I reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo back in 2014 and stand by most of my comments. I’ve just finished re-reading it, and want to add some further thoughts.
It’s inevitable that literature is read in terms of its social relevance, praised or blamed for its handling of issues that matter to us as a society now. It’s one of the functions of literature, and it’s a significant one, but it shouldn’t be the only one. It’s a two-edged sword, of course. When Coonardoo was serialised in the The Bulletin in 1928, some readers wrote in angrily about the fact it depicted miscegenation between whites and Aboriginals. (This is an oft-repeated statement; if I get time I’d like to get behind it and see if these and other negative reactions are preserved in the archives anywhere – certainly not in KSP’s papers.) Later, Coonardoo was praised for its progressiveness in representing Aboriginal characters more fully.
Yet the wheel has turned again and this century Coonardoo is ‘problematic’; it was ahead of its time, but now it’s behind our time. Aboriginal academic Larissa Berehendt writes in Finding Eliza ‘the story is strongest when it critiques the behaviour of pastoralists and weakest when it seeks to create multi-dimensional Aboriginal characters.’ (105) Clare Corbuld writes:
‘…although Coonardoo contained unusual elements for its time, ostensibly granting validity to Aboriginal perception and voice, it was far from radical. It reproduces gender and racial norms of Australia before World War II, including a
clear dichotomy between ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. The depiction of Aborigines and race relations is premised on a belief in an evolutionary ladder and a hierarchy of race, which undermines narrative control given to Coonardoo and the idea that Aboriginal sexuality is unrepressed and connected to ‘nature’. Ultimately Coonardoo figures as little more than a signifier of white male sexuality.’ (‘Rereading Radical Texts’ Australian Feminist Studies, 14 (1999), 424.
Katharine’s trip to Turee Station in September to November 1926 produced a body of significant works engaging with Aboriginal issues for the first time in her oeuvre – her most powerful play, the prize-winning Brumby Innes; the short stories “Happiness” and “The Cooboo” (both published in The Bulletin in 1928); and Coonardoo. These are her best-known works on Aboriginal issues, yet she continued to write on them for another forty years, especially in her short stories and also in her goldfields trilogy. The perception in literary criticism of her attitudes is largely frozen at her earliest work in this area. Someone could write an entire thesis on the developments in Katharine’s depictions of Aboriginal people and issues. I won’t be, but I will be alert to this as I re-read the other work and should have some comments to make in my biography.
But re-reading Coonardoo, I’m struck by what a great novel it is, independent of its social significance. The drama is gripping as Hugo’s fatal flaws become more apparent over the years and lead to tragedy. Uniquely among Katharine’s novels, she handles the plot perfectly, not making it full of overly-complicated developments or veering away into weaker subplots. The prose is beautiful, less self-consciously evocative than Working Bullocks, less sparse than the goldfields trilogy.
There’s little sign of Katharine’s communism, and certainly no intrusions. One of the things my research has shown is how politically uninvolved Katharine seems to have been from 1922 to at least 1929, as she raised Ric and then focused on her writing from 1924, entering a remarkable period of achievement. She had been working tirelessly in politics and activism from arriving in WA in 1919 until she became very sick during her pregnancy in the second half of 1921. Simplified accounts neglect the long hiatus her involvement took after this.
Katharine’s depiction of the mother-son relationship between Bessie and Hugh in Coonardoo is biographically interesting. She imagined life as a widow with an only son a decade before it became her own reality. The novel opens with the character Hugh a young boy – the same age as Katharine’s son Ric on their visit together to Turee in 1926. Hugh is about to be sent off to boarding school and the years of his childhood are covered quickly over the first few chapters until he returns, properly, to the narrative as a nineteen-year-old. Bessie denies herself over those years, trying to pay off the station before she passes it on to Hugh. ‘Very hard and meagre the life on Wytaliba had been all those years Mrs Bessie was making the station for Hugh. She earned the name of a regular skinflint.’ (Kindle Locations 807-808). Although in her long widowhood, Katharine was hospitable to visitors, she was said to live austerely herself. Lack of money and ideology were two reasons, but in her letters to Ric there is a current of concern over passing on whatever she can to him. Katharine already knew of her husband’s financial irresponsibility; perhaps she was anticipating the long effect of that too. Bessie has to steer Wytalbia back to financial health after the mismanagement of her late husband. Later known as a ‘doting’ mother herself, Katharine depicts Bessie as a mother tied up in her son’s life, even from afar, while he was in boarding school.
It’s the biggest possible boost to the history of Australian literature that the NLA has digitised The Bulletin. Coonardoo is serialised, starting here – but don’t read the serialisation; it was chopped up in a way that spoiled it and there was possibly bowdlerisation. “The Cooboo” is here, and “Happiness” is here.