Katharine Susannah Prichard’s third published novel, Black Opal (1921), is set in the opal mining settlement of Fallen Star Ridge. It has two significant plot strands: the Ridge’s pure, beautiful Sophie coming into womanhood and torn between three men; and the attempt of an American to buy out the individual miners and commercialise operations.
Perhaps the truer title would be Fallen Star Ridge, as the novel is focused on the opal mining community itself as an ideal. Between the publication of her first novel, The Pioneers, and this one, KSP had committed to communism, and the influence is evident. In chapter VIII of part I, the narrative stops and KSP paints a picture of the workers’ utopia the settlement represents.
Ridge miners find happiness in the sense of being free men. They are satisfied in their own minds that it is not good for a man to work all day at any mechanical toil; to use himself, or allow anyone else to use him, like a working bullock. A man must have to time to think, leisure to enjoy being alive, they say. (64-5)
To a man, Ridge miners have decided against allowing any wealthy man, or body of wealthy men forming themselves into a company, to buy up the mines, put the men on a weekly wage, and work them, as the opal blocks at Chalk Cliffs had been worked. (65)
The utopia is threatened first by missing opals (who stole from their brother?) and then an attempt by the American, John Armitage, to buy up the mines. As a kind of utopia, it is rendered convincingly, a plausible depiction of how people might have led a co-operative existence a century ago in rural Australia.
Central to the utopia is Michael, a saintly autodidact who looks after the needy in the community and quietly dispenses wisdom. I can’t help wondering if KSP imagined a similar role for herself, if she was to ever find herself living within a workers’ community; she must have often wondered how to reconcile her bookishness with her commitment to the working class. The workers of the Ridge are not the anti-intellectuals one might assume:
Ridge folk were proud of Michael’s books, and strangers who saw his miscellaneous collection – mostly of cheap editions, old school books, and shilling, sixpenny, and penny publications of literary masterpieces, poetry, and works on industrial and religious subjects – did not wonder that it impressed Ridge folk; or that Michael’s knowledge of the world and affairs was so extensive. He had tracts, leaflets, and small books on almost every subject under the sun. (9)
At the beginning of the novel, Michael makes a promise to Sophie’s dying mother that he will make sure she does not leave the safety of the Ridge for the evils of the world beyond it. Trying to keep this promise is nearly his undoing; it is to no avail – Sophie leaves, which is nearly her undoing.
Sophie is an intriguing character, a kind of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, yet ultimately not a tragic character. Like Tess and so many heroines of a certain period, it is sex which ruins her, as she eventually reveals after returning to the Ridge from the USA:
‘I hadn’t the slightest intention of more than amusing myself with him … but he, evidently, did not intend to be merely a source of amusement to me. The supper on the yacht…. I kept my head for a while, not long, and then——”
“Then?” Armitage queried.
“That’s why I came home,” Sophie said. “I was so sick with the shock and shame of it all … so sick and ashamed I couldn’t sing any more. I wouldn’t. My voice died…. I deserved what happened. I’d been playing for it … taking the wine, the music, Adler’s love-making … and expecting to escape the taint of it all….
One can only assume what must have happened on that yacht after supper to make her voice die. It is an interesting trope, mirroring so closely one of KSP’s contemporaries, Miles Franklin; in her unpublished follow-up to My Brilliant Career, “On the Outside Track” the main character, Ignez, also loses her singing voice, echoing events in Miles’ own life (see chapter 5 of Jill Roe’s Stella).
Black Opal is not only historically intriguing as a novel of ideas, but also a gripping read. The plot slips into melodrama, and co-incidences abound, yet we care about Michael and Sophie and all the rest of the Ridge folk. KSP has a narrative instinct and profound insight into life. It’s what made her famous a century ago, and its what makes her books still worth reading.