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Last month was the 114th birthday of author Eleanor Dark, who was born August 26 1901. Her most famous novel is The Timeless Land, published in 1941, the first in a trilogy about early European settlement. Sympathetic towards Aboriginal people and meticulously researched, the book was part of the high school curriculum for many years and is now considered an Australian classic. It even inspired the famous historian Manning Clark. It was turned into a successful TV series in 1980.
When Eleanor married Eric Dark, a widowed doctor, she asked for three things: an equal partnership, a child, and the freedom to write. Eleanor got a studio in the garden where she could write in peace, a maid to help with the housework, and emotional support and encouragement for her writing. Her other wish was granted when she and Eric had a son named Michael; they already had a son named John, from Eric’s first marriage.
Thoughtful and generous, the Darks shared progressive ideals. An active member of the Labor left, Eric wrote political books and pamphlets which attracted attention from the anti-communist Menzies government and ASIO, and the entire Dark family was probably under surveillance. Although she considered herself apolitical, Eleanor’s socialist and feminist views permeate her work, and she was a scathing critic of middle-class suburbia.
The Darks moved to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains in 1923, and enjoyed bush walking, camping, climbing, and exploring. Eleanor was one of the first gardeners to grow Australian native plants as well as exotics. In her novels, the Australian landscape is not just a backdrop but almost another character. She believed that as people change the environment, the environment also changes us, and that we are part of the country in both mind and body. In her books are some of the most beautiful and loving evocations of the bush; its scents and sounds, its silence and spirit.
After Eleanor died in 1985, her son Michael gave the Dark family home in Katoomba to the Eleanor Dark Foundation. Named Varuna after the Hindu god of the ocean, the night sky, and the underworld, the house sits on a ridge overlooking the valleys of the Blue Mountains. Varuna is now a residential retreat, where authors can find a room of their own, and uninterrupted writing time; Eleanor’s studio is still in use. It was a wonderful gift for Eleanor as an author, and now for many others too.
Eleanor is the modern form of Éléonore, the Old French form of the Provençal name Aliénor. Eleanor of Aquitaine (born around 1122) is often identified as the first bearer of the name Aliénor, and a popular story is that her name came about because she was christened Aénor, and as her mother’s name was also Aénor, she was known as alia Aénor, meaning “the other Aénor”. This suggestion was labelled “ridiculous” by a French scholar in the 17th century, but is still going strong.
There were earlier women with similar names – Eleanor of Aquitaine’s own great-grandmother is listed as Aleanor. However, the records for these early Eleanors post-date Eleanor of Aquitaine, so their names could have been conveniently translated into Eleanor (or Alienor or Aleanor) by later writers.
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s great-grandmother’s name seems to have been more like Adenorde, sometimes written as Ainor. It would be a reasonable assumption that Aénor was a variant of this name, and Aliénor was too. The origin of Adenorde is obscure, but looks to be Germanic.
Eleanor “Elea” Nickerson from British Baby Names suggests it could be from the Germanic name element adal, meaning “noble”, or from ald, meaning “old, mature, grown up”. The norde looks like the Germanic for “north. Another of Eleanor Nickerson’s suggestions is that it could be related to those Germanic names starting with aud-, meaning “wealth, riches”.
Another popular theory is that Eleanor is a Provençal form of Helen, Ellen, or Elena – also of ancient and obscure origin. Helen is usually said to be from the Greek for “light, bright”, although it may be ultimately from Sanskrit and mean “running, swift” (quite suitable for a runaway bride like Helen of Troy!). The reason for the Eleanor = Helen idea is probably because Eleanor of Aquitaine had her name Latinised as Helienordis. At the very least it is possible that the name Eleanor was influenced by the various Helen names, becoming fused (or confused?).
At least everyone agrees that Eleanor of Aquitaine popularised the name Eleanor. One of the wealthiest and most influential women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, making her such an eligible bride that she was snapped up by both Louis VII and Henry II, so she became a queen of France, then of England. She was the mother of Richard the Lionheart and King John, and one of her daughters was named after her – Eleanor who became queen of Castile, and was a similarly powerful figure.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was clever, charming, sophisticated, and high-spirited, and contemporary sources all agree that she was very beautiful. She survived into her eighties, and outlived both husbands and most of her children. She was perhaps more woman than most medieval men could handle, and she was let go by her first husband, and imprisoned for years by her second.
The name Eleanor became common amongst both French and English royalty and nobility. King John named one of his daughters Eleanor after his mother, and French noblewoman Eleanor of Provence married Henry III, becoming the mother of Edward I. Edward married Eleanor of Castile, who was named after her great-grandmother, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. In turn, Edward I named his eldest daughter Eleanor, and her daughter was given the name Eleanor; Edward II also named a daughter Eleanor after Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #98 in the 1900s, and reached its lowest point in the 1960s at #454. It climbed steadily until the 1990s, after which it levelled off for many years, remaining stable in the 100s. Eleanor joined the Top 100 for the first time since the 1900s last year, climbing 31 places to reach #84, the second-highest rise in rank after Ariana. It is #82 in New South Wales, where it was one of the fastest-rising names for the year, #77 in Queensland, where it was one of the fastest-rising names, #54 in Tasmania, and #45 in the Australian Capital Territory.
Eleanor also joined the US Top 100 last year, and is #78 there. It was popular in the US from the end of the 19th century until World War II, and peaked in 1920 at #25. Long-serving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave it a lot of publicity; her first name was Anna, but she went by her middle name. Eleanor was popular in the UK from the middle of the 19th century until the 1930s, and returned to the Top 100 in the 1980s. It peaked at #18 in 1999, and is currently #60 in England/Wales.
Up until this year, I would have said that Eleanor was a perfect, classic, underused choice. It was too perfect and classic to remain underused forever, as it has now become a Top 100 name. You can understand why, as it has both strength and elegance, a marvellous royal namesake, and the option of nicknames such as Elle, Ella, Ellie, Elea, Nell, Nellie, and Nora.
Spelling variants such as Elinor and Ellanore are not unusual; the name Elanor is from The Lord of the Rings and means “sun star” in the invented Sindarin language – in Tolkien’s universe, an elanor was a small yellow pimpernel-like flower, and the name was given to Sam Gamgee’s golden-haired daughter. In Australia, Eleanor is usually said EL-uh-nawr, similar to the American pronunciation, although you will sometimes hear a British pronunciation here, which is more like EL-en-uh.
Eleanor received an outstanding approval rating of 91%, making it the highest-rated Famous Name for girls in 2015, and the highest-rated Famous Name overall. People saw the name Eleanor as elegant and refined (28%), dignified and intellectual (23%), and beautiful or attractive (17%). However 5% thought it was too popular. Only one person thought Eleanor seemed snobbish or elitist, and likewise just one was bothered by the number of spellings and pronunciations.
(Photo of the Blue Mountains near Varuna from Hook to Book by Christine Bell; Christine gives a wonderful insight into what life is like as a writer at Varuna).