Executive Councillor

Wild Weeds and Wind Flowers: The Life and Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard / by Ric Throssell (Angus & Robertson, 1975)

Wild Weeds is a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), one of Australia’s most important novelists, but just as much it is a memoir, written with the intimate care and investment of a son who loved his mother deeply. The foreword is valuable as an explanation of intent and of KSP’s troubled relationship to biography. Throssell starts by writing that ‘Katharine persuaded herself to write about her own life in sheer self-defence.’ Throssell’s biography also often feels like a defence against the misreadings and intrusions of literary critics, and against the criticism her life-long communism drew. He writes in the foreword:

I cannot attempt a dispassionate study. I can pretend to no cold, academic impartiality. Mine is a personal picture. I make no literary evaluation of my mother’s work; no assessment of the rights and wrongs of the political beliefs which were an essential part of her writing and her life. That is for others to do, or for the most impartial observer of all: time.

A biography of KSP could run much longer; 250 pages can only sum up some of the significant phases of a long and interesting life. Throssell notes that the early chapters up to the death in 1933 of Hugo Throssell (KSP’s husband and Ric’s father) are derived from KSP’s autobiography. KSP’s childhood was one of moving around from Fiji to Tasmania to Melbourne, following her father’s unstable journalistic career; he was to kill himself in 1907, an event KSP could not speak of, even to her son, until the end of her life. It is difficult to know how much more light Throssell could have shed on a pivotal, unknown moment in his mother’s life.

KSP’s adventurous years as a journalist in London end with her marrying the Victoria Cross winner, Hugo Throssell, in 1919 and moving back to his home state of Western Australia. She was to make it her home, even in the long decades after his death.

John Hamilton’s recent biography of Hugo Throssell add an extra dimension to the years of their marriage, and the tragedy of his suicide in 1933. The child’s eye view Ric Throssell provides of his father’s last days is poignant. The ability of him and his mother to carry on afterwards is remarkable.

Throssell does not return to Western Australia after World War Two, and there is a sense of the pain of that geographical distance between mother and son in much of the rest of the narrative.

Throssell spends more time on KSP’s Goldfields trilogy than any of her other works. This is justifiable simply in terms of the fact that it took up more of her life than any other work. But it is also because Throssell is arguing the trilogy’s significance in the face of the mixed reception it got.

The political aspects of KSP’s life appear mainly late in the book as two discrete chapters reaching back to her early life. KSP’s increasing isolation as one of the few faithful Communists seems tied to the disappointments in the reception of her later work. If I read correctly, there is a sense in the 1950s and 1960s of her and her work being ‘out of fashion’. It is painful to read of the aging woman stung by misunderstandings and attacks on her work by the first generation of research students writing on her. The first clearly hurt the most – she had helped him with both his research and his writing only to be subjected to a speculative Freudian reading about her father.

KSP emerges in this book as a resolute, generous woman, an artist and a believer right up to the end. She lived a worthy and inspirational life and Wild Weeds and Windflowers is a valuable portrait, unique for being written by someone who knew her so intimately.