Cataloguing a biography of Charles Spurgeon in my librarian job, I noticed this convolutedly-worded confession in the preface. The book is a comprehensive biography of 700 pages in two columns (such a strange layout) described by one reviewer as an ‘immense and monumental portrait’, yet the author did not manage to get to the major archives for his subject at all. I take this as a consolation for my lack of recent access to Katharine’s papers in Canberra; yet it seems an unforgivable hole in a biography.
In the first two years, I made four trips to Canberra and two to Melbourne. But still I fret over the archives, over the fact I may not make it again anytime soon and the thought of all the things I’ve missed. (I didn’t copy as much of the material beyond 1919, where the project was initially finishing.)
Not being able to get to Canberra has made me find work arounds. My university library has procured me copies of papers I have location numbers for. (I am waiting anxiously for them to tell me I’ve asked for too many!) Right here in Perth I recently stumbled across the boxes of material gathered by a previous PhD student attempting a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It had some significant material I’d not copied and I’m so grateful for her foresight and generosity in leaving them to future scholars. I’ve gone back more carefully over the photographs I took from the archive and found whole folders I didn’t realise I had. And I’ve reached the Western Australian years and found many things at the State Library of WA, even an eyewitness account of Katharine’s death.
I’ve learned about an important paradox in writing a biography anyway: the hunger for archives is in tension with the readers’ patience. The biographer will usually have more material than the reader wants to read.
‘Just one thing to make clear,’ she said, ‘I’d be astonished if any agent or publisher thought it was a good idea to write a trilogy on Katharine Susannah Prichard.’
I was hoping for something more like: I would be astonished if any agent or publisher turned down this manuscript. But I hired my editor for a manuscript assessment because of her frank and fearless advice and industry insight. I was glad to hear she considered it well written, but what stood out for her was my premise that the early life of KSP was worth an entire book. Did I provide some startling justification for this later in the manuscript? Did I have a better example of a similar undertaking other than Judith Wright? No and no. Continue reading →
It’s Katharine’s birthday today. She was in Victoria for her thirty-fourth birthday a century ago. I’m not sure if she was still in Pyramid Hill, housekeeping for her brother, Nigel, the doctor, or if she’d returned to Melbourne where she’d been living with her mother. She didn’t know her other brother, Alan, had been wounded in France two days earlier; news of his death reached her on 21 December, the day after the “no” campaigners won the second conscription campaign. It was one of the saddest times of a life filled with many tragedies. Sumner Locke, her writer friend, had died in childbirth in October and Guido Baracchi had broken Katharine’s heart one last time in November.
Recently I saw footage of her for the first time, ten minutes of Katharine moving around in super-8 colour in 1969, the last year of her life. John Gilchrist, the film-maker, knew exactly what he was doing; he captures her doing ordinary things – writing at her desk, standing outside her writing cabin, posing in her native garden, sitting on her verandah drinking tea with friends. All through it she is talking, talking, talking, but her words are lost; there is no sound. Usually things are the other way around – all words and no visuals. It would be churlish of me to lament the silence of the film.
Near the end is a scene which belongs at the beginning: Katharine at the driveway of 11 Old York Road, opening the gate as if to invite us in. It cuts to a scene of her opening up a copy of her final novel, Subtle Flame, and then, shockingly, a procession is following a hearse through the gates of Karakatta Cemetery. Just as she seemed so alive, she’s snatched away from us again.
I’d put everything on this competition, worked furiously for nine months to have a manuscript ready for its closing. This was the right publisher, the perfect opportunity. The shortlist came mercifully early – 6am, just as I woke – but I wasn’t on it. I wasn’t as devastated as last year’s big attempt. Suck it up, this is the way of the world now. Continue reading →
The quest to find out about Wandu, the house Katharine Susannah Prichard and Hugo Throssell lived in 1919, led to some interesting discoveries last month, some of which I wrote about for my column for KSP Writers’s Centre – it’s now up on their website.
I’ve been writing about Hugo Throssell’s infamous speech at Northam in July 1919 so I needed to visit the town. Newly married to Katharine Susannah Prichard, Hugo, a Victoria Cross winner, returned to his hometown as the guest of honour for the local celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. After the afternoon parade, he was one of five speakers in the evening and 1200 people witnessed him announce that the war had turned him into a socialist. There would keep being wars, he said, until we stopped people profiting from them.
I took my two-year-old son, Thomas. There were lots of diggers, buses, and trucks along the way to keep him interested until he suddenly fell asleep, just as I was going to call into the Greenmount Liquor Store on the way to talk about what I’d unearthed of the history of their shop. (It’s the last remnant of the Wandu Estate, where Katharine and Hugo first lived in WA.) So we kept driving without a stop, an hour and a half east of the city and into the Wheatbelt.
I’ve only visited Northam twice before but it’s familiar, reminding me of the town I grew up in, Collie. I stumbled on the Hugo Throssell statue and memorial before I even had my phone out to look for the Avon Street Mall, an unfinished space in the centre of town. It was hard to imagine 1200 people crowding in. The platform Hugo spoke from was meant to be outside the Fitzgerald Hotel, formerly Tattersall’s. The historical bin on the street gave a spiel on it, but the hotel was nowhere to be seen. Then I realised it’d been demolished a few years ago; the patch of green grass marked its spot. The statue was striking, oversized as statues need to be to have gravitas. It’s not a great likeness, but the ambiguous look of distress and determination on his face is appropriate for a veteran who was to suffer so much. He’s clutching his Victoria Cross. I’m glad the statue stands on the site he gave his speech; it means owning a difficult history.
It was an overcast day and as I walked Thomas up the hill from the statue occasional drops of rain came down in the moderate heat. I was amazed by several mansions along the way; I learned soon after that part of Northam was nicknamed ‘Nob Hill’. We came to the school built around the old Throssell mansion, Fermoy. Thomas was complaining by then and the rain seemed to be threatening heavier, and so being a less intrepid biographer than I should be, I took a photo from a distance which would not upset the security guard and turned around. I imagined Hugo taking Katharine up the hill and pointing out where he grew up; in 1919 it had been a hospital for a few years.
Near where I parked the car was a sun-faded train fort. This, for a toddler whose patience was at an end, was the highlight of Northam.
There was a grand old house in Greenmount called ‘Wandu’. A teenage girl accidentally shot the surveyor-general there in 1915. Katharine Susannah Prichard rented it in 1919. Then, for decades, it was a guest-house and social hub for the district. I wrote a piece on it for my monthly KSP Writers’ Centre column; I’d love to uncover a photo of it.
UPDATE 11 OCTOBER 2017
I’ve uncovered a photograph, under the alternative spelling ‘Wandoo’. It’s not quite as grand looking as I imagined, but here’s a 1931 ad for the house Katharine and Hugo lived in when they first moved to Perth.
Katharine Susannah Prichard the lavender girl, 1915. A photo from a profile by Sumner Locke in Everylady’s Journal.
I sent my manuscript off two weeks ago. The publisher I think would be best for my biography now runs an annual competition for an unpublished manuscript, so it seemed a perfect goal. I’m catching my breath after eight intense months in which I wrote half of the book. (The first half took more than two years.) Continue reading →
I’m currently doing final revisions on my biography before I send it off for the first time. It’s 100,000 words long and twenty chapters – hopefully the first book of three covering Katharine Susannah Prichard’s life. I’m not certain of the title yet so maybe you can help me. Here’s a blurb for the book, to give you a sense of what the title needs to convey:
When Katharine Susannah Prichard’s father killed himself in 1907, her literary career was just starting to bloom. She was twenty-three, and she’d lived her life in the shadow of his depression, hoping for his approval. This biography is the story of Prichard’s restless early life as she overcame the deaths of her father and brother and many years of literary setbacks to break through as a novelist of the Australian land and people. It is also the story of her political transformation, as her quest for the answer to the world’s problems became urgent in the horrors of World War One and she decided that the only solution was revolution. All of it was tangled with her complicated love life, her long affair with an older man, a romance with a playboy activist that left her heartbroken, and finally her marriage to the Victoria Cross winner, Hugo Throssell. Precocious child, governess, journalist, and finally writer this is the engrossing story of one of Australia’s literary greats.
And the nominations for title are, in alphabetical order, with an explanation:
Astir: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard
“Astir” is a word which seems to capture the spirit of Katharine: “in a state of excited movement.” It’s not specific to any one strand of her life, but suggestive of them all. I was drawn to it by this passage from her, which I would use as an epigraph:
[S]o strenuously national is the spirit of today, so lively and vigorous the sense of our growing strength in intellectual and artistic life, that Australian literature is abandoning this “imitativeness,” these swaddling-clothes of its infancy, and adopting the toga virilis of originality. It has reached the adolescent stage—it is astir with great things; growing daily in power and freedom… But no-one has completely expressed the characteristic of our country, life and people. We await transfiguration at the hands of a great writer.
“Australian Literary Tendencies.” International 1, no. 3 (March 1908): 344–45.
Katharine Susannah Prichard: Before She Was Any of Those Things
This title comes from the prologue:
In Australia’s cultural memory, Katharine has become the aging, tenacious communist living in her cabin in the hills of Perth, widow of a Victoria Cross winner, author of Coonardoo. This biography is the story of Katharine before she was any of those things. If all of these things have antecedents, none of them were as inevitable as they now seem.
Katharine Susannah Prichard: Beginnings (or, Beginnings: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1883-1919)
This title speaks for itself! The plural is important, suggesting the different spheres of life.
A Rough Path: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard
In her grief over her brother killed in the war, Katharine wrote a poem called “For Alan”:
My way is like this way
Which goes through the hills—
A rough path—it seems to ascend, ascend:
But I know it will come to the sea,
And long day end.
It’s an image that conveys the pattern of her early life and would make a good epigraph.
Turning Red: The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard
While politics was only one strand of Katharine’s life, it was an important strand and this title conveys the process of transformation.
If this book gets accepted by a publisher, I’m sure they’ll have an opinion on the title. But for the moment, I want to be sure the title captures the attention and respect of whoever is reading the manuscript. Please vote and tell me what you think. I’d also welcome other suggestions (leave a comment) and feedback on the subtitle (“The Early Life of Katharine Susannah Prichard”).
Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers has reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel, Haxby’s Circus (1930). It’s a sympathetic and astute review, giving a good sense of its themes and characters.
It comes the same week I’ve been writing about Haxby’s Circus in my biography. In the comments on Lisa’s review, Fay Kennedy mentions the origins of the novel in an incident when Katharine was at her brother’s surgery comforting a trapeze artist with a broken back. She writes about it in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane. The incident was reported in a number of newspaper digitised on Trove, including the last paragraph in this article “District News” Cohuna Farmer’s Weekly (Vic), 23 November 1917, 3:
It comes right in the middle of the second conscription campaign, and an intense time in Katharine’s life. So much happened in Katharine’s life in 1917 – two deaths, a broken heart, and political development. It’s been a big month trying to cover it all.