An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: K is for… KATHARINE, KATHERINE, KATTIE, KATYA

Katharine’s names have often been misspelt – her given name, her middle name, AND her last name. Yet the replacement of the more common ‘Katherine’ for ‘Katharine’ has some ambiguities. In her archives, I found her birth certificate and it looks like it’s been written down as ‘Katherine’. Presumably, the clerk got it wrong!

She was actually named for a dead aunty, Katherine Susan Davies, her mother’s elder half-sister. Katherine Susan died soon after childbirth in 1873, ten years before Katharine was born. Her widower was Slingsby Davies, who soon remarried his late wife’s sister, Hannah Frances. With Katharine growing up on North Road in Caulfield two doors down from Uncle Slingsby and Aunt Hannah, the families were quite entangled. She keeps on talking about Slingsby in her autobiography, trying to settle old scores and hurts. Their family was richer and more successful than hers, and one of the houses they lived in for some time on North Road belonged to Slingsby. The echoes of names are strong too, with Katharine adopting the character name ‘Hannah Frances’ for the titular autobiographical character in The Wild Oats of Han (1928). I spent a lot of time pursuing the Davies, and found out various things about them, only to realise they weren’t germane enough to the story to keep. It’s one of the hardest parts of a biography, pruning hard-won archival discoveries from the manuscript.

In her childhood and young adulthood, Katharine was usually called ‘Kattie’ by friends and family. I call the first part of my biography ‘Kattie’. By the end of her life, Katharine wasn’t the sort of woman you could imagine calling ‘Kattie’ – she was too formidable. It might also be true to say that some of the buoyancy had left her after going through so many tragedies. By then, one of the few nicknames she seemed to welcome was ‘Comrade Katya’, which she encouraged her Soviet correspondents to call her.

An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: J is for Dr Alexander JOLLY

Katharine’s friend and physician, Greenmount communist Dr Alexander Jolly, was summoned to her house when she had a stroke late on 2 October 1969. He couldn’t save her and she died not long before her son, Ric, arrived from the airport for a visit. If she had any last words, it was Jolly who heard them.

Katharine used to credit Jolly with keeping her alive through her seventies and eighties when she had been expected to die from her bad heart and high blood pressure.

At the pivotal 1949 federal election, Jolly stood as the Communist Party candidate for the seat of Swan. Although he was a Midland councillor, the council forbade him as a communist candidate from hiring the town hall. So he held the rally outside his house on the Great Eastern Highway. Anti-communist protestors came to disrupt the meeting, singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in unison as loudly as they could. Katharine was the celebrity guest, declaring ‘In this most critical period of Australian history, is up to all of us to use our courage and common sense to fight the gang of millionaires, warmongers, unscrupulous politicians, and their henchmen.’

An A to Z OF Katharine Susannah Prichard: I IS FOR… INTIMATE STRANGERS

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Katharine’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, was once obsessed with a theatre actor named Henrietta Watson whom he watched perform while he was still in school. On a dare, he wrote to her years later while working as a stockman on Ashburton Downs and then, when in London after being evacuated from Gallipoli in 1915, he looked her up. She was charmed to hear from ‘Ashburton Jim’, VC winner, and there was the beginnings of a romance between Hugo and Henrietta, cut short for some reason. On the war hero speaking circuit, Hugo liked to tell the story of Henrietta and eventually wrote it up as a story he called ‘Intimate Strangers’.

Rather than being jealous, Katharine decided to take the title for her novel exploring the strains of a marriage in middle-age. She wrote the first half of her Intimate Strangers just before the Great Depression, and that half is full of the beaches of Rockingham and a sense of the Roaring Twenties in Perth. In the second half, the Depression hits and the mood changes.

She denied it was autobiographical and insisted it was based on a couple she knew. I tracked that couple down and wrote of the similarities and differences in chapter 24 of The Red Witch, ‘The Mirage is Breaking Up’. Even if Rose and Les Atkinson were models, the autobiographical aspects are impossible to ignore and there are new revelations in my book. It all matters so much because she originally had her returned war hero character commit suicide – only for her war hero husband in real life do the same. She changed the ending, unconvincingly many think.

Intimate Strangers is finally available again as an ebook thanks to the Untapped project – you can borrow it through your public library (Borrowbox or Overdrive) or buy it – https://www.amazon.com/Intimate-Strangers…/dp/B09MZX9R8Y

H is for Dorothy HEWETT [AN A TO Z OF KATHARINE SUSANNAH PRICHARD]

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Dorothy Hewett in 1977

Katharine’s friendship with Dorothy Hewett is intriguing. Hewett (1923-2002) started out in awe of Katharine as a young Perth poet and playwright who joined the Communist Party. But Hewett began to have doubts about the party as the atrocities committed by Stalin were revealed and the Soviet Union cracked down on dissident writers. Katharine stayed loyal to the Soviet Union; Hewett criticised it and then left the party altogether. Katharine was in her 80s by then and frail; she’d already had one stroke. Hewett didn’t want to be the death of her from a political argument, and so stopped visiting her in Greenmount.

When Katharine died in 1969, Hewett finally said all the things she’d been leaving unsaid in a brutal obituary that accused Katharine of willing her own creative death after the suicide of her husband. The obituary made Katharine’s son, Ric Throssell, so angry he vowed to write his own account of Katharine’s life – and he did, the first biography of Katharine, Wild Weeds and Windflowers (1975).

But Hewett made peace with Katharine in her heart and wrote a much more appreciative tribute to her on her 100th birthday in 1983 called, ‘Happy birthday Brave Red Witch!’. It was fascinating to find Ric’s notes on his interview with Hewett in about 1972; he jotted down how he wasn’t looking forward to talking to her, but he seemed to have been enchanted by her and the conciliatory things she had to say by then.

Hewett’s own biographical legacy is complicated, and her daughters Kate (named after Katharine) and Rozanne Lilley have written about their experiences as teenagers of sexual abuse by visitors to their house in their respective books Tilt and Do Oysters Get Bored?.

The story of Katharine and Hewett’s complicated friendship is told in The Red Witch chapter 38 ‘Hardliner’.

V is for VOTING [An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard]

Katharine Susannah Prichard first voted in the 1906 federal election. Victoria had not yet given women the vote at a state level, but they 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 had met a visiting socialist earlier that year, Rudolf Broda, who believed Australia was a beacon of hope for the world. Australia was one of the most progressive countries in the world, opening up the vote to women and about to hand down the court ruling establishing a living wage that could keep a family in the necessities of life. She was very taken with Broda and his pot-belly and enthusiasm. He was an optimist who believed a better society could be achieved through reform. He was an early key influence pushing her to the left.

By the end of her life, Katharine had to contend with an Australia which was not a beacon of hope for the world when it came to a more just and fair society. She lived the last twenty years of her life under a government of the newly formed Liberal Party, most of them under her nemesis Robert Menzies. (Yet the Liberal Party of those years, in my understanding, cared deeply about avoiding corruption and guarding against deep inequality and poverty. The party of Menzies is not the party of Morrison.)

At the pivotal 1949 federal election in which the Liberals came to power, Katharine’s friend Dr Alec Jolly stood as the Communist Party candidate for the seat of Swan. Although he was a Midland councillor, the council forbade him as a communist candidate from hiring the town hall. So he held the rally outside his house on Great Eastern Highway. Anti-communist protestors came to disrupt the meeting, singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in unison as loudly as they could. Katharine was the celebrity guest, declaring ‘In this most critical period of Australian history, is up to all of us to use our courage and common sense to fight the gang of millionaires, warmongers, unscrupulous politicians, and their henchmen.’

Katharine would vote for the Socialist Alliance today. But they’re probably not going to win any seats, and I would like to think she would recognise that climate change is the most important issue facing us and to vote for candidates standing for stronger action than the incumbents.

Red Witch interviews and events coming up

Katharine in 1941

One of my hopes as I was working on the Katharine Susannah Prichard biography was that it would be published before Phillip Adams retired as a radio broadcaster and I would have a chance to be on Late Night Live with him. The hope came true last night! I was honoured to be a guest for a LNL special on the Prichard and Throssell family alongside KSP’s granddaughter, Karen Throssell. You can listen to it here.

Today, I am on ABC Pilbara at 10:45am AWST and on ABC Perth after the 2:00pm AWST news for the History Repeated segment with Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Librarian.

I have some in-person events coming up too:

State Library of Western Australia, Wed 25 May, 6:00pm – in conversation with Dr Kate Gregory – bookings here.

Boya Community Centre, Mon 20 June, 6:00pm – bookings here.

And an online event for Love to Read Local, organised by Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, Fri 10 June, 6:00pm – in conversation with Elizabeth Lewis – bookings here.

My book will be for sale at the in-person events. In the meantime, if you’re trying to find a copy, I’m aware that the following places have stock:

  • Beaufort Street Books Mt Lawley (49 copies!)
  • Lane Bookshop, Claremont (am hoping to sign their copies this afternoon)
  • Boffins Books, Perth
  • Readings – Carlton and State Library of Victoria
  • Roaring Stories, Balmain
  • Dymocks, Canberra Centre

There’s plenty of other places, I’m sure. If you’re after the ebook, you can buy it directly from your publisher, or the Kindle edition is now available too.

The Red Witch publication day

Today is publication day for The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. You can join the online launch at 6pm AWST / 8pm AEST – https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

The book should be in your local bookshop from today – if not, please ask them to get it in! In Perth, I know that Beaufort St Books, Boffins and (I think) the Lane Bookshop have copies today.

G IS FOR Charles GARVICE [An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard]

Katharine Susannah became instantly famous across the Commonwealth when she won the Australasian section of the great Hodder and Stoughton All-Empire Competition in April 1915 (the very month of Gallipoli) for her unpublished novel, The Pioneers. It was the big break she had been working hard towards for a decade. I think The Pioneers, for all its faults, is genuinely a very good novel, but at the time of the competition, a number of critics were unwilling to take the winning entry seriously because of the judge, British writer Charles Garvice.

The columnist in Wellington’s Dominion wrote, “…to foist such a fifteen-rate novelist as Mr Garvice upon Australasian writers as judge of their work was little short of an insult” (May 29, 1915, 14). Almost no-one remembers Garvice today, but at the time, he was the biggest-selling British author alive, having sold millions of the romances he produced many times a year. Among serious lovers of literature his name was a byword for dross. When his own books are so forgotten, it is a beautiful irony that one of his great legacies was to launch the career of such a significant Australian writer. Even if Garvice wasn’t a great writer, could he have been a good reader, able to discern something special in Katharine Susannah’s work? The Pioneers is a romance, melodramatic at times yet with characters more vivid and a plot more interesting than the genre usually produces.

In researching Garvice I came across the superb essay, “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist”. Laura Sewell Matter tells of her quest for Garvice, after finding some pages of an Icelandic-language book wash up on a beach in Iceland and eventually tracking it down as a translation of one of Garvice’s novels. You can read it here: https://laura-sewell-matter.com/publications/. It has been great to become biographer buddies with Laura through our shared interest in Charles Garvice.

You can read the full story of Katharine’s novel The Pioneers in chapter 12 of The Red Witch, “Breaking Out”.

An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: F is for… Fay’s Circus

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Fay’s Circus is the greatest Katharine Susannah Prichard novel almost no-one alive today has read. Or at least in one sense. It was published in the USA in 1931 by William Norton and is the complete version of the novel better known as Haxby’s Circus. Through an unfortunate mistake, the full version has never been republished.

In 1917, Katharine held the hand of an acrobat who had broken her back at a circus performance, trying to comfort her. They were waiting for Katharine’s brother, Dr Nigel Prichard, to return to his surgery and treat the woman. The incident stayed with Katharine and finally bloomed into a novel a decade later after she travelled with Wirth’s Circus for two weeks through the Wheatbelt and Mid West of WA. Haxby’s (or Fay’s) Circus follows Gina the acrobat after a terrible accident as she is transformed into a worldly and world weary middle-aged woman, adept at the business of circuses and reinventing herself.

Katharine called it Fay’s Circus and was finishing it to enter in a novel competition in 1929 when her son and nephew (who was living with her) got measles. To meet the deadline, she left out a big chunk from her plan and sent it off anyway. It was short-listed and contracted for publication, but the publisher insisted the name be changed to ‘Haxby’s Circus’ and wouldn’t give her the time to finish the missing section. It was hard to negotiate by post to London, and the book appeared like that despite Katharine’s unhappiness.

When US publisher William Norton wanted to publish it, he gave her time to write the missing section and allowed her to keep her original title. She was much happier with the result and grateful to Norton. However, in 1945 when the novel was selected for reprinting in a cheap Australian war edition to be sent to troops on the frontline, Katharine forgot to send the publisher the US edition to reprint from. The many reprints since have followed the mistake. I ordered in Fay’s Circus on inter-library loan, and the missing section truly does improve the novel, taking away the abrupt change of fortune and mood late in the story.

The full story is in Red Witch chapter 23, “The Circus”. Carol Hetherington wrote a great essay on Fay’s Circus and Katharine’s relationship with Norton – https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A158838200/LitRC…

An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: E is for… EMERALD

The biographer at the Emerald literary mural in 2016

On the great Katharine Susannah pilgrimage from Melbourne to Canberra in 2016 with Nicole and baby Thomas, we stayed a few nights near Emerald in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges. Katharine lived there in 1918, but it had a place in her personal mythology that was greater than the time she spent there. With its tall, lush bush, Emerald made me think of Pemberton, the setting for Katharine’s breakthrough novel Working Bullocks (1926); I’m convinced she would have felt the similarity too.

We briefly visited Rose Charman Cottage. Katharine’s good friends Hilda and Louis Esson were living there in 1916 and it was a symbol of the domestic bliss Katharine was missing out on when she went to see them there. In 1918, she took over the lease of the cottage and spent her time there glorying in the trees, mourning her dead brother, Alan, killed in the war, and moping over Guido Baracchi while she began to fall for a war hero named Hugo Throssell. She was also reading Marx and writing her spirited third novel, Black Opal (1921). Right at the end of Katharine’s life, she fictionalised this time in her final novel, Subtle Flame (1967). The Emerald year is chapter 17 of The Red Witch, ‘Retreat’.

Katharine’s mother bought the house for her as a wedding gift with the money left by Alan. Maybe she was trying to keep Katharine in Melbourne, but instead, after honeymooning in the cottage, the couple moved to Perth. One of my favourite finds in my quest was a receipt, sitting loosely in Hugo Throssell’s scrapbook at the State Library of WA, from the Emerald General Store. It gives a picture of what they ate on their honeymoon and I found it the most unlikely and delightful relic. (Check out p. 148 of The Red Witch to discover their fare!) It would have been a painful moment when Katharine had to sell the cottage in 1932 after Hugo’s huge debts had brought the family to the brink of ruin.

I was desperate to find an old photo of the cottage, and I finally did – it had been sitting amongst scans I’d taken from Katharine’s papers right back in 2014. It’s the second photo here, labelled in Katharine’s hand on the back ‘The cottage at Emerald’. I excitedly sent it to the present owner, but she told me it couldn’t possibly be the same house. It certainly looks very different after a century of renovations and extensions. The top picture is me in front of a mural at Emerald, depicting Katharine and her literary friends, Nettie and Vance Palmer, who also lived in the cottage for a time, and CJ Dennis, another of Emerald’s literary heroes.