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.Continue reading
A contribution to Australian Women Writers Generation 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021
Katharine Susannah Prichard spent the 1940s working on her Western Australian goldfields trilogy, which finally appeared as The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950). It’s a saga that tells the story of the development of the goldfields through the fortunes of one family, and interwoven with folklore, historical events, and technical descriptions. It is Katharine’s attempt at writing faithful to her communist convictions, bearing the influence of reportage and socialist realism. Yet it’s also faithful to Katharine’s recurring literary interests in industries, regions, and group narratives. It is a decisive turn away from her experiment with modernist interiority in her novel of middle-class marriage, Intimate Strangers, drafted between 1929 and 1933 and published in 1937.
It was an ambitious project, and at the time the reviewers focused more on its failings than its successes. It’s true that Katharine’s politics and research are sometimes intrusive, but it is also a poignant and tragic saga that evokes very well an industry and a place and the changes over the years. Katharine reacted to the negative reviews by discounting Australian critics altogether and maintained the trilogy was the high point of her ouevre.
Katharine had been at the vanguard of Australian writing and she now found it hard to be striking out in her own direction, largely alone. She read Patrick White’s Tree of Man in 1957 and was excited by it, even though she disliked the focus on ‘moronic types’. Yet as Patrick White and Randolph Stow were proclaimed by some as Australia’s first great writers, Katharine felt she and her generation were being neglected. By 1964 she had turned decisively against White writing, ‘Lost in the fog of their own delusions, writers like Patrick White believe they are uncommitted to any social purpose, while, as a matter of fact, they serve the causes of obfuscation and the defeat of human dignity in its demand for truth and justice.’
After World War Two, Australia changed in ways that left Katharine alienated and sad. She had long wanted Australia to have cultural independence from the United Kingdom, but it didn’t go the way she hoped. Her hopes were for an Australia sympathetic to socialism and proud of its progressive history and its love of the bush. Instead, she witnessed with horror the pivot toward the USA, the rise of consumerism, the long Menzies government, and increased urbanisation. In my forthcoming biography of Katharine, I look at the 1950s in her life as a time of frustration, with false literary starts, an autobiography which wouldn’t write itself, and her feeling of stronger identification with the Soviet Union and its people than an Australia which had changed in one direction as much as she had changed in another.
Writing NSW is honouring Katharine Susannah Prichard this month, the seventh writer in their annual celebration of our Australian literary heritage. Why read Prichard in the year 2020, fifty-one years after her death? I want to answer that by focusing on the joys her work can bring us today. This reading list accompanies the first video I made with Writing NSW for the celebration, which will be streaming on their site from 9 November 2020.Continue reading
Today is the 51st anniversary of Katharine Prichard’s death. As part of the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary last year, the KSP Writers’ Centre published an anthology called Kaleidoscope, collecting creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry about Katharine, her husband Hugo Throssell, and their house in the hills of Perth, now the home of the centre. The published pieces were the best entries in a competition; Shey Marque judged the poetry and I judged the non-fiction and fiction. The standard was high and the collection is a significant interpretation of Katharine and her legacy, as well as a good read. I wrote in the judge’s report, ‘
Katharine was a complex person with many aspects to her life and a writer with a diverse oeuvre. This multi-voiced anthology captures some of that diversity and honours her political commitment to the collective. It moves across genres, across countries, across decades, beyond the span of her own long life into the fifty years since her death and even into the future.
It includes a moving fictionalisation of Hugo’s last moments through his eyes, the story of a mother giving birth in Fiji, where Katharine was born, and Denise Faithfull’s intriguing account of her literary pilgrimages in the footsteps of James Joyce and Katharine. I contributed a brief biography of Katharine’s life as an introduction. Katharine’s granddaughter, Karen Throssell, launched the book and her wonderful speech can be read here.
It’s a hard book to get hold of, but worth the effort. The first print run sold out on the launch day, but I believe there has been a second print run. To buy a copy, you can contact Wild Weeds Press at the KSP Writers’ Centre – firstname.lastname@example.org. Not sure of the price, but $20 or $30 plus postage, I think.
The first thing I did when I started writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard was to read all of her novels, roughly in order. I even found a rare copy of her rarest novel, Windlestraws (1916) at just the right time. But I didn’t find a copy of her second rarest novel, Moon of Desire (1941) – at least not at a price I wanted to pay – and so it languished unread, as I marched on with other more pressing things. She rated it lowly herself, explicitly writing an action-filled romance when she was short of money in the hope of it selling well and being optioned as a Hollywood film.Continue reading
Here I am in the Officeworks carpark on Thursday signing a contract with Melbourne University Publishing for my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
I have to submit it by 1 September (gulp – this has become a bit harder since isolation, now there are children with us all the time). The publisher has let me go to 150,000 words (about 500 pages) – twice as long as my PhD, which only covered the first part of Katharine’s life. I have two chapters to finish off, then an immense amount of editing to do. (Alas I’m at 159,000 words right now, so it shall include more cutting!) It’ll be published in the first half of 2021. Really hoping I can have a book launch by then. A national tour would be nice, children permitting.
It’s been a long road, six years working on this, and sixteen years in the literary wilderness since my first book, so it means a lot to finally be coming back. Thanks to everyone who’s accompanied me along the way.
I miss blogging. Once I’m done, I’d love to get back to it. At the moment, time has become rather scarce. I miss you all!
Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild by Dylan Hyde (Fremantle Press 2019)
What a labour of love Dylan Hyde’s Art Was Their Weapon is. The interviews for this history of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild in the 1930s go right back to 1993. Many of the key players from the guild were still alive then, and lucid. None of them are still with us today, and so in his extensive interviews, Hyde has preserved the voices of a generation of radicals and a fascinating milieu. Continue reading
Katharine Susannah Prichard, fifty years dead today.
Auden wrote of Yeats’ death, ‘The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers’. But it’s also the fate of the dead author to become their detractors as well as their admirers, or perhaps to be forgotten altogether. Katharine hasn’t been forgotten altogether; she has a handful of books in print – more than most dead Australian authors; she is venerated at the writers’ centre which meets in her old home; and she is recognised as a significant writer by scholars. Yet it’s ironic to find her remarking how sorry she is for Miles Franklin dying without due recognition in 1954 when Franklin has fared much better posthumously than Katharine.
She wrote to fellow communist Vic Williams ‘If only, in the time to come, my works will have helped people to realise the future they can create for this country of my own, I will be satisfied.’ She’d be horrified at what the country has become – communism has died, inequality has widened, greed and materialism have taken over. We have not given up on the madness of war or exploitation.
Soon after Katharine’s death, a brutal obituary appeared in Overland from Dorothy Hewett. Hewett had grown disillusioned with communism and, by extension, with Katharine for her unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union and to the effect Hewett felt it had on her writing. ‘In the clash between the artist’s pagan and poetic sensibilities… and the moralising Marxist religieuse, it is the latter who finally wins the battle.’ If the obituary has elements of truth in it, it is ungenerous and reflects Hewett’s own issues as much as Prichard’s.
The letters in the archives show that the obituary made Katharine’s son, Ric Throssell, so angry he decided he would write a biography of her. Published in 1975, Wild Weeds and Windflowers shows some of the defensiveness of its origins. Yet I was surprised to encounter a note by Ric in his papers from an interview he conducted with Hewett to gain her perspective on his mother. It reveals he was dreading the interview but came away charmed and having been glad he spoke to her. The original enmity had faded; Hewett was to go on to write a generous and appreciative tribute to Katharine on her centenary in 1983 – ‘Happy birthday, Brave Red Witch’.
Posthumously, Katharine’s novel Coonardoo (1929) continued to be her best known work and came to be seen as part of the Australian literary canon, included in high school and university curriculums. It was praised for what was considered its progressive depiction of Aboriginal people and its concern with injustices against them. This success has caused its current problems, as Aboriginal scholars like Jeanine Leane and others have argued that its racial stereotypes which are now ninety years old have been perpetuated through its simplistic teaching as an ‘Aboriginal’ novel.
Meanwhile, the Cold War is over, and communism is not quite the dirty word it used to be. Yet Katharine has been dogged by the claim by Desmond Ball and David Horner in their 1998 book Breaking the Codes that she was a Soviet spy. I’m yet to finish my research into this, but I’m not convinced by the evidence they provide. It’s the sort of accusation that sticks, though, and the columnists for The Australian seem to mention it quite often.
Katharine’s work is diverse enough that there’s scope for a continuing readership. The dark circus drama through the backblocks of Australia in Haxby’s Circus; the beautiful evocation of the karri forests around Pemberton in Working Bullocks – if only it was in print; love affairs on the beaches of Perth in Intimate Strangers. Her quite superb short stories. I could go on and on.
Of course, I think her life is her most interesting story of all. It has everything – multiple tragedies, romance, war and revolution, and a determined spirit in an often frail body. I will finish my biography before too long, and I hope it will stimulate renewed interest in both her life and work.