‘Should he continue in the wide field of literature he will assuredly become one of our first writers of romance,’ wrote Launceston’s Daily Telegraph, reviewing journalist Thomas Prichard’s novel, Retaliation: An Early Tale of Melbourne (1893). It was not to be. This is the only novel Prichard was to publish before his death by suicide in 1907; in addition to his journalism, the rest of his oeuvre is filled out with two known short stories in The Bulletin and two serial Christmas stories in newspapers, as well as poems and some works of non-fiction. Retaliation was published in a cheap paperback edition with a green cover and sold for a shilling. Trove, the combined catalogue of libraries across Australia, lists six copies held in Australia; there may be several more in libraries not listed, and a few in private hands, but essentially, Prichard’s novel and his literary career have been forgotten. Retaliation is a popular fiction of its day, and while competent and representative, is not especially memorable. It does, however, read as a fascinating document of its time, especially in relation to the work of Prichard’s famous daughter, Katharine Susannah.
It has many familiar Victorian romance elements – orphans and adoptions; unsuitable suitors and misunderstood courtships; changes of identity and appearance; and all of this in a plot driven by coincidences. The characters are not particularly vivid or compelling; it is popular fiction working comfortably within its conventions. The lofty epigraphs from Shakespeare, Shelley, Wordsworth and others which open each chapter only underline by contrast the rather pedestrian prose. Although the action could have happened anywhere, it periodically attempts to live up to the promise of its subtitle by having the characters traverse the streets and settlements of ‘early Melbourne’. These are interesting to read today, as are the passages in which Prichard takes delight in evoking the Australian landscape, its trees and hills and birds. There are traces of contemporary debate about Australian identity and nationalism, with Stella/Marion defending the charm of Australia in two conversations, one over the beauty of the Australian landscape (Chapter XIII) and one over the appeal of its changeable weather (Chapter XV). The issue of convict heritage is also a live one, with one of the thieves described as having ‘the coarse animal face, the thick neck, low forehead, and heavy square under-jaw which seemed to speak pretty plainly of a distinguished convict ancestry.’ (102)
Significantly, Katharine Susannah Prichard also worked in the romance genre for her three first published novels – The Pioneers (1915), Windlestraws (1916) and (to a lesser extent) Black Opal (1921). Stella could be one Katharine’s protagonists, at least in her sensitivity, strength of character and forthright opinions (although these qualities are directly stated by Thomas more than they are narrated). The scene in Chapter VII where Stella seeks solace in the garden’s ‘wild luxuriant tangle, a delightful disarray of bough and blossom, wherein nature asserted its superiority over art’ (44) and ‘her surroundings breathed its balm upon her perturbed spirits’ (45) have an echo in the powerful nature scenes of Katharine’s Working Bullocks, where Deb communes with the giant trees in her times of turmoil.
In contrast to the usually progressive attitudes (for her time) in Katharine’s work, Retaliation repeats the received wisdom of its age in its depiction of Aboriginal people and women. The depiction of Aboriginal people is very brief, but telling. Hester complains to Marion that the Australian Grampians have no tradition to draw on. Stella prompts her to at least remember the story of how a hill came to be called ‘Good Morning Bill’. Hester recounts that it was named for the greeting given by a treacherous ‘black’ before he speared two shepherds with concealed spears; he is shot dead by the third shepherd. There is no recognition of the ancient culture of the Aboriginal people, or anything else beyond a negative stereotype. Women fare no better; they are depicted with the customary attributes of late nineteenth century discourse. At one point, ‘Stella is indulging herself in that grand panacea for all the ills that feminine flesh is heiress to – a flood of tears’ (10); when Ray is contemplating raping her, he has no ‘respect for purity, innocence, perfect candour… pure womanhood.’ (59-60)
Biographically, the novel gives several insights into the possible worldview of Thomas. Given Thomas’s own struggle with depression, it is interesting to see his awareness of mental illness in the novel. The key event in the stern guardian Archie’s backstory is his failure as a preacher; we read he was ‘prostrated by a dangerous attack of low fever, brought on by mental worry and nervous irritation.’ (16) These may be the terms in which Thomas thought of his own struggle with depression. In terms of religion, the picture Katharine paints of Thomas’s Anglicanism in her autobiography is of a pious and deeply conservative faith. Yet one of the clear lessons readers are meant to draw from the novel is of the dangers of an inflexible puritanism built on ‘the narrow ragged creed of Knox and Calvin’ (5). While Thomas’s religion may have seemed undifferentiated from its alternatives to his atheist daughter, the novel argues for a generous, forgiving Christianity, built on trust in the providence of God and shown in the speech and actions of Mrs Lauriston.
When did Katharine first read this book? What did she think of it, both as a child and as an adult? She was nine when it was first published, and it may well have seemed exciting and glamorous for her father to have published a book. Her father’s fiction is not directly mentioned as a formative factor in her decision to attempt fiction herself, but the existence of Retaliation would have made it seem possible to her. John Updike wrote of his mother’s mixture of pride jealousy at his success as a writer when her own success was modest; Thomas may well have felt something similar had he lived to read his daughter’s more complex, interesting and successful romances published a couple of decades after his
Our picture of what was being written and read in C19th Australia is so limited. Thanks for this.
Generation-wise I am going in the other direction, having just purchased a novel by Ric Throssell.
Nathan Hobby said:
I’ll be interested in what you make of it!