Source: Westerly 60:2 – Westerly

My biography of the early years of Katharine Susannah Prichard is a couple of years from completion, but a modified version of chapter two has just been published in Westerly 60.2. My essay is called “‘The memory of a storm’: The Wild Oats of Han and the childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1887 to 1895.”

In my opinion, Wild Oats of Han is the most under-rated of her books, marginalised because it was marketed as a children’s novel. It tells the charming adventures of Katharine’s altar-ego, Hannah Frances, as she grows up in Launceston. Katharine’s prose is at its most lyrical in this book and she captures the mind of a child incredibly well. Han is a fascinating character, a dreamy, rebellious girl who ‘scarcely knew the world of the real from the world of the unreal: both were blended in the crystal of her mind.’ (16)

In her foreword to the book, Katharine claims it’s a true story; “Just here and there a few details stray from the strict path.” Katharine used extracts from the book to tell the story of her childhood in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane (1963). The creation of the digitised Australian newspaper database, Trove, has opened up a new approach to Wild Oats for my biography and the book forms the basis of chapter two. Katharine lived in Launceston from 1893 to 1895 with her family, and searching Trove has uncovered the possible historical basis of many of the incidents in the book, such as the visit of the circus which inspires her to want to become an acrobat. Most poignantly, the newspaper carries a list of every item in the Prichard household put up for auction when Katharine’s father, Tom, lost his job: “comprising walnut sideboard (mirror back), mahogany telescope table, dining room suite, new Brussells carpet, oil paintings (superior), mahogany wardrobe, cedar chest drawers, bedsteads and bedding, commode, dressing tables, washstands, fenders, curtains, poles and rings, kitchen utensils, dresser, garden tools, and sundries” (Launceston Examiner 21 Feb 1895, 8). Katharine would later see the humiliation of that auction of her family’s goods as the seed for her eventual conversion to communism.

There’s a couple of challenges in attempting to publish essays from my PhD.

The first challenge is creating a self-contained essay. My biography as a whole is a narrative and each chapter develops the themes and characters of the previous chapters. It wasn’t so much of a problem with chapter 2, as it’s near the beginning, but it has been more difficult with my attempts to turn a later chapter on the war years into an essay. It also helped in this case that the chapter was based around the whole of one particular work of Katharine’s. Chapters three and four, her school years, don’t have that same grounding or literary interest and probably would not stand as essays on their own.

The second challenge is one of genre or at least tone. My style of biography falls between the stools of creative non-fiction and the academic essay. It’s not quite either, but it is sort of both. The informality and speculation jar with the conventions of the academic essay; the extensive references jar with expectations of creative non-fiction. In my PhD, my critical section will deal with these issues at some length; I don’t necessarily have that luxury in an essay. In this case, I got away with it, perhaps due to some sympathetic peer-reviewers. I have an opening “critical” section which is more formal in tone, referring to “Prichard” and establishing a scholarly context; it then moves into the more creative story of “Katharine”. For the future, I’m going to attempt a resolution by rewriting chapters as either more creative pieces or more scholarly pieces for separate publication.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read everyone else’s work in this issue of Westerly, but I’m pleased to be published alongside an essay by Ffion Murphy and Richard Nile, “Wounded storyteller: Revisiting Albert Facey’s fortunate life”, a draft of which I listened to at a seminar at UWA. Facey and Prichard only lived a few suburbs away from each other and both set out to write accounts of their lives at an advanced age; only now are those accounts being critically examined.

Westerly has just lost government funding and needs your support, so please do consider buying a copy! But otherwise I can send you my essay on request.