Katharine Susannah Prichard, fifty years dead today.
Auden wrote of Yeats’ death, ‘The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers’. But it’s also the fate of the dead author to become their detractors as well as their admirers, or perhaps to be forgotten altogether. Katharine hasn’t been forgotten altogether; she has a handful of books in print – more than most dead Australian authors; she is venerated at the writers’ centre which meets in her old home; and she is recognised as a significant writer by scholars. Yet it’s ironic to find her remarking how sorry she is for Miles Franklin dying without due recognition in 1954 when Franklin has fared much better posthumously than Katharine.
She wrote to fellow communist Vic Williams ‘If only, in the time to come, my works will have helped people to realise the future they can create for this country of my own, I will be satisfied.’ She’d be horrified at what the country has become – communism has died, inequality has widened, greed and materialism have taken over. We have not given up on the madness of war or exploitation.
Soon after Katharine’s death, a brutal obituary appeared in Overland from Dorothy Hewett. Hewett had grown disillusioned with communism and, by extension, with Katharine for her unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union and to the effect Hewett felt it had on her writing. ‘In the clash between the artist’s pagan and poetic sensibilities… and the moralising Marxist religieuse, it is the latter who finally wins the battle.’ If the obituary has elements of truth in it, it is ungenerous and reflects Hewett’s own issues as much as Prichard’s.
The letters in the archives show that the obituary made Katharine’s son, Ric Throssell, so angry he decided he would write a biography of her. Published in 1975, Wild Weeds and Windflowers shows some of the defensiveness of its origins. Yet I was surprised to encounter a note by Ric in his papers from an interview he conducted with Hewett to gain her perspective on his mother. It reveals he was dreading the interview but came away charmed and having been glad he spoke to her. The original enmity had faded; Hewett was to go on to write a generous and appreciative tribute to Katharine on her centenary in 1983 – ‘Happy birthday, Brave Red Witch’.
Posthumously, Katharine’s novel Coonardoo (1929) continued to be her best known work and came to be seen as part of the Australian literary canon, included in high school and university curriculums. It was praised for what was considered its progressive depiction of Aboriginal people and its concern with injustices against them. This success has caused its current problems, as Aboriginal scholars like Jeanine Leane and others have argued that its racial stereotypes which are now ninety years old have been perpetuated through its simplistic teaching as an ‘Aboriginal’ novel.
Meanwhile, the Cold War is over, and communism is not quite the dirty word it used to be. Yet Katharine has been dogged by the claim by Desmond Ball and David Horner in their 1998 book Breaking the Codes that she was a Soviet spy. I’m yet to finish my research into this, but I’m not convinced by the evidence they provide. It’s the sort of accusation that sticks, though, and the columnists for The Australian seem to mention it quite often.
Katharine’s work is diverse enough that there’s scope for a continuing readership. The dark circus drama through the backblocks of Australia in Haxby’s Circus; the beautiful evocation of the karri forests around Pemberton in Working Bullocks – if only it was in print; love affairs on the beaches of Perth in Intimate Strangers. Her quite superb short stories. I could go on and on.
Of course, I think her life is her most interesting story of all. It has everything – multiple tragedies, romance, war and revolution, and a determined spirit in an often frail body. I will finish my biography before too long, and I hope it will stimulate renewed interest in both her life and work.