Katharine’s third published novel, Black Opal (1921), is a transition work. It has the exuberance and frivolity of her early work but also the political weight and accomplished descriptions of a community at work of her mature writing.

Working as a governess near Wilcannia in 1905, she’d taken a trip out to the White Cliff Opal Fields. The breakthrough serial she wrote inspired by that year, “A City Girl in Central Australia”, ends with a bizarre plot twist in White Cliff. The lure of opals didn’t fade. After the success of The Pioneers, she travelled to the new opal fields, Lightning Ridge, with the express goal of researching her next novel. She writes in her autobiography that the pub owner initially gave her a very cold welcome, thinking she was a visiting prostitute.

Katharine gives opal a mystical allure. It will drive men crazy, they will give up everything for the pursuit of it. She would later treat pearls (Moon of Desire [1941]) and gold (the goldfields trilogy [1946-1950]) in a similar way.

Set in the opal mining settlement of Fallen Star Ridge, Black Opal has two significant plot strands: the Ridge’s pure, beautiful Sophie coming into womanhood and torn between three men; and the attempt of an American to buy out the individual miners and commercialise operations. Black Opal is not only historically intriguing as a novel of ideas, but also a gripping read. The plot slips into melodrama, and co-incidences abound, yet we care about Michael and Sophie and all the rest of the Ridge folk. Katharine has a narrative instinct and profound insight into life. It’s what made her famous a century ago, and its what makes her books still worth reading.

You can read more in chapter 15 of The Red Witch, ‘The Opal Fields’.