This year is the centenary of the publication of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s second – and possibly worst – novel, Windlestraws.
On New Year’s Eve, two strangers both stand above the Thames, about to throw themselves in and drown. They swap stories and pull each other back from the brink of suicide. The young woman is Gene Day, an orphan and the daughter of a French dancer whose own dreams of making it in the world of theatre in London have been dashed. The young man is Peter; he is mysterious about his story, saying that he comes from a wealthy background only to have been sent to prison after he “played fast and loose with the goods of the gods” and could no longer face his family or the woman he loved, Nadia. He has failed to make a living using his own devices. They decide to band together. “You’re a windlestraw. So am I!” Gene exclaims, “windlestraws” being “people who drift and whirl… on the whirling pool of time.” The other day she watched a piece of straw whirl away by itself until another piece attached itself so that they clung together.
After a couple of attempts to make money legally and illegally, Gene and Peter decide on a great ruse. Peter has written a “mimodrame”; Gene fancies herself as a dancer. They will pretend to be Prince and Princess Varof of Russia and convince a theatre producer, on the strength of their name, to stage Peter’s production with Gene as the lead dancer. Many pages are taken up with the mechanics of the scheme, and especially how they manage to convince the producers and the hotel staff that they are Russian minor royalty.
The production is a great success; Gene is a brilliant dancer, just waiting for Britain’s class-bound system to give her a chance. But they live in fear of being exposed. Then the mother of the real prince turns up, demanding to see her son. It turns out he really is a prince and his mother brings with her Nadia, the woman Peter loves. The dilemma becomes whether Peter will defy his mother and marry Gene for real. He does, of course, and the pair turn their back on his title and all the money which is theirs to start again, as two windlestraws.
It’s a light romance, heavy on incident and forgettable. At the time she wrote it, living in London from 1911 to 1915, Katharine couldn’t find a publisher. If not for the later success of The Pioneers, it would never have been published. In one of the few references Katharine makes to it, she notes that when she set out to write The Pioneers in late 1913, The Wild Oats of Han “was written but had not yet been typed, and Windlestraws, an attempt to please English publishers not interested in Australian background, still lay in my cupboard.” (Child of the Hurricane, 192) Jack Beasley writes in Gallop of Fire that Katharine told him, “‘Yes, it is hard to get a copy but don’t bother with it, it’s not worth your time.'” (33) His assessment is that it’s “Clearly a commercial project, tailored for the pop-fiction market place, and did not succeed in this aim anymore than it did as literature.” (33)
There are some points of interest to me, biographically:
- The (initially) platonic relationship between Gene and Peter, two outsiders struggling to make it in London, seems an echo of Katharine’s partnership with the singer, Harry Newton, who she met on the boat to London for her first trip in 1908. She writes about him in Child of the Hurricane; while she claims they both wanted to avoid romance for the sake of their careers, he tries to hold her hand on the ship and they then kiss, once, after a party – a “mistake” they don’t repeat.
- Much of the prose is workmanlike, but there is a lyrical chapter describing the production of Peter’s “mimodrame”, Rose of Sharon. “A quiver of strings like the whirring of insects’ wings, or the stirring of limitless sands, followed by the deep murmuring notes of oboes, was wafted across the darkened well of the theatre.” (152) It feels like Katharine is describing something she experienced. Rose of Sharon is an oratorio by Alexander Mackenzie, first performed in 1884 but revived at the Alexandra Palace in London in 1911, the year Katharine returned to the city.
- Peter’s brother back in Russia has been taken by the philosophy of Tolstoy, and is trying to use the family’s money to improve conditions for the poor,while insisting they live more simply. The author does not seem to be endorsing the philosophy, but it’s a sign of an intellectual ferment during Katharine’s London years.
- In chapter XXI, Peter escapes to a “sleepy village on the south-west coast. His days there seemed interminable. He walked restlessly, ceaselessly over the heather-clad hills which rose behind the village, along the shore at low tide, through the woods, and over the long, winding dusty, white roads inland.” I’m wondering if Katharine is describing Clovelly, the village which inspired her first “book,” a tiny collection of poems, Clovelly Verses, published in 1913.
Trove has revealed a forgotten aspect of Windlestraws publishing history – it first appeared as a serial in Melbourne’s Age each Saturday from 25 March 1916 to 10 June 1916, twelve installments in all. (First part here.) The serialised version only contains 26 chapters; when it was published as a book in November the same year, it ran to 32 chapters. I’ve read the book edition only; the serial version obviously would move a little quicker, although there may be some things which make less sense.
The book was not published by Hodder and Stoughton, who had brought out Katharine’s very successful Pioneers in 1915. It seems they rejected it, and instead it was published by the somewhat obscure firm of Holden & Hardingham in London. I’ve not yet discovered much about this publisher, but the Austlit database includes thirteen titles of theirs by Australian authors from 1845 to 1920, with most of them appearing between 1913 and 1916. They spelled her name wrong throughout – “Pritchard” – which makes me suspect they did not take the greatest care with the book.
Worldcat, the joint catalogue of libraries of the world, lists just sixteen copies throughout the world, eleven of them in Australia. There will be a few extra in libraries whose holdings do not appear in Worldcat, and some in private hands, but it is a hard book to find. I thought I was dreaming when a copy came up for sale online last year at an affordable price. It is the jewel of my KSP collection. My copy is stamped at various points through the book with a faded accession stamp, almost indecipherable. “Austral Reading Room” I think it says. There are also strands of ancient tobacco between pages 294 and 295. I would love to know the history of my copy before it washed up on my shore, how it came to be preserved when perhaps only fifty or a hundred copies have survived.
Curiously, Worldcat lists the five copies held in Great Britain at Oxford and other libraries to be a second edition, published 1917. This could just be a mistake, catalogued by one library and copied by the others; there’s no date on my copy, only an ad for other books published in (northern) Autumn 1916. But the statement that it’s a second edition makes me think there’s more to it.
Most libraries don’t keep dustjackets. There’s a collection of dustjackets in Katharine’s papers at the National Library, but this is one of the few missing ones. My copy doesn’t have one, of course. There may not be a copy with a dustjacket anywhere in the world. I would love to see what it looks like.