I had a good research day yesterday, after several grey ones.  This month I’ve jumped forward in my biography from 1933 (leaving Katharine’s trip to the Soviet Union unfinished) to 1941. The Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference is in Perth in July and I’ve been working on a paper to fit the theme of “Dirt” – “Katharine Susannah Prichard Underground: Ten Weeks in Kalgoorlie, 1941”. I finally submitted the abstract yesterday:

Abstract: In May 1941, Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived in the Western Australian town of Kalgoorlie for a ten-week stay to research her goldfields trilogy, a fictionalisation of the development of gold mining in the area from the 1890s to World War Two. Two government agencies were keeping files on her visit—one, the Commonwealth Literary Fund, was giving her money while the other, the intelligence service, was surveilling her. Prichard’s benign accounts of her research and writing activities in reports to the fund sit uneasily with her role in the underground Communist Party of Australia, then illegal, and her active responses to the Soviet Union entering the war while she was in Kalgoorlie. Drusilla Modjeska writes in Exiles at Home that after Prichard’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1933 and the suicide of her husband, ‘she identified herself with the party at least as much as she identified herself as a writer’. Fleshing out Modjeska’s insight, this paper gives a biographical account of Prichard’s 1941 Kalgoorlie trip as a period of representative tension between writing and politics—in this case, between her desire to work on her long-standing goldfields project and her perceived political duty as a committed communist in war-time Australia. The paper also acknowledges the biographical challenges of the period, with Prichard’s personal letters and public activities shaped by the scrutiny of the intelligence service and the expectations of the underground party.

I found the transition to Katharine’s intense communist period difficult. So much background material to cover and a new complexity, now that Katharine’s letters are deliberately evasive. I also find histories of the communist party generally uninspiring and not giving me the details about everyday life as a party member that I crave. And maybe it’s the party itself, the sense I have that Katharine has got herself into the vice of something which was meant to give life and hope, but had become controlling, doctrinaire, fanatical.

Perhaps what brought me joy yesterday was some discoveries, some of them for different periods. One expected – I retrieved a copy of Katharine’s 1939 essay “Aborigines in Australian Literature”, which I don’t think was ever reprinted and hasn’t been given enough consideration in studies of her depiction of Aboriginal people. Others unexpected. A self-published autobiography of a communist who knew Katharine – and is still alive. A delightful article by Katharine – not listed on Austlit – about wildflowers in the Darling Ranges, published in 1940 while the communist party was illegal, and a strange, benign contrast to her frenzied political struggle at the time.

Also, some pieces of the puzzle about her stay in Kalgoorlie – I found flecks of gold about the manager of the Palace Hotel (the hotel I happened to stay in on one of my visits to Kalgoorlie years ago). Rather than try to explain, I’ll share the paragraph I ended up with. It may not make the final book, or just as likely, I’m going to find some further connections which make it even more significant:

In Kalgoorlie, Katharine stayed for a week at the Palace Hotel, ‘which is supposed to be the historic & swank hotel of Kal. Not so historic & swank as some of the less reputable pubs where I sometimes go for a pot with old girls’.[1] The manager of the Palace, Violet Cook, was described by the newspaper as ‘probably one of the best-known woman on the goldfields’, and a likely source for some of Katharine’s yarns.[2] Cook, who in 1938 slipped in a puddle at the back of her hotel and found a one ounce nugget of gold,  was ‘a former showgirl with J.C. Williamson’s’ and a writer of sorts.[3] She and Katharine had a mutual friend, Rose Atkinson, who possibly suggested Katharine stay there.[4] She was taken to hospital soon after Katharine arrived in Kalgoorlie, which, according to one source, was the reason Katharine left the Palace; she died in July.[5]

[1] KSP to Hilda Esson, 7 June 1941, KSPP, MS6201/10/7.

[2] Kalgoorlie Miner, 7 July 1941, 4.

[3] Coffs Harbour Advocate, 9 December 1938, 3; Kalgoorlie Miner, 7 July 1941, 4.

[4] Kalgoorlie Miner, 29 October 1937, 3.

[5] Kalgoorlie Miner, 7 July 1941, 4.