It’s not easy knowing how to start a biography. The preface to my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard went through a number of versions. Talking to a respected literary figure, she advised I write about why I had written the book because people would want to know. I don’t appear at all in the body of the biography, but it is a long-standing convention to tell something of the biographer’s quest in the preface, so it seemed like good advice and I followed it. I was quite happy with it as an introduction to a biography for a general readership. But one of the anonymous peer reviewers felt it didn’t work: ‘the preface draws tenuous links between the life of the subject and that of the author, and admits (no doubt unintentionally) a kind of obsessiveness, not unlike that asserted with regard to [certain figures in the biography]. I understand that with this gesture the author is attempting to acknowledge his standpoint, but it doesn’t work.’ Maybe the reviewer is right, and/or maybe it was a little mean to call me obsessive when that’s what biographers do, and my tone is more whimsical or self-deprecating than seems to be appreciated. Whatever the case, the published book – when it finally comes out in April 2022 (yes, the date has been pushed back) – will have a quite different preface, which makes a case for Katharine’s significance and outlines the approach I have taken. I’m very happy with that preface too. But for what it’s worth, here’s one of my lost prefaces that is possibly obsessive and self-indulgent in laying out why a non-communist male (somewhat) Anglican is writing the story of a long-dead female communist.
I’ve followed Katharine Susannah Prichard many places, in pursuit of those moments of connection when the past lives again. She has no grave but I stood where she had stood a century earlier in front of her father’s grave in a Melbourne cemetery. At the National Library I opened the black leather case she was given for her twenty-first birthday and found inside four simple white business cards from when she was working as a journalist in 1909—‘Miss Katharine S. Prichard, The Herald, The Weekly Times’. I followed her to Yarram and Emerald and Northam, trying to impose her on the present landscape. I sat in her writing cabin at her old home, trying to infuse my own work with her presence as I looked out the window past gum trees to the skyscrapers which had risen up in the distant city centre.
But most of all, of course, I’ve found her in the archives. Despite the fires she made of her papers in her last decades, she still left behind so much of herself on paper, multiple sources for every one of her eighty-five years. It amazes me to hear her voice across the years, and it evokes a sad comparison that not a single letter has reached me from my great-grandparents of the same generation.
There in the archives, she bursts into colour at the end of her life in a ten-minute home video. It captures her doing ordinary things at her home in Greenmount—writing at her desk, standing outside her writing cabin, posing in front of a blooming wattle bush in her garden, drinking tea on her verandah with friends. All through it she is talking, talking, talking, but her words are lost; there is no sound. Usually things are the other way around—all words and no visuals. It would be churlish of me to lament the silence of the film.
Near the end is a scene which belongs at the beginning: Katharine at the driveway, opening the gate as if to invite us in. It cuts to a scene of her showing a copy of her final novel, Subtle Flame, and then, shockingly, a procession is following a hearse through the gates of Karakatta Cemetery. Just as she seems so alive, she’s snatched away from us again.
My path to writing a biography began with a novel I abandoned. I spent five years writing about a biographer, imagining a character doing what I came to wish I was doing. The desire to write that novel had come out of my fascination with the remains of the past. By the end, it was clear to me that I needed to write a story which had actually happened, rather than trying to create one. My mind thrives on dates, connections, unlikely details. To be a biographer was a licence to work with these things systematically and weave the story of one person from their remains. Across the expanse of one life I could experience the passage of time and understand a whole world.
I wanted to write about someone who had walked the same streets I walk in my home city of Perth. I was drawn to Katharine Susannah Prichard and her many biographical mysteries and contradictions. The more I looked, the more it seemed they hadn’t been untangled, her story hadn’t been fully told. I began reading through her oeuvre from the beginning and found myself hooked.
In my unpublished novel, the main character discovers he is actually a descendant of his subject. I’ve been alert for connections to Katharine, hoping for one which would bind me to her and make my choice seem fated, but the connections I’ve found are not dramatic. A great-grandfather who came from the same farming district as her husband, Hugo Throssell, and like him, served in the Great War. Another great-grandfather who was a gold miner at Kanowna in the period Katharine writes about in The Roaring Nineties. A grandfather who started at the school of Katharine’s son the year he finished. The best I can say is that my great-grandparents, all Western Australians, lived parallel to her.
It would be a neat coincidence to be born, like my brother, one hundred years after Katharine; I have to be content with ninety-eight. That, by another measure, is twelve years after she died—not that long, really. It’s a tantalising gap. She exists on the edge of living memory. Midway through my research, I found five boxes of material left behind by a biographer from an abandoned attempt fifteen years earlier. She had interviewed half a dozen people who had known Katharine well; they were all dead by the time I started.
Katharine’s politics was forged in the heat of the Great War. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a beacon of hope and for her last fifty-two years she held tightly to the belief that communism would change the world for the better. I am not a communist but I understand her idealism. As an undergraduate at the turn of the millennium, I joined the protests against corporate globalisation and then, later, the Iraq War. Brought up an evangelical Christian, I became an Anabaptist, convinced in my twenties that pacifist Christian communities trying to live by the Sermon on the Mount were the best hope for the world. Katharine’s conversion came at thirty-three; by that age—the age I began this book—I’d already gone through the pain of disillusionment and emerged chastened. How did Katharine, who only wanted to make the world a better place, end up a Stalinist, defending an indefensible regime? I’m intrigued by the tragedy of a good person committing everything to a cause that proved to have a dark side.
In her long life, Katharine rarely took the easy option. She worked determinedly over decades to build a writing career despite the pressures of poor health, financial worries, and the urgency of her political activism. Her writings are full of the paradoxes of her life, marrying romance with realism, uneven but sometimes brilliant and always interesting, chronicling the people and places of Australia with a richness that deserves an ongoing readership. She was generous, stubborn, and sincere. We can find in her remarkable life inspiration, warning, drama, and more tragedy than any one person should ever have to endure.