The Australian writer Eleanor Dark's work was heavily influenced by a troubled history, which until now has remained a family secret, a UNSW PhD thesis reveals.

Dark is perhaps best known as the author of the historical work The Timeless Land, but is also a noted novelist.

Dr Helen O'Reilly, who is a relative of Dark's, has recently submitted her PhD thesis at the age of 75.

The work, which is based in part on a collection of correspondence that was entrusted to her 30 years ago, goes some way to explain the unhappy marriages and sexual abuse which appear in Dark's early novels.

"Eleanor Dark's over-riding themes are time and memory," says Dr O'Reilly. "Time informs the structure of her novels, she juxtaposes past and present. Memory in all its aspects - personal, cultural and racial - dominates both her contemporary novels and The Timeless Land trilogy."

The letters outlined a long-standing fight between the late author's father (Dowell O'Reilly), his sister Marion and her husband, A.B. Piddington. The correspondence reveals accusations that Dowell abused his first wife (Eleanor Dark's mother) and was unfaithful to her.

"This work is highly significant," observes Dr Elizabeth McMahon, from the School of English Media and Performing Arts, who supervised Dr O'Reilly's thesis. "It changes the way we will read Dark's fiction."

Dr O'Reilly completed the thesis against the odds, having survived breast cancer mid-way through writing. The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences gave a small grant for editing assistance following her illness and the Student Equity and Disabilities Unit provided funding for typing up the final drafts.

Media contact: Susi Hamilton, UNSW media unit | 0422 934 024