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‘Should he continue in the wide field of literature he will assuredly become one of our first writers of romance,’ wrote Launceston’s Daily Telegraph, reviewing journalist Thomas Prichard’s novel, Retaliation: An Early Tale of Melbourne (1891). It was not to be. This is the only novel Prichard was to publish before his death by suicide in 1907; in addition to his journalism, the rest of his oeuvre is filled out with two known short stories in The Bulletin and two serial Christmas stories in newspapers, as well as poems and some works of non-fiction. Retaliation was published in a cheap paperback edition with a green cover and sold for a shilling. Trove, the combined catalogue of libraries across Australia, lists six copies held in Australia; there may be several more in libraries not listed, and a few in private hands, but essentially, Prichard’s novel and his literary career have been forgotten. Retaliation is a popular fiction of its day, and while competent and representative, is not especially memorable. It does, however, read as a fascinating document of its time, especially in relation to the work of Prichard’s famous daughter, Katharine Susannah.

Summary and Themes

The novel tells the story of Stella/Marion, an orphan in the Dickensian tradition who is reared by a ‘fiercely fanatical’ Calvinist, Archibald Graham. He forbids teenaged Stella to have anything to do with the miscreant Ray Winthorp. However, Ray turns up in the luxuriant (perhaps Edenic) garden of their house and declares his love for Stella; the two are caught in an embrace and Stella is cast out of the household. Ray is in two minds as he drives away with her in his horse and buggy; his evil side wins, and he is taking the sleeping girl out to his cottage in the bush to rape her when she providentially wakes, realises his intent and jumps out. Wounded and distraught, she is coincidentally rescued by a ‘guardian angel’, Hester Lauriston. Having recently lost her own daughter of the same age, the wealthy widow adopts Stella as her niece. The second act is a curious and dislocating interlude – Stella adopts the name Marion (Hester’s middle name) to leave her past behind, and moves with Aunt Hester to her country home in the Grampians. The action jumps forward five years to a night when two thieves break into the house; one of them coincidentally happens to be the villainous friend of Ray, Sheldon, who planted the idea of the rape. The house is burnt down by accident in the break-in, and the villain begs Marion for forgiveness for both misdeeds. Aunt Hester dies from the ordeal, and Marion moves in with Hester’s daughter, Mrs Dessour. The third act moves forward another four years, as Marion’s happy circumstances ‘transform’ her into a women of exceptional beauty. She is being slowly courted by a friend of the Dessours, Geoffrey, but all this is threatened when an acquaintance named Ray Maitland coincidentally comes to stay with the family. He does not recognise Marion due to her ‘transformation’, but she recognises him as Winthorp, despite his new surname. To revenge herself, she contrives to lead him on in order to win his heart and humiliate him; this forces Geoffrey to play his hand and ask her to marry him. She puts Geoffrey off until he has eavesdropped on her confrontation with Ray. Ray is so humiliated he pulls a gun out to shoot her; thankfully Geoffrey is on hand to bring a chair down on his head. The happy couple are married six months later.

As a summary demonstrates, the plot is a collation of familiar Victorian romance elements – orphans and adoptions; unsuitable suitors and misunderstood courtships; changes of identity and appearance; and all of this in a plot driven by coincidences. The characters are not particularly vivid or compelling; it is popular fiction working comfortably within its conventions. The lofty epigraphs from Shakespeare, Shelley, Wordsworth and others which open each chapter only underline by contrast the rather pedestrian prose. Although the action could have happened anywhere, it periodically attempts to live up to the promise of its subtitle by having the characters traverse the streets and settlements of ‘early Melbourne’. These are interesting to read today, as are the passages in which Prichard takes delight in evoking the Australian landscape, its trees and hills and birds. There are traces of contemporary debate about Australian identity and nationalism, with Stella/Marion defending the charm of Australia in two conversations, one over the beauty of the Australian landscape (Chapter XIII) and one over the appeal of its changeable weather (Chapter XV). The issue of convict heritage is also a live one, with one of the thieves described as having ‘the coarse animal face, the thick neck, low forehead, and heavy square under-jaw which seemed to speak pretty plainly of a distinguished convict ancestry.’ (102)

For a short novel, there is a high body count, with the deaths of three characters directly narrated, each employing different figurative language and offering variations of eschatology which show an author sharing that age’s fascination with the afterlife and conflicted about how to conceptualise it. Stella’s father, Alan ‘drew one deep, deep breath, and with its long soft exhalation “passed on” to rejoin his waiting better self.’ This curious concept of a ‘platonic’ self waiting in the afterlife is neither orthodox nor popular Christian eschatology. The thief and accidental arsonist, Sheldon, is described as having in his death a ‘dark road now lying before him’; Marion tries to ‘to smooth the passage of that troubled spirit into the great shadow-land which lies beyond the veil’. (125) It seems quite a different fate to Alan, despite Sheldon’s contrition and forgiveness. But the strongest contrast comes on the next page with the death of the saintly Aunt Hester, for whom it is a kind of triumph as ‘her life-sun went slowly down, till its verge dipped in the great ocean of eternity.’ She quotes Longfellow on her deathbed, ‘There is no Death! What seems so is transition’. The reader could be excused for being confused by the variety of metaphors Thomas has thrown up; however, the Victorian preooccupation with death did not necessarily create a clear picture of their hope for the afterlife but rather a cloud of sentimental pictures of it, some connected, some contradictory.

Retaliation in Relation to Katharine’s Work

Significantly, Katharine Susannah Prichard also worked in the romance genre for her three first published novels – The Pioneers (1915), Windlestraws (1916) and (to a lesser extent) Black Opal (1921). Stella could be one Katharine’s protagonists, at least in her sensitivity, strength of character and forthright opinions (although these qualities are directly stated by Thomas more than they are narrated). The scene in Chapter VII where Stella seeks solace in the garden’s ‘wild luxuriant tangle, a delightful disarray of bough and blossom, wherein nature asserted its superiority over art’ (44) and ‘her surroundings breathed its balm upon her perturbed spirits’ (45) have an echo in the powerful nature scenes of Katharine’s Working Bullocks, where Deb communes with the giant trees in her times of turmoil.

In contrast to the usually progressive attitudes (for her time) in Katharine’s work, Retaliation repeats the received wisdom of its age in its depiction of Aborigines and women. The depiction of Aborigines is very brief, but telling. Hester complains to Marion that the Australian Grampians have no tradition to draw on. Stella prompts her to at least remember the story of how a hill came to be called ‘Good Morning Bill’. Hester recounts that it was named for the greeting given by a treacherous ‘black’ before he speared two shepherds with concealed spears; he is shot dead by the third shepherd. There is no recognition of the ancient culture of the Aboriginals, or anything else beyond a negative stereotype. Women fare no better; they are depicted with the customary attributes of late nineteenth century discourse. At one point, ‘Stella is indulging herself in that grand panacea for all the ills that feminine flesh is heiress to – a flood of tears’ (10); when Ray is contemplating raping her, he has no ‘respect for purity, innocence, perfect candour… pure womanhood.’ (59-60)

Biographical Insights

Biographically, the novel gives several insights into the possible worldview of Thomas. Given Thomas’s own struggle with depression, it is interesting to see his awareness of mental illness in the novel. The key event in the stern guardian Archie’s backstory is his failure as a preacher; we read he was ‘prostrated by a dangerous attack of low fever, brought on by mental worry and nervous irritation.’ (16) These may be the terms in which Thomas thought of his own struggle with depression. In terms of religion, the picture Katharine paints of Thomas’s Anglicanism in her autobiography is of a pious and deeply conservative faith. Yet one of the clear lessons readers are meant to draw from the novel is of the dangers of an inflexible puritanism built on ‘the narrow ragged creed of Knox and Calvin’ (5). While Thomas’s religion may have seemed undifferentiated from its alternatives to his atheist daughter, the novel argues for a generous, forgiving Christianity, built on trust in the providence of God and shown in the speech and actions of Mrs Lauriston.

As of yet, I have unearthed little evidence for the reception of Retaliation and the place of it in the life of Thomas Prichard and his daughter. The two reviews I’ve uncovered so far are from Launceston newspapers in May and June 1893, two years after publication, and one records that the author has sent the newspaper copy. Had disappointing sales or a lack of reviews elsewhere finally driven him to solicit reviews from his former colleagues? When did Katharine first read this book? What did she think of it, both as a child and as an adult? She was turning eight when it was first published, and it may well have seemed exciting and glamorous for her father to have published a book. Her father’s fiction is not directly mentioned as a formative factor in her decision to attempt fiction herself, but the existence of Retaliation would have made it seem possible to her. John Updike wrote of his mother’s mixture of pride jealousy at his success as a writer when her own success was modest; Thomas may well have felt something similar had he lived to read his daughter’s more complex, interesting and successful romances published a couple of decades after his.