I started my Katharine Susannah Prichard biography four years ago. Measuring progress by her life (1883 to 1969), this time last year, I was in 1919, just finishing part one; I’m now in 1933 – the most important one of her life – near the end of part two of the book.
My working title for part two is ‘Peak and Trough’. In the intense five year creative peak from 1924 to 1929, Katharine wrote her best work – the novels Coonardoo, Working Bullocks, and Haxby’s Circus, the play Brumby Innes, and many of her most famous stories. The ‘trough’ is her husband Hugo’s downward slide into debt, depression, and ultimately suicide in 1933.
One important thing biography does (or should do) is to complicate and nuance the simplified version of a subject’s life. Katharine was such a staunch communist and her political activity occurred over so many years that it’s usual to assume she was always politically active. But my research this year has shown that her political activity waxed and waned between 1919 and 1933. Arriving in WA in 1919 with Hugo, initially they both threw themselves into radical causes. Hugo’s involvement soon petered out; he only ever made two recorded political speeches and soon became obsessed with real estate and other things. Katharine was key to the first iteration of the Communist Party in WA, and ran a study circle until she became exhausted in 1921. Her only child was born in 1922 and her life with Hugo over the rest of the 1920s was very middle class with only sporadic political involvement. I capture more of a socialite 1920s Katharine from my findings in Trove. It was only with the Depression and a new organiser for the party in WA that Katharine became heavily involved with politics again.
In the first stage of my research quest this year I was trying to work out the precise date when Katharine and Hugo moved to their cottage in Greenmount where they lived for the rest of their lives. In October, I went to the Mundaring and Hills Historical Society to look at the rates book. The rates book didn’t solve this question (I later discovered the answer to be 11 June 1920), but while I was there the lovely staff at the society suggested I look at the five boxes of uncatalogued material labelled “Katharine Susannah Prichard”. Someone at the KSP Writers’ Centre mentioned these boxes right back at the beginning of my biography. I was told they were printouts of KSP’s ASIO files; this would once have been highly sought after material, but those files are now digitised, so I hadn’t followed it up. It turned out the boxes were far more than that.
As I read through the files of notes and photocopies, I began to realise that they were material for a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard a researcher had been working on from about 1999 to 2003. Someone had trodden the same path as me, in her case as a PhD thesis at Curtin University. She had looked through the same archives I had (and a few I hadn’t), gathered the same articles I had gathered, read the same books I had read. It was an uncanny feeling. I was sad for her that she hadn’t finished and I was shocked that I knew nothing about it; I’d met her supervisor once and he’d not mentioned it. There was valuable material, including summaries of a whole run of letters which I hadn’t yet read and a number of interviews she had done with friends of Katharine who had subsequently died. (There is now no-one alive who knew Katharine well, except her granddaughter, Karen.) I was feeling frustrated that I hadn’t found the material at the beginning of my PhD. But perhaps it would have overwhelmed me. Eventually I had a fascinating email conversation with this previous biographer; she was insightful about Katharine and rather disillusioned with her.
In November, I learned that my biography of Katharine’s early life – which I’d sent off in July – hadn’t made the shortlist for the unpublished manuscript award. It was a blow; I’d put everything into this opportunity. The disappointment had settled to a dull ache when there was a strange postscript last month. Eight months late, I found a message in my spam folder from the judge of the award, who is also a publisher. She’d sent it on the eve of the shortlist announcement and was writing to tell me that even though I wasn’t on the shortlist she was interested in seeing the manuscript again after a rewrite. I read it with an uneasy mix of frustration and encouragement.
Oblivious to this, I spent December editing the manuscript to prepare for submission to agents, removing the endnotes and painfully cutting 15,000 words. When I sent some of it to an editor in January for a professional opinion, she told me a trilogy of books on Katharine wasn’t viable, no publisher would want it. It was another disappointment to hear that, but it sounded wise, so I settled in for the long haul. The scope was changing, I needed to cover her whole life in about 150,000 words. Instead of writing a whole book of 80,000 words on her married years, 1919 to 1933, it needed to be more like 40,000 words.
The chapters of “Part Two: Peak and Trough” are:
20. Activists / Greenmount, 1919-1921
21. York Road / Greenmount, 1922-1929
22. The Karri Forest / Pemberton and Greenmount, 1919-1926
23. The Station / Turee Station, 1926 and Greenmount 1927-1929
24. The Circus / 1917-1930
25. The Mirage is Breaking Up / Greenmount, 1929-1930
26. Red Star / Greenmount, 1930-1933
27. The Real Russia / London and Russia, 1933
28. The Death of Hugo / Greenmount, 1933
Chapters 20 and 21 tell of the Hugo and Katharine’s life in the 1920s, the brief activist phase and then Katharine’s creative peak. The next three chapters are biographical accounts of the origins, writing, and reception of Katharine’s novels Working Bullocks, Coonardoo, and Haxby’s Circus. Chapter 25 interweaves the origins of Intimate Strangers with events in Katharine’s own life. Chapter 26 tells of Katharine’s recommitment to communism as Hugo’s problems deepen. I’ve only just started chapters 27 and 28, one focused on Katharine’s fateful trip to the Soviet Union, and the other on Hugo’s last months back at Greenmount while she was there. It takes two months or more for scans of archives to arrive from the National Library at the moment and there’s a folder I need in order to proceed. Or that’s my excuse anyway; there’s been a lot going on in life. I’m also digesting a major find – two folders of letters from Katharine that no-one seems to have taken proper account of yet. They are one of the more startling discoveries of my biography but I’ll keep my powder dry on that one.
I’m hoping to finish those last two chapters of part two, move on to part three and have the whole biography finished by the end of 2019. But the first priority is to finish my thesis, which will consist of a scholarly version of part one (1883-1919), along with a two chapter, 10,000 word introduction. The first introductory chapter is on the relationship of Katharine to biography, including an account of previous biographical work on her; the second is a framework for writing an Australian literary biography, evaluating some models and theories. I aim to be submitting in February 2019.
I expect progress will be slow. I’ve spent much time in the company of a three year-old (‘What are you doing?’ / ‘Writing a book,’ / ‘Does it have robots?’ / ‘No,’ / ‘Why?) but that will be easy compared to my imminent return to the land of no sleep. Any day our baby daughter is due to be born. Her name, I am reliably informed, will not be Katharine Susannah Hobby.
Saturday 10am #12