The two-year anniversary of the official start of my PhD passed by on 21 August. I had 20,000 words of the biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard written a year ago; I now have 40,000, which is a neat piece of symmetry. I’m imagining it’s going to be 80,000 words, but only if I can start reining myself in – I feared there wouldn’t be enough to say, but there’s always too much. I recently deleted a paragraph about the feud – which spilled into the local paper – between Katharine’s favourite teacher at Armadale State School and the bad-tempered headmaster. It represented several hours of research (some of it precious time in an interstate archive), but it really had to go. Other details are harder to let go of.
I get asked by a lot of different people how the PhD’s going and how far I’ve got. It can be hard to answer, partly because it can be difficult to gauge whether the person wants a short answer or a medium answer. (A lot of people also seem to think a PhD should take one year! Scott Morrison thinks pub tests for PhDs are a good idea; I suspect PhD students would be given the hurry up at their local. For a lot of reasons, Scott Morrison is one of my least favourite Australians.) I’ve taken to giving an update in Katharine’s age – “She’s twenty-four at the moment and I’ve got to get her to thirty-five.” “What?” people say back.
Late last year, I was asked to give a speech at the KSP Writers’ Centre on the centenary of the Victoria Cross awarded to Katharine’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, so I jumped forward to 1915-1916 and Katharine’s war years. I’ve loved the research and writing of every chapter, but perhaps this one most of all – it’s the only period for which there’s a surviving diary of a kind, two notebooks she kept when she returned to Australia. Her interior life is lit up in a way that isn’t possible for the rest of her life. It’s like a lightning strike briefly illuminating the landscape. A different voice emerges on the notebooks’ pages, so raw and full of heartache, angst, and wit. It makes the loss of so many of her other personal writings feel all the more greater. She’s also in the newspapers regularly in these years, enjoying her initial burst of celebrity. Trove is an immense gift to Australian biographers.
In January 2016, I set out on something of a Katharine pilgrimage with my wife Nicole and baby son Thomas. He was six months old then, and travelling with him was hard. It was incredible to meet Katharine’s granddaughter, Karen Throssell, in Melbourne and I was so relieved she felt quite happy with my approach so far. We visited Emerald, where Katharine lived in 1918, and Yarram, where Katharine worked as a governess in 1904. I made a point of starting the chapter on Yarram while we were there. After that, we followed some of her epic 1916 journey along the eastern coast described in her autobiography; unlike her, our destination was Canberra for some more time with Katharine’s papers. Also, we were in a hire car, while she was in horse and cart.
I spent the first half of the year writing the two chapters of Katharine’s formative governess years – 1904 and 1905. Yarram, in Gippsland, inspired her first published novel, The Pioneers, and Tarella Station in outback New South Wales, inspired her third published novel, Black Opal. These years echo through Katharine’s later fiction. Fun fact: she has a crush on a young man she calls the “Red Herring” in Yarram, and then on a man she calls “Redbeard” at Tarella. I found out the identity of the latter, but not the former. “Red Beard’s charm had diminished when he shaved off his beard. He looked quite an ordinary man then; but I was still aware of a mysterious attraction between us.”
More recently, I’ve written two of the most dramatic chapters, both quite short – the suicide of Katharine’s father, and the beginning of her decade-long entanglement with a much older man, the “Preux Chevalier,” both of which occurred in 1907.
Last month, I was revising my early chapters. It was a good exercise in humility. They weren’t as good as I remembered. I had this early narrative voice I thought was fascinating, and it wasn’t; it involved a lot of “we” – “we do not know…”; “today we only have…”. Whoever wrote those sentences sounded like a smartarse on these edits. I’m now invisible as the biographer, even if the reader knows where to find me.
I’ve had to learn patience writing this biography. I’ve made a number of discoveries which I’d love to blurt out on this blog, but I’m going to have save them in the hope the biography will be published. My posts end up having to be a little tangential – the things which won’t be in the biography, or the story behind what will be in the biography. Sorry. You’re all my favourite readers, with your interest in what I’m doing before there’s even something substantial like a book.
I have a hunger to finish this biography. I want to write this first volume for my PhD, and then keep on going right through to 1969 and the end of the third volume. I’m no less interested in Katharine than when I started. There’s so much to be said, and I just wish I could say it quicker. But again – patience is one of the virtues I’m learning. Especially with a baby in the house and my wife studying too.
It’s been a busy year, and this blog and many of your wonderful blogs are some of the things a little neglected. Thanks for reading and commenting when I have posted; it means a lot to me!