Katharine Susannah Prichard had a troubled relationship with university. She longed to attend Melbourne University with her peer group, Nettie Higgins, Christian Jollie Smith and Hilda Bull. But while they went on to study, respectively, arts, law and medicine, Katharine spent a desultory year as housekeeper when her mother was sick in 1903, the year after secondary school. Her mother recovered, but her father didn’t want her to study further, so she set off to Yarram to make a living as a governess.
As a consolation, she went to night classes at Melbourne University in 1906. There are meant to be student records even for night-class students, and I travelled to the Melbourne Uni archives expectantly in 2016, only to be told hers were missing. We do know a young lecturer named Walter Murdoch befriended her, and it was a friendship that would last the rest of her life, with both of them moving to WA and becoming the two biggest names in WA literature from the 1920s to 1950s.
Katharine was torn between her own appreciation of education and her lack of a formal qualification. It would have been a great honour to her that she was invited to give guest lectures on Australian at the University of Western Australia in 1940. It hurt immensely that she was disinvited a few days before the first lecture due to her communism.
It would have seemed a chance to be accepted by the university when a UWA Master’s student, Cyril Cook, turned up on her doorstep in 1950, declaring he wanted to write his thesis about her. She let him interview her, lent him photos, and eagerly awaited what he was going to write. She was deeply disappointed – his biographical chapter offered Freudian interpretations of her life which she took great offence to; his chapters on her novels had some criticisms which were hard to swallow. She told people she would have to write her own autobiography, just to correct the record – even though the thesis was not published and she had been talking about writing an autobiography for decades.
Late in life, Katharine apparently turned down an honorary doctorate from UWA. From memory, one reason was that her political nemesis Robert Menzies had been given one. But another was her own ambivalence toward university all through her life.