I’m looking forward to appearing at the 2023 Mandurah Readers’ and Writers’ Festival on Saturday 14 January at 11:00am. I’ll be in conversation with author Dr Josephine Taylor about my book, The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It’s a free event but you do need to reserve a ticket; the event page is here. Kudos to the City of Mandurah for putting on this festival. If you’re near Mandurah, I would love to see you there!
‘What are you possibly going to do for Z?’ you were wondering. And here I am finishing not with just a single Z, but a double Z, fittingly at the end of Katharine’s life!
For a long time, there was a single photo on the State Library of WA’s catalogue labelled ‘the last photograph of KSP’ by the donor, her good friend John Gilchrist. During one Covid lockdown, I asked SLWA to digitise the rest of Gilchrist’s photographs, which they kindly did. It introduced some ambiguity – there was a second photo from the same moment, and delightfully spontaneous. I present it now; I used the other one in the book because Katharine has her eyes open in it.
One story of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s that I love is “Yoirimba” (1958). It’s a simple and powerful story of just a few pages, set in Greenmount on the edge of Perth where Katharine lived – the most overt portrait of Katharine’s home. A spinster teacher named Miss Priscilla buys a “half-acre block of wild flowers and rocks on the hillside”; from it “the lights of the city sparkled along the horizon at dusk”. She builds a shack on the block and delights in the wildflower garden. She is determined that “not a tree or wildflower is going to be moved”. Her parents are farmers and have got too old to carry on their hard work on the land. She invites them to come live with her, in the simple house with its wild garden which needs no work. When Miss Priscilla is sent to the goldfields to teach for a term, her parents are left alone in the house. While she’s away, her father “cut down the trees, burnt off the scrub, borrowed a horse and plough and turned-up the hillside. He planted vines and fruit trees, and set out a garden in the front of the house. Mrs Tebbut planted marigolds and geraniums, stocks and sweet-peas.” Miss Priscilla returns, devastated by the transformation of her wild paradise into a miniature farm. It is a sad story about misunderstandings between aged parents and adult children, a clash of values about the environment and the purpose of life.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find “Yoirimba”, but it did appear in the selection of her stories, Tribute, published in 1988.
Griffith Watkins (1930-1969) caught my attention in 2017 with his brilliant poem “Heatwave” selected by Tracy Ryan and John Kinsella for The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. I was drawn to the tragic outline of his life: a promising writer and popular art teacher who drowned himself in the Swan River two years after the publication of his debut novel. I’ve been meaning to read that novel for years and now I finally have.
The Pleasure Bird (1967) is an existential novel set in Perth. The novel’s hero, Brenton, is a teacher in his twenties obsessed with art, boxing, sex and death. Watkins piles tragedies onto Brenton’s shoulders. At age 12, he found his war veteran, former boxing champion father hanging in the shed. His mother became a cleaner to provide for Brenton and his brother, Frank, before her early death from cancer. A year before the novel begins, Frank is killed in the boxing ring when his opponent, Mick Gabriel, fights dirty. Mick Gabriel went to prison for three months; he’s out now and Brenton is determined to have his revenge.
I’ve set up an online shop for signed copies of The Red Witch delivered to your door anywhere in Australia. It could make a great Christmas or birthday present. Please ‘add a note for seller’ if you would like an inscription.
Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard is an eloquent and powerful tracing of the life of one of Australia’s once most celebrated writers. It is a compelling tale that will be valued by general readers and scholars of literature and history. Typically, the Miegunyah Press has published a beautifully finished book that adheres to its well-established values of excellence in every facet of presentation.
The writer Xavier Herbert (1901-1984) was born in Geraldton, Western Australia. Like Katharine Susannah Prichard, he wrote about the plight of Aboriginal people in the north of Australia. I haven’t uncovered any meeting between them or letters, although it’s possible they crossed paths a couple of times. He was infamously a difficult personality, and his politics was very different to hers – he was involved with the Australia First Movement during the Second World War. Katharine certainly knew his work and wrote appreciatively of his novel Capricornia in her 1939 essay “The Aborigine in Australian Literature”. The terms Katharine uses in the essay are a problem today, but I quote from it to give an idea of a white person eighty years ago beginning to reckon with the dark history of the treatment of Aboriginal people:
When I wrote Coonardoo it was to expose the plight of the aboriginal woman and the half-caste problem. These were considered forbidden subjects at the time. Everybody in the north-west knows what “black velvet” means and the implications of a half-caste population, but by general consent they have been shrouded in silence.
With the publication of Capricornia by Xavier Herbert, that silence has been broken for ever. This book won the Commonwealth Centenary Prize and is the outstanding novel of the year.
A grim and powerful piece of realism, it stands against romantic fiction about the aborigines, against the slavery of natives and half-castes on outback stations, in mission settlements and in Government compounds. Capricornia is the first real defence the aborigines ever had. It is stark and uncompromising in its indictment of the forces responsible for the disgraceful and outrageous state of native affairs in the Northern Territory. (pp. 52-53)
Herbert published his autobiography at the same time as Katharine. She thought his attracted better reviews because it was more frank about sex, but the reality was she didn’t treat autobiography as a literary enterprise while he did.
Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote some of her books in a frenzy of activity, completing whole novels in a few months. She took three months off freelance journalism in early 1914, just after turning 30, to write her debut novel, The Pioneers. She wrote for long hours through winter in her London flat, almost forgetting to eat. Her best-known novel, Coonardoo, came in a similar burst of inspiration when she was midway through Haxby’s Circus and set it aside to write the novel which had been brewing out of her trip to Turee Station in the Pilbara.
Katharine Susannah Prichard first voted in the 1906 federal election. Victoria had not yet given women the vote at a state level, but women were able to vote federally. She had just turned 23, and she didn’t dare tell her father that she voted for the Labor party. He had just been in a mental institution after suffering severe depression, and she knew he would take her vote very badly. He was a conservative, railing against a minimum wage and welfare in his newspaper columns.
Katharine Susannah Prichard had a troubled relationship with university. She longed to attend Melbourne University with her peer group, Nettie Higgins, Christian Jollie Smith and Hilda Bull. But while they went on to study, respectively, arts, law and medicine, Katharine spent a desultory year as housekeeper when her mother was sick in 1903, the year after secondary school. Her mother recovered, but her father didn’t want her to study further, so she set off to Yarram to make a living as a governess.
Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 10 week stay on Turee Station in the Pilbara in 1926 inspired her novel Coonardo, her play Brumby Innes, and two of her most famous stories, ‘The Cooboo’ and ‘Happiness’. She was staying with the station owners, Joe and Doris Maguire, whom she calls old friends. I think the friendship is probably through Katharine’s husband, Hugo Throssell, who worked on a neighbouring station, Ashburton Downs, before World War One.