Writing the circus chapter



Wirth's ad

The ad for the performance Katharine attended on 5 September 1927. (Swan Express, 2 September 1927, 5). I really like the warning about leaving things in your  motor car.

This month I’m writing the circus chapter of my Katharine Susannah Prichard biography, chapter 24 in the current structure. It’s focused on the writing and reception of her novel Haxby’s Circus (1930). The novel was written at the end of her five year creative peak from 1924 to 1929 and is usually regarded as one of her better novels but less accomplished than the other two novels of this period, Working Bullocks (1926) and Coonardoo (1929). Whatever its flaws it’s an engaging and moving novel. I reviewed it in July 2014, writing that it ‘has the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in KSP’s work, scenes of beauty, darkness and insight’. More recently, Lisa has reviewed it on ANZ Litlovers.

It’s a pity that the edition reprinted several times has always been the British one. The American edition, Fay’s Circus (Katharine’s original title) – published a year later – contains an extra section of 9700 words which scholar Carol Hetherington believes resolves the structural flaw late in the novel. Katharine was writing for a competition deadline and her sick child meant she didn’t write this section as planned in the first version. (Carol Hetherington, ‘Authors, Editors, Publishers: Katharine Susannah Prichard and W.W. Norton’, Australian Literary Studies 22, no. 4 (October 2006): 417–31.) Continue reading

Getting Hugo Throssell a little wrong



Throssell, Hugo - 1914 - slwa_b2425052_2

Hugo Throssell, 1914, photo: State Library of WA. https://encore.slwa.wa.gov.au/iii/encore/record/C__Rb2425052


It was uncanny to see Katharine’s husband, Hugo Throssell, as the lead story on the WAToday website today. He was one of many whose lives were destroyed by the Great War and his death in 1933 can be seen as the long term consequence of the trauma he suffered at the front. Kudos to WAToday for examining the impact of war and placing history on its front page. But it was an article which got several things quite wrong. I was going to leave it at a fairly irenic comment at the bottom of the article – but they still haven’t approved the comment nine hours later, so now I’m feeling annoyed. Continue reading

Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World by Michelle Scott Tucker


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The twelve-year journey to publication is over for my fellow biographer-blogger Michelle Scott Tucker – her book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World, is out. It’s an impressive debut, telling the life of a key Australian colonist as a compulsive story and handling adeptly the gaps in the archive and the jagged edges of an ambitious woman married to a difficult, impulsive man. In 1789, aged in her early twenties, Elizabeth left Britain for the fledgling New South Wales colony with her officer-husband, John, on the Second Fleet. She lived the rest of her long life in New South Wales, conscious of her position as one of the first ‘ladies’ in a convict colony and determinedly steering her family’s wool-growing business to success, despite John’s appalling feuds and vendettas which sabotaged their efforts.

Continue reading

The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins




Melbourne writer Robert Lukins’ debut, The Everlasting Sunday (UQP, 2018), is an elegant novel about seventeen-year-old Radford’s time at a home for troubled boys in England over the Big Freeze of 1962-1963. He finds friendship and brotherhood there among the other boys and their admired but mysterious mentor, Teddy, as the life of the home begins to fall apart. The novel is cinematic in its sumptuous visual narration, which is in tension with its careful avoidance of explanations. Even when we’re inside the head of Radford, we only see glimpses. This restraint gives the novel some of its distinctive tone; it is beautifully written. Perhaps its flipside is that the more dramatic events of the narrative took me too much by surprise – was the narrative working with a different logic to what I was used to, was it the fault of a somewhat lazy reader (quite likely), or could it have been strengthened by some foreshadowing or other changes? Setting the novel over the big freeze was a superb choice with its symbolic resonances and the way it gives a timeframe, a clock ticking over the course of the freeze as the characters – and the reader – wait for the inevitable thawing. It doesn’t read like a first novel and it’s probably not; ‘assured writing’ Lucy Treloar claims on the cover, and I agree. It’s also wise and haunting. I came to this novel through Lukins’ inspired Twitter presence; it’s not necessarily the tone or type of novel I expected from his tweets, but it’s every bit as good as I hoped.



Re-reading Coonardoo



I reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo back in 2014 and stand by most of my comments. I’ve just finished re-reading it, and want to add some further thoughts.

It’s inevitable that literature is read in terms of its social relevance, praised or blamed for its handling of issues that matter to us as a society now. It’s one of the functions of literature, and it’s a significant one, but it shouldn’t be the only one. It’s a two-edged sword, of course. When Coonardoo was serialised in the The Bulletin in 1928, some readers wrote in angrily about the fact it depicted miscegenation between whites and Aboriginals. (This is an oft-repeated statement; if I get time I’d like to get behind it and see if these and other negative reactions are preserved in the archives anywhere – certainly not in KSP’s papers.) Later, Coonardoo was praised for its progressiveness in representing Aboriginal characters more fully. Continue reading

Sweet Country


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For my birthday, I watched Sweet Country. It’s a brilliant film: beautifully crafted shots, a clever plot working within the conventions of the thriller, and a superb evocation of 1920s outback Australia. It’s the story of an Aboriginal man, Sam Kelly, who shoots a white man in self-defence and goes on the run. At one point the townspeople are watching a travelling screening of the early silent film The Story of the Kelly Gang, and the parallel is a good one: in Sam Kelly, we have an outlaw we can unequivocally cheer on. The actor who plays him, Hamilton Morris, is brilliant. I love the fact that in 2018 we can finally have a film with a middle-aged Aboriginal hero, wise, quiet, and complicated and so alien to every cliche of Hollywood heroes. I also love this film for the way it made me experience the outback, the heat, the beauty, the harsh life. It made me glad to be Australian. It comes just as I’m re-reading Katharine Prichard’s Coonardoo, published the same time the film is set. The whole film feels like a contemporary reworking of Prichard’s outback ouevre from an Aboriginal perspective. For that and many other reasons I recommend it highly.

A generation X family chronicle: You Belong Here by Laurie Steed


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My friend Laurie Steed’s debut, You Belong Here, has just been published. It stretches from 1972 to 2015, beginning when two baby boomers fall in love and finishing with a poignant epilogue chapter from their first grandchild, but at its heart it’s a novel about Generation X, that forgotten generation that no-one seems to have talked about since the nineties. He-man toys in childhood, PJ Harvey on the stereo; reading it is a welcome respite from an internet world as the three Slater children – Alex, Emily, Jay – grow up on lolly bags at the deli, cricket and VHS at the end of the twentieth century. Continue reading

Biography workshop on 17 March 2018



 Biography is the art of human portrayal in words, and it is a noble and adventurous art.
– Leon Edel

My biography workshop at Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre is coming up fast. If you know anyone in Perth writing a biography, please let them know about it! I’d love to have a decent-sized group of biographers discuss our genre. The workshop is designed to be accessible for beginners but experienced biographers are welcome and should find much to appreciate as well as contributing their own wisdom.

Detective, Historian, Storyteller: The Arts of the Biographer
A biographer needs many hats – detective, unearthing sources that reveal a life more fully; historian, analysing and putting these sources into context; and storyteller, weaving it all into a compelling narrative. This workshop introduces these roles of the biographer and gives practical tips and exercises to help you develop your skills.

Saturday 17 March, 1:30pm – 4:30pm.
Cost: $38 for Members $48 for Non-Members
Venue: ECU Joondalup Campus, Edith Cowan House, Building 20, 270 Joondalup Drive, Joondalup WA
Register online

Download flyer for the Arts of Biographer workshopbiographer


Biography from a deep well: Martin Edmond’s Battarbee and Namatjira


One of Australia’s great biographers is a New Zealander. Long a resident of Australia, Martin Edmond’s new book, The Expatriates, is about four New Zealanders who made their mark in Europe. Before that, he tackled the most Australian of subjects in his 2014 dual biography on two great Northern Territory painters, Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira. Continue reading

The death of Billy Graham


So, Billy Graham is dead at ninety-nine. He lived long enough to see the movement he once led, American evangelicalism, become monstrous, complicit in the election of Donald Trump. There was a time when the distinction between fundamentalism and evangelicalism was meaningful. Billy Graham was distrusted by fundamentalists because he was willing to work with all kinds of Christians. Evangelicals shared fundamentalists’ high view of the Bible but they weren’t separatists. They were willing to engage with the world and with theological liberals, to make their case rather than to bunker down in solipsism. They weren’t politically partisan. (There are still many moderate or progressive evangelicals, and even more in Australia, but their quiet witness is not loud enough.) Continue reading