Saturday 10am #9
This is a paper I presented at the Limina Conference at the University of Western Australia on 27 July 2018. The conference theme was “Home: Belonging and Displacement”.
In her memoir, Perth journalist Justina Williams describes seeing Katharine Susannah Prichard’s house for the first time in the 1930s:
[My uncle] Harry… gave up Sundays to drive us all in the A-model Ford… on an excursion to the hills… Ascending Greenmount’s steep stretch, the radiator fulfilled all [Grandma’s] fears by boiling over.
The car stopped at the junction of Old York Road—the original route to the Eastern Goldfields—and the Great Eastern Highway, almost at the gate of a small wooden cottage half hidden by pale blue plumbago and tangled grape vines. A red witch lived there, Grandma said, named Mrs Throssell… ‘She’s quite a famous writer… An awful scandal about her book…’
My desire to meet her stirred…. [But] [t]he house was empty. Harry got some water somewhere else and we moved on.
It took a long time for Katharine Susannah Prichard to find a home. She was born in Fiji in 1883 to Australian parents, brought up mostly in Melbourne and worked for years as a journalist in London. She had a restless early life, living in at least twelve different houses until her marriage at age thirty-five in 1919. Her husband was a Western Australian, the Victoria Cross winner, Captain Hugo Throssell, and they moved to his home state. They rented a large bungalow on Old York Road Greenmount called Wandu for the first year of their marriage and liked the area enough that they bought a cottage on the same road in 1920. It was here at 11 Old York Road that Prichard wrote the novels she is best remembered for. It became her home and an essential part of her mythology during her lifetime, as Justina Williams’ story suggests. After her death in the cottage in 1969, it retained its association with her. People who had known Katharine or loved her writing made pilgrimages to the house from as far away as Russia and Estonia. The new owner eventually sold, saying there were too many visitors and she didn’t ‘want to become the custodian of another woman’s life’. For the last thirty years, it has been the home of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. Today I want to examine the significance of 11 Old York Road to Prichard’s life and writing.
Biography of home
In my biography of Prichard, I’m trying to capture ‘home’ as one of the spheres of her life. Because of the drama and tragedy she endured, her personal life has often been emphasised in both cultural memory and scholarly accounts of her writing. Yet in the focus on the tragedy of her husband’s suicide, a more mundane, complete picture of domestic life is missing. While biography seeks to capture the dramatic, important parts of life, I believe it should give some sense of the everyday as well. Judith Brett outlines the task in her biography of Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin: ‘I have tried to give each of the three strands of Deakin’s life its due: his intense inner world, his public life in politics and his family relationships, following the daily, weekly and yearly rhythms, as well as the arc of his life’s physical and psychic energies.’
The ‘home’ sphere of my biography includes a number of elements. There’s Prichard’s family life, including her relationship to her husband and her son. There’s the ongoing question of domestic work, with Prichard sometimes worn down and kept from her writing and political activity by it and at other times hiring domestic help, which made her uneasy as a communist. There’s her identity as a Greenmount resident, participant in local social nights, wildflower walks, and regarded as a good neighbour—a picture of her at odds with the account of her as a ‘red witch’. These and other elements of home are of both dramatic and character value to the biography. However, in the scope of this paper, I want to focus on a narrower understanding of the home sphere—Prichard’s relationship to her cottage and the property itself.
Thought to be built in 1896, the cottage was made of jarrah weatherboard and had four rooms coming off a central passageway. The Guildford Grammar headmaster, Rev. Percy Henn, had been using it as a weekender. Throssell and Prichard bought an adjacent lot as well with no house on it, giving them a hectare of land with an orchard and enough of a paddock for horses. A small house typical of the area, her husband regarded it as only a stepping stone to a bigger, better house but Prichard was content with it.
Greenmount remains on the fringe of the metropolitan area even today; but it was more so when Prichard lived there. Twenty-three kilometres east of the city, it was mostly regarded as a place for weekend drives, picnics, and bushwalks. It only had forty households in 1919, a settlement in the Darling Ranges with large bush blocks and views down to the city. The isolation of Greenmount made it is an unlikely place for Prichard to live—far from the cultural and political activities she was involved with. She didn’t drive, and the train and bus services into the city were infrequent.
Yet Prichard was drawn to isolation. Before she married and left Victoria, she had spent 1918 living on the fringes of Melbourne in Emerald, a village in the Dandenongs. After throwing herself into radical politics in 1917, Prichard had needed to escape the hustle of war-time activism in the city. She was also recovering from the death of her brother in the war and her abandonment by a lover. The need for retreat was a constant one in Prichard’s life and in her lifetime, Greenmount—before suburbanisation and the roar of trucks along Great Eastern Highway—offered it.
Prichard gave birth to her only child, her son Ric, on the kitchen table in the house in May 1922. Throssell and Prichard added a stone pillar verandah to the house in the 1920s and, in 1930, a workroom away from the house where Prichard could write. Historian Katie Holmes reconstructs what she can of Prichard’s original garden from references in her letters. ‘The plants of her choice seem to have been exotics: rambling creepers which grew around her verandah, annuals to provide colour to the front garden, roses, lavender, an orchard with an endless supply of fruit. But there were gum trees, and grasses too.’ (177)
Looking back, Prichard would always speak of her married years in Greenmount as the happiest of her life. In reality, there were many difficulties and her marriage was strained from early on. Throssell was obsessed with making money but very bad at doing so, and his real estate and other ventures left the family in colossal debt. When Prichard set off on a trip to see the Soviet Union in 1933, he went further into debt, turning the property into an American-style rodeo, hoping the attraction would help sell the many blocks he had on the market in Greenmount. The scheme failed and suffering the effects of war-time trauma, he killed himself on the verandah of the cottage before Prichard returned.
In 1942, Prichard moved to Sydney and rented out the cottage. She wanted to be closer to her son, who was serving in the military, and it also allowed her to serve on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia. She was still in Sydney in 1946 when Throssell’s massive debts caught up with her and it looked like she would have to sell the cottage. She wrote to her son: ‘we must not be sentimental, lovey. Life takes us along a broad highway, and though our thoughts cling to the place where we have spent so many happy days, we must go on & camp by the way, wherever we happen to be.’ As it turned out, a friend intervened and paid the debt for her.
After being ready to ‘camp’ somewhere else on life’s highway, she returned to live at Greenmount and did not move for the rest of her life, even as her health worsened in her seventies and eighties. Coming back from hospital after a stroke in 1964, she wrote to her son:
The sweet peace of home enfolding me again … Here I am reclining on the verandah with the garden looking at its beautifullest—lavender… and Christmas lilies, pink honeysuckle and nasturtiums all mixed up and growing wild together. A golden-breasted whistler pouring out his song, too! I’m so grateful for the peace and loveliness.
With the help of live-in companions, she stayed in the spartan cottage right up until her sudden death in her bedroom in October 1969, aged eighty-five.
Literature of Home
Despite the biographical significance of home to Prichard, none of her thirteen novels are set in Greenmount. Her one novel about Perth, Intimate Strangers (1937), has strong autobiographical elements but is set mainly in the fictional beachside suburb of Calatta, based on Rockingham; the protagonists’ house is said to be in South Perth.
Prichard’s whole literary approach worked against her writing about ‘home’. She wrote her novels based on the notebooks she kept when she travelled. Most of her novels have an origin in research trips. She spent ten weeks on Turee Creek Station in the Pilbara before writing Coonardoo; she took several trips to Manjimup and Pemberton talking to timber workers before writing Working Bullocks; she spent weeks prospecting in Larkinville before beginning her goldfields trilogy. Three factors help explain this approach to her writing:
Firstly, Prichard was part of a literary generation who were trying to establish a distinctively Australian literature. Suburban middle class living did not seem distinctive to her; it resembled life in Britain too much. If Australia hoped to contribute something to world literature, it would come from its outback and other frontiers. In an essay published the year before she died, she wrote, ‘My work has been unpretentious: of the soil… telling of the way men and women live and work in the forests, back country and cities of Australia’.
Secondly, Prichard’s career as a journalist from 1908 to 1915 gave her a method of working where she was reporting on the lives and activities of others. Her fiction still bears many autobiographical imprints, but she treated it as an act of ‘reporting’, based on observations of characters and settings. When she came to write her autobiography late in life, she struggled, telling her son: ‘[t]he first person way of writing doesn’t please me. I feel too self-conscious all the time, don’t lose myself, as I usually do when I’m writing.’
Thirdly, as a communist from 1917, Prichard felt uncomfortable writing about the middle class milieu into which she was born and mainly lived. For a number of her novels, she sought out the working class because she was on their side in the class struggle.
Fourthly, there was the grief associated with the most important novel she wrote about ‘home’. In 1929, while less involved in politics, she began writing Intimate Strangers, a novel about a middle-class couple’s troubled marriage. It is concerned with the way marriage limits options for creativity and freedom. Drusjilla Modjeska calls it ‘a hesitation, a point of crisis in her fiction’. As Prichard was writing the first draft, the Great Depression struck and she recommitted herself to communism, throwing herself back into party work. Before she published the novel, her husband committed suicide, a disturbing echo of the fictional husband’s suicide in the original version of the novel. Writing about home became painful. For her next major project she turned to socialist realism in her goldfields trilogy, consciously writing about people and experiences very different to her own.
Despite this discomfort with writing about home, Greenmount and her cottage appear at the fringes of her oeuvre and give a glimpse of life in the places she knew best.
Prichard wrote two plays in the 1920s which are set at the cottage, both of them comedies, The Great Man dealing with the frustrations of parenting, and Bid Me To Love dealing with adultery. Prichard’s son, Ric Throssell, finds the play obviously inspired by the family’s home life.
To me the settings and characters of the play was transparent. The verandah of our home at Greenmount was described in the stage directions; my father spoke in Greg’s every word; I saw my mother’s romanticism and unconventionality in Louise; found my own childish sayings recalled; even Phoebus Apollo, the family cat, was included in the cast.
Recasting home life as comedy—an unfamiliar genre for Prichard—speaks to the poor fit between ‘home’ and the usual concerns of her writing.
A number of Prichard’s short stories, although less obviously autobiographical, are set in Greenmount and surrounds. “Yoirimba”, first published in 1958, is the most notable portrait of her cottage. A spinster teacher named Miss Priscilla buys a ‘half-acre block of wild flowers and rocks on the hillside’; from it ‘the lights of the city sparkled along the horizon at dusk’. She builds a shack on the block and delights in the wildflower garden. She is determined that ‘not a tree or wildflower is going to be moved’. Her parents are farmers and have got too old to carry on their hard work on the land. She invites them to come live with her, in the simple house with its wild garden. When Miss Priscilla is sent to the goldfields to teach, her parents are left alone in the house. While she’s away, her father ‘cut down the trees, burnt off the scrub, borrowed a horse and plough and turned-up the hillside. He planted vines and fruit trees, and set out a garden in the front of the house.’ Miss Priscilla returns, devastated by the transformation of her wild paradise into a miniature farm.
“Yoirimba” and Bid Me To Love, as well as Intimate Strangers give a taste of Prichard writing about home and suggest it was a fruitful sphere. She didn’t need to travel so far to find things worth writing about.
The afterlife of a home
The Heritage Council of Western Australia has listed Prichard’s cottage. Their statement of significance reads:
Katharine’s Place has very high historic significance for its associations with Katharine Susannah Pritchard [sic], Hugo Throssell VC and the Rev. Percy U Henn; very high social significance as a writer’s centre, an illustration of a writer’s way of life and as a typical turn of the century semi-rural house/lifestyle; and high aesthetic significance for the house in its rambling garden setting complete with [a] very large, old pine tree that provides something of a local landmark.
Since 1985, Prichard’s cottage has been the home of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. When I was writer-in-residence at the centre in 2015, the place I felt Prichard’s presence strongest was in her workroom. It’s a single-roomed jarrah cabin a hundred metres from the house. The shelves still bear the chalk marks she made when filing her manuscripts there. Ironically, it wasn’t built until 1930 and she wrote her most famous work in the 1920s, in the house itself, without a dedicated writing space. ‘It’s simply torment,’ she wrote in 1924, ‘trying to write in the room of one’s family—for a woman’. She wrote comparatively less over the four decades she had the workroom and nothing which enjoyed the same critical acclaim. But my feeling of her presence is not misplaced—she spent a lot of time in that workroom, writing six novels there, an autobiography, many short stories and plays, and all her letters.
In her book on writers’ houses, Anne Trubek expresses scepticism:
There is something curious and ultimately unfulfilling about visiting a dead writer’s house. It has something to do with pilgrimage, the hushed aura of sacredness; it has something to do with history—one life preserved; it has something to do with loss, and with objects as compensation for loss.
Trubek tells the story of ‘a modest’ one-bedroom apartment advertised for sale in New York in 2008 with the pitch: ‘How quiet, serene, and wonderful is this 1-bedroom apartment with balcony? So quiet, serene, and wonderful that one of the top 5 best novels of 2006… was written here!’ The seller was hoping there would be a buyer willing to pay a premium for living in the same apartment a famous novel was written, but there wasn’t and the seller had to reduce the price. For Trubek, it shows the absurdity of literary celebrity and perhaps the futility of attaching value to writers’ houses.
But Prichard’s cottage is different, as the Heritage Council assessment suggests. It was widely known throughout Perth as where she lived, as shown in the story from Justina Williams that I began with. The descriptions of Prichard by literary visitors and journalists over the years identify her strongly with her home. In its three decades as a writers’ centre, the many members who use it have cultivated the sense of Prichard’s presence.
Though it is probably fruitful and necessary for someone to challenge the ‘hushed aura of sacredness’ around writers’ houses like Trubek does, I do not feel unfulfilled visiting Prichard’s house. For me, it’s a miracle that in today’s market-driven society a writer’s house has been preserved for creative activity and remains open to the public. It demands a degree of credulity rather than resistance.
 Williams, Anger & Love, 50.
 ‘Historic Cottage in Hills For Sale’, Sunday Times, 19 June 1977.
 Brett, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, 6.
 KSP to RT, 24 February 1946, RTP.
 Throssell, Wild Weeds, 186.
 Modjeska, Exiles at Home, loc. 2764.
 Brumby Innes and Bid Me to Love, xv–xvi.
 Prichard, ‘Yoirimba’, 88.
 Prichard, 88–89.
 Prichard, 92.
 KSP to Vance Palmer, November 1924, PP, 1174/1/2630.
 Trubek, ‘The Irrational Allure of Writers’ Houses’.
Brett, Judith. The Enigmatic Mr Deakin, Melbourne: Text, 2017.
Modjeska, Drusilla. Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925-1945. Sydney, N.S.W.: HarperCollins, 2014.
Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Brumby Innes and Bid Me to Love. Edited by Katharine Brisbane. Sydney: Currency Press, 1983.
———. ‘Yoirimba’. In Stories, Journalism and Essays, edited by Delys Bird, 88–93. St Lucia, Qld.: UQP, 2000.
Throssell, Ric. Wild Weeds and Windflowers: The Life and Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1975.
Trubek, Anne. ‘The Irrational Allure of Writers’ Houses’. The Chronicle of Higher Education; Washington, 5 December 2010
Williams, Justina. Anger & Love. South Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993.