This month I’m writing the circus chapter of my Katharine Susannah Prichard biography, chapter 24 in the current structure. It’s focused on the writing and reception of her novel Haxby’s Circus (1930). The novel was written at the end of her five year creative peak from 1924 to 1929 and is usually regarded as one of her better novels but less accomplished than the other two novels of this period, Working Bullocks (1926) and Coonardoo (1929). Whatever its flaws it’s an engaging and moving novel. I reviewed it in July 2014, writing that it ‘has the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in KSP’s work, scenes of beauty, darkness and insight’. More recently, Lisa has reviewed it on ANZ Litlovers.
It’s a pity that the edition reprinted several times has always been the British one. The American edition, Fay’s Circus (Katharine’s original title) – published a year later – contains an extra section of 9700 words which scholar Carol Hetherington believes resolves the structural flaw late in the novel. Katharine was writing for a competition deadline and her sick child meant she didn’t write this section as planned in the first version. (Carol Hetherington, ‘Authors, Editors, Publishers: Katharine Susannah Prichard and W.W. Norton’, Australian Literary Studies 22, no. 4 (October 2006): 417–31.)
As research, Katharine travelled with Wirth’s Circus for two weeks across the Wheatbelt and Mid-West in 1927. I am fascinated by the exaggerations soon made by journalists about the trip; it was said to be several months or six months until the Weekly Times finally upped the ante and wrote on 25 April 1931 that the novel was ‘based upon Wirths’ Circus, with whom the author travelled for a year’ (emphasis mine). Wirth’s was a huge circus with a hundred-strong troupe of performers and workers, travelling on its own train; Haxby’s in the novel is a second-rate family affair, small and struggling. Yet one of the main performers, Doris Wirth, still Katharine ‘took all her characters’ from Wirth’s.
Some questions I want to resolve in writing this chapter:
- What did the circus mean to Australians in 1930? It was a more common cultural experience than today. Australian circus history seems to have largely been written by one person, the prolific Mark St Leon – I’m very glad of his work and hope to distill some insights to set the scene.
- How does Haxby’s Circus fit into KSP’s oeuvre? KSP usually writes about work, and this novel is about work too, but the other ‘work’ novels are about more conventional industries – opal mining, gold mining, cattle, timber.
- The lack of overt politicising fits into my developing argument that KSP was mostly politically unengaged from 1924 to 1929. She had been heavily involved with trying to establish the Communist Party in Perth in 1919-1921 and became involved again during the Depression, but in between – during her creative peak – she had other priorities.
Two important sources for the chapter I’ve found are articles Katharine wrote for newspapers after the Wirth’s trip – ‘Out Back With a Circus’ and ‘In the Ring with the Circus King’. Another of Katharine’s circus writings is her children’s book Moggie and Her Circus Pony, illustrated by Elaine Haxton and published in 1967, two years before Katharine died. It is sitting unread on my shelf, one of the few of her books I haven’t yet read, and I will be rectifying that as part of circus month.