The biographer at the Emerald literary mural in 2016

On the great Katharine Susannah pilgrimage from Melbourne to Canberra in 2016 with Nicole and baby Thomas, we stayed a few nights near Emerald in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges. Katharine lived there in 1918, but it had a place in her personal mythology that was greater than the time she spent there. With its tall, lush bush, Emerald made me think of Pemberton, the setting for Katharine’s breakthrough novel Working Bullocks (1926); I’m convinced she would have felt the similarity too.

We briefly visited Rose Charman Cottage. Katharine’s good friends Hilda and Louis Esson were living there in 1916 and it was a symbol of the domestic bliss Katharine was missing out on when she went to see them there. In 1918, she took over the lease of the cottage and spent her time there glorying in the trees, mourning her dead brother, Alan, killed in the war, and moping over Guido Baracchi while she began to fall for a war hero named Hugo Throssell. She was also reading Marx and writing her spirited third novel, Black Opal (1921). Right at the end of Katharine’s life, she fictionalised this time in her final novel, Subtle Flame (1967). The Emerald year is chapter 17 of The Red Witch, ‘Retreat’.

Katharine’s mother bought the house for her as a wedding gift with the money left by Alan. Maybe she was trying to keep Katharine in Melbourne, but instead, after honeymooning in the cottage, the couple moved to Perth. One of my favourite finds in my quest was a receipt, sitting loosely in Hugo Throssell’s scrapbook at the State Library of WA, from the Emerald General Store. It gives a picture of what they ate on their honeymoon and I found it the most unlikely and delightful relic. (Check out p. 148 of The Red Witch to discover their fare!) It would have been a painful moment when Katharine had to sell the cottage in 1932 after Hugo’s huge debts had brought the family to the brink of ruin.

I was desperate to find an old photo of the cottage, and I finally did – it had been sitting amongst scans I’d taken from Katharine’s papers right back in 2014. It’s the second photo here, labelled in Katharine’s hand on the back ‘The cottage at Emerald’. I excitedly sent it to the present owner, but she told me it couldn’t possibly be the same house. It certainly looks very different after a century of renovations and extensions. The top picture is me in front of a mural at Emerald, depicting Katharine and her literary friends, Nettie and Vance Palmer, who also lived in the cottage for a time, and CJ Dennis, another of Emerald’s literary heroes.