Katharine Susannah Prichard was seventeen in 1901 when My Brilliant Career was published, the same age as the main character, Sybylla. In a radio broadcast paying tribute to Franklin in 1944, Prichard remembered, “What a sensation it created! Most of the well known writers at that time were old, and here was a girl writing with vigour and realism which amazed everybody.”
The story of Sybylla must have been a great comfort to Prichard, giving a sense that there was someone else like her in the world. Sybylla’s world was a rural one and Prichard’s an urban one, but like Sybylla, Prichard was a young woman whose family had in mind for her not a “brilliant career” but a banal one. In 1903 Prichard’s father “was delighted to see me becoming more of a home-girl” when she gave up her hopes of university and ran the house for a year. Like Sybylla, she found hope and release in the arts – particularly music and reading. However, while Sybylla regards governessing for the “dirty” M’Swat family as the worst time of her life, Prichard actually had a great sense of freedom in being allowed to governess in 1904 and 1905. She worked for a doctor and his family in Yarram in 1904; her experience was a long way from Sybylla’s stint in the house of illiterate farmers.
Like Sybylla, Prichard rejected romance in her late teens; Prichard writes in her autobiography that she “resolved not to fall in love or marry – because I was afraid love and marriage might interfere with my work as a writer.” (65) Could Sybylla’s resolution have affected Prichard? Prichard went on to an interesting career as a journalist and was just getting established as a writer when she married at thirty-five in 1919. Her life would have been very different had she married ten years earlier as was expected of her.
Prichard and Franklin were to begin a friendship by correspondence in 1930 (Roe, Stella, epub edn, 570). I found an amusing aside by Prichard in a 1944 letter in the archives – “Miles is annoying! Has such a way of ticking people off. ‘He’ says she ‘had a chicken’s face without the beak.'” It’s the sort of comment which rings true with the lovable and enfuriating Sybylla in Career.
I hope to uncover more clues to Prichard’s response to Career and the ways in which it did and didn’t echo with her own life. There will be something in the extant letters between them, of which I’ve only read some. It may be that Career can help illuminate Prichard’s world and its possibilities in 1901 for my biography.