, this was what made the novel so confusing. ‘Is it a satire of State socialism? Or is it an indictment of laissez-faire?’, wrote Colin Roderick in a contemporaneous review. To the reader of today it appears to be both. Knarf lives in a centralised technocratic state characterised by abundance, as the land is communally owned and farmed using advanced hydro-electric engineering projects.

Yet there is a spiritual aridity about this future. The young, including Knarf’s son, are campaigning for democratic liberty, which will free them from the constraints of a subtle form of authoritarianism. Economic equality has not translated into a transformation of labour into non-alienated production. Marx’s famous dictum of a day organised around fishing, hunting and theorising is nowhere to be seen. Instead, hyper-specialisation and technical rationality reign supreme. The human of this future is constricted, ‘Always seeing less and seeing it clearer.’ Liberty remains elusive, and for Barnard Eldershaw it seems that state socialism is not the final moment in human liberation.

Writing retains a utopian potential. It is through the archaic practice of writing that Knarf is shaken from his own political apathy. It is also writing which illuminates for Ord the conceptual possibilities that remain latent in the past.

He was moved and could not trust himself. He scarcely knew the reason of his emotion, whether it came from the book itself, from some train of thought which it had started within himself, or from the pressure of Knarf’s personality, exalted in creation, upon him. It had for him the poignancy of prophecy as well as of retrospect. It had been and it would be. Nothing passed and nothing was lost. The love of life and the love of death were interchangeable and the same. Happiness and despair could be nourished at the same fountain (1983:416).

It is this capacity for ambiguity that gives the novel the capacity to interrupt the constraints imposed by a particular epoch on thinking and acting. In Tomorrow the power of writing does not come from the expression of a particular condition conveying specific information, or even of representing economic oppression. It lies in the capacity for sci-fi realism to reproduce a dialectical tension without resolving these contradictions. It is the haphazard and overly ambitious hubris of the novelistic form, in all its chaotic splendour, that gives it the remarkable capacity for the transmission of possibilities into a distant future.

The Death of M Barnard Eldershaw

Tomorrow is the final work of the M Barnard Eldershaw collaboration. After the book was completed Eldershaw reflected, ‘I feel nothing but a sick distaste for Tomorrow and wish we’d never written it.’ From its inception the book was written about as if it were a disease, with Barnard writing, ‘We feel some symptoms of a new novel coming on—something well in the future, the death of the civilisation after this when all the things we piously hope for have been accomplished (Rohrbacher 1973:65). These ‘symptoms’ are prophetic of the difficulties that were to accompany this book throughout its history. As Jane Grant notes, an uncensored edition disappeared between Adelaide and Melbourne when Barnard attempted to have the book published by Max Harris and John Reed’s publishing house after it became clear that the novel would face censorship.

What was it about Tomorrow that destroyed the collaborative entity known as M Barnard Eldershaw? Dever argues that the dissolution was in part the result of the breakdown of Barnard’s relationship with Frank Dalby Davison, the author of Man-Shy (1931) and The White Thorntree (1968), who was an ally of the duo in their political literary work in the FAW. Barnard instead describes it as the result of ‘war and geography’, with Flora living in Canberra working for the Reconstruction Division of the Department of Labour while she stayed in Sydney working for the CSIRO Radar library. It could thus be understood as a rupture between Eldershaw the pragmatic policy-maker and Barnard the poetically inclined novelist who would claim that Tomorrow was her work alone, after Flora’s death in 1957.

But we will hazard another theory. Tomorrow is a book that formally pushes the entity M Barnard Eldershaw to its compositional limits. The text reaches the limits of a politically committed literary realism that must grapple with an increasingly hyperbolic and chaotic reality. It is in this way a perfectly appropriate way for an entity that survived on and through writing to die.

M Barnard Eldershaw is destroyed in the act of taking in so much reality that it could no longer contain the whole and promptly disintegrates. Yet without this disintegration we would not have this singular work, a work whose conceptual ambitions continue to astound those who dare to enter into its maelstrom.


Works Cited

Barnard Eldershaw, M, 1983, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Virago Press, London.

Dever, M, 2004, ‘The Bonds of Friendship: The Demise of “M Barnard Eldershaw”’, Hecate, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 129–147.

Dever, M, 1989, ‘The Case for Flora Eldershaw’, Hecate, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 38–48.

Grant, J, 2012, ‘“I Must Be My Own Director”: Cynthia Reed, Elisabeth Lambert, and Reed & Harris, Publishers’, in Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon (eds), Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia, Sydney University Press.

Lukács, G, 1977, ‘Realism in the Balance’ in Aesthetics and Politics, Verso, London.

McQueen, H, 1990, ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: Aspects of the History and Social Development of European Australia’, Futures, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 231–243.

Rohrbacher, L, 1973, Marjorie Barnard and M Barnard Eldershaw, Twayne Publishers, New York.

Thomas Moran

Thomas Moran is a writer and researcher interested in the legacy of the antipodean avant-garde.

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