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Post #2 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first collection of short stories, Kiss on the Lips, was published in 1932, the same year as her collection of poetry, The Earth Lover and Other Verses. It came at the height of her career, soon after her three great novels – Working Bullocks (1926), Coonardoo (1929) and Haxby’s Circus (1930) – as well as her underrated “children’s” novel Wild Oats of Han (1928). It was the last book she was to publish before the devastation of the death of her husband, Hugo, in 1933.

It’s a diverse collection, spanning two decades across genres, landscapes, readerships, and quality. The book offers no guidance to readers, not even an acknowledgement of previous publications, and I can imagine some of them feeling bewildered.

The title story, “Kiss on the Lips,” is probably the earliest, based as it is on her observations as a journalist in 1909 of impoverished newspaper boys. (She acknowledges this in an interview with Cyril Cook – see Cook’s Critical Study, p.29). “An Encounter” and “Treason” were both published in newspapers in 1917 and 1919 respectively, now showing up in Trove’s digitised newspapers. “An Encounter” isn’t really a short story at all, but journalism, a character-sketch using the real name of a coach driver who introduced Katharine to an old bushy on her epic journey along the east coast in 1916. These stories are of the most interest to me, falling within the period of my biography, but the collection would have been stronger without them.

By contrast, the collection also contains some of Katharine’s finest stories like “The Grey Horse,” “The Cooboo,” “Happiness,” and “The Cow.” All of these date from a little later. “The Grey Horse” won the 1924 Art in Australia Short Story Competition and is one of the most reprinted of Katharine’s stories; Austlit lists eight appearances up to the present day. Set in the fictional place of “Black Swan” on the edge of Perth, the sex drive of the stallion of the title is paralleled to that of the human characters. It has a wide scope, telling years in the life of a fruit-grower named Bill Moriarty as he woos the woman he loves only for everything to fall apart. “As he sprawled before the fire in the evening, morose and weary, these thoughts beset him, crawling in and out of his brain and breeding, as did fruit fly on rotting nectarines in his orchard.” (30) Written about the time Katharine turned forty, it could be refracting some of the disappointments of marriage, middle-age, and money in her own life.

The most surprising story of the collection is “The Curse,” an experimental work out of place in Katharine’s oeuvre. Previously published in 1926, it describes a hut in the bush overgrown with Patterson’s Curse. A dialogue between two disembodied voices remembers Alf who lived in the hut and was, it seems, arrested for stealing. He was lazy and liked to read rather than subdue the bush and the curse. Perhaps my future research might uncover some more of the origins of the story, what she was reading at the time and what she was attempting.

In contrast to the difficult modernism of “The Curse,” there are a number of “yarns” like “The Dark Horse of Darran,” “Two Men,” and “The Swop” which attempt nothing more than to entertain, all of them with quintessentially Australian regional settings. Today, the short story is the domain of literary fiction. Yet these stories are the product of a time when there was a thriving popular market for short stories in magazines and it was a key way for Australian writers to make a living. Some of Katharine’s stories for these magazines manage to be both powerful and popular, but many of them are forgettable.

Like Katharine’s early novels The Pioneers and Black Opal, “White Kid Gloves” is somewhere between the popular and literary; it’s a sentimental, romantic story, but it has some depth.  A well-to-do woman comes to a town with her child to find the Australian soldier she had an affair with during the Great War. It’s notable for its depiction of shell-shock and the  other effects of the war; her novels from this time – Working Bullocks and Coonardoo – barely mention the war. It was first published in the Bulletin in 1928.

One interesting thing about the collection is that it includes not just some examples of Katharine’s early work from the Great War, but also anticipates her late goldfields trilogy (1946-1950). Katharine and Hugo had gone prospecting at Larkinville in 1930 and no doubt she gathered much material about gold mining. The long story “Mrs Jinny’s Shroud” is The Roaring Nineties (the first book of the goldfields trilogy) in miniature. It’s set in the Western Australian goldfields, and like the novel is the story of colourful, tough prospectors looking for gold; finding it; fighting pressure to sell out to a mining company; and blowing a fortune only to return to the simple, hard prospecting life they find most meaningful. Like in The Roaring Nineties, an encounter with Aboriginal Australians is central, but in this earlier story Katharine depicts the indigenous people much less sympathetically. Instead of being displaced and mistreated, the Aboriginal Australians rob the prospectors and Mrs Jinny and her Charley put everything into pursuing them to recover the burial shroud she made for herself which means so much to her.

At the time of its publication, the Australasian gave the book a negative and rather unfair review:

One result may be a feeling of sincere regret that an Australian writer who has done really good work in the past should apparently have abandoned her natural gift of expression to adopt what appears to be a cross between an attempt to emulate D. H. Lawrence and the Russian school as it was before the war. Any such feeling of regret, on the other hand, may be swamped by disgust at yet one more attempt to achieve fame by playing with what people of limited intelligence regard as “realism.”

The reviewer singles out two of the best stories – “The Grey Horse” and “The Cow” – for criticism, the first being “offensive” and the second “ludicrous.” By contrast, a week earlier the reviewer in Perth’s Daily News offered a defense of Katharine’s work against critics who found it offensive:

It has been objected that Miss Prichard’s themes are unsavory, that she is too much of the soil, and she would probably be the last person in the world to deny this. On the other hand, she treats of the daily contact of men and women with the soil, and anyone who has lived away from the Australian cities will admit that in the back country, life is very close to the primitive core of things, and that in the subduing of the land primitive passions and emotions are called into being. The germination of the farmer’s seed, the breeding of his stock, the delving for gold in the bowels of the earth, all have their reaction upon the mental and physical pabulum of the people concerned. Miss Prichard would be disloyal to her subject were she to overlook this.

Katharine’s “unsavoury” themes no longer need defending, and, indeed, no longer seem unsavoury. She was one of the writers to break the ground there, which isn’t to say she would have liked the work of Bret Easton Ellis.

The Sydney Morning Herald gave an appreciative review, and I can concur with its summation: “There is beauty in these stories and a rare understanding of the people of the outback and the conditions under which they work.”