As 1936 turned into 1937, the Australian novelist Eleanor Dark found herself embroiled in an epistolary skirmish with her U.S. literary agents. At stake was the fate of Prelude to Christopher, Dark’s startling second book. The story of one man’s calamitous quest for a socially engineered paradise, Prelude melds a gothic plot with a modernist style. At the time, fascism was spreading through Europe. Yet judging by the reaction from Dark’s agents and publisher, America wasn’t interested in a woman’s bleak take on biological determinism and utopianism.
Prelude opens with Nigel Hendon, a middle-age doctor in a small rural town in New South Wales, getting into a car accident which leaves him badly injured. Through a semiconscious haze, he anticipates death as a relief, a solution to the “vast inimical burden” of living. As his mind slides into the past (“disappointed, futile years”), his memories are interspersed with the stream-of-consciousness perspectives of other characters, including his mother, his wife, and the young hospital nurse who secretly loves him (and who has chosen their future son’s name: Christopher). We soon learn that, as a gifted medical graduate in the years before World War I, Nigel formed his own breakaway society. An island utopia, where only the carefully screened “mentally and physically fit” could live, was to be the culmination of his every ambition, the realization of his scientific potential, a shimmering dream whose original preciousness still beckons: