I’ve set up an online shop for signed copies of The Red Witch delivered to your door anywhere in Australia. It could make a great Christmas or birthday present. Please ‘add a note for seller’ if you would like an inscription.
Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard is an eloquent and powerful tracing of the life of one of Australia’s once most celebrated writers. It is a compelling tale that will be valued by general readers and scholars of literature and history. Typically, the Miegunyah Press has published a beautifully finished book that adheres to its well-established values of excellence in every facet of presentation.
Katharine Susannah Prichard first voted in the 1906 federal election. Victoria had not yet given women the vote at a state level, but they were able to vote federally. She had just turned 23, and she didn’t dare tell her father that she voted for the Labor party. He had just been in a mental institution after suffering severe depression, and she knew he would take her vote very badly. He was a conservative, railing against a minimum wage and welfare in his newspaper columns.
Katharine had met a visiting socialist earlier that year, Rudolf Broda, who believed Australia was a beacon of hope for the world. Australia was one of the most progressive countries in the world, opening up the vote to women and about to hand down the court ruling establishing a living wage that could keep a family in the necessities of life. She was very taken with Broda and his pot-belly and enthusiasm. He was an optimist who believed a better society could be achieved through reform. He was an early key influence pushing her to the left.
By the end of her life, Katharine had to contend with an Australia which was not a beacon of hope for the world when it came to a more just and fair society. She lived the last twenty years of her life under a government of the newly formed Liberal Party, most of them under her nemesis Robert Menzies. (Yet the Liberal Party of those years, in my understanding, cared deeply about avoiding corruption and guarding against deep inequality and poverty. The party of Menzies is not the party of Morrison.)
At the pivotal 1949 federal election in which the Liberals came to power, Katharine’s friend Dr Alec Jolly stood as the Communist Party candidate for the seat of Swan. Although he was a Midland councillor, the council forbade him as a communist candidate from hiring the town hall. So he held the rally outside his house on Great Eastern Highway. Anti-communist protestors came to disrupt the meeting, singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in unison as loudly as they could. Katharine was the celebrity guest, declaring ‘In this most critical period of Australian history, is up to all of us to use our courage and common sense to fight the gang of millionaires, warmongers, unscrupulous politicians, and their henchmen.’
Katharine would vote for the Socialist Alliance today. But they’re probably not going to win any seats, and I would like to think she would recognise that climate change is the most important issue facing us and to vote for candidates standing for stronger action than the incumbents.
One of my hopes as I was working on the Katharine Susannah Prichard biography was that it would be published before Phillip Adams retired as a radio broadcaster and I would have a chance to be on Late Night Live with him. The hope came true last night! I was honoured to be a guest for a LNL special on the Prichard and Throssell family alongside KSP’s granddaughter, Karen Throssell. You can listen to it here.
Today, I am on ABC Pilbara at 10:45am AWST and on ABC Perth after the 2:00pm AWST news for the History Repeated segment with Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Librarian.
I have some in-person events coming up too:
State Library of Western Australia, Wed 25 May, 6:00pm – in conversation with Dr Kate Gregory – bookings here.
Boya Community Centre, Mon 20 June, 6:00pm – bookings here.
And an online event for Love to Read Local, organised by Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, Fri 10 June, 6:00pm – in conversation with Elizabeth Lewis – bookings here.
My book will be for sale at the in-person events. In the meantime, if you’re trying to find a copy, I’m aware that the following places have stock:
Beaufort Street Books Mt Lawley (49 copies!)
Lane Bookshop, Claremont (am hoping to sign their copies this afternoon)
Boffins Books, Perth
Readings – Carlton and State Library of Victoria
Roaring Stories, Balmain
Dymocks, Canberra Centre
There’s plenty of other places, I’m sure. If you’re after the ebook, you can buy it directly from your publisher, or the Kindle edition is now available too.
Katharine Susannah became instantly famous across the Commonwealth when she won the Australasian section of the great Hodder and Stoughton All-Empire Competition in April 1915 (the very month of Gallipoli) for her unpublished novel, The Pioneers. It was the big break she had been working hard towards for a decade. I think The Pioneers, for all its faults, is genuinely a very good novel, but at the time of the competition, a number of critics were unwilling to take the winning entry seriously because of the judge, British writer Charles Garvice.
The columnist in Wellington’s Dominion wrote, “…to foist such a fifteen-rate novelist as Mr Garvice upon Australasian writers as judge of their work was little short of an insult” (May 29, 1915, 14). Almost no-one remembers Garvice today, but at the time, he was the biggest-selling British author alive, having sold millions of the romances he produced many times a year. Among serious lovers of literature his name was a byword for dross. When his own books are so forgotten, it is a beautiful irony that one of his great legacies was to launch the career of such a significant Australian writer. Even if Garvice wasn’t a great writer, could he have been a good reader, able to discern something special in Katharine Susannah’s work? The Pioneers is a romance, melodramatic at times yet with characters more vivid and a plot more interesting than the genre usually produces.
In researching Garvice I came across the superb essay, “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist”. Laura Sewell Matter tells of her quest for Garvice, after finding some pages of an Icelandic-language book wash up on a beach in Iceland and eventually tracking it down as a translation of one of Garvice’s novels. You can read it here: https://laura-sewell-matter.com/publications/. It has been great to become biographer buddies with Laura through our shared interest in Charles Garvice.
You can read the full story of Katharine’s novel The Pioneers in chapter 12 of The Red Witch, “Breaking Out”.
Fay’s Circus is the greatest Katharine Susannah Prichard novel almost no-one alive today has read. Or at least in one sense. It was published in the USA in 1931 by William Norton and is the complete version of the novel better known as Haxby’s Circus. Through an unfortunate mistake, the full version has never been republished.
In 1917, Katharine held the hand of an acrobat who had broken her back at a circus performance, trying to comfort her. They were waiting for Katharine’s brother, Dr Nigel Prichard, to return to his surgery and treat the woman. The incident stayed with Katharine and finally bloomed into a novel a decade later after she travelled with Wirth’s Circus for two weeks through the Wheatbelt and Mid West of WA. Haxby’s (or Fay’s) Circus follows Gina the acrobat after a terrible accident as she is transformed into a worldly and world weary middle-aged woman, adept at the business of circuses and reinventing herself.
Katharine called it Fay’s Circus and was finishing it to enter in a novel competition in 1929 when her son and nephew (who was living with her) got measles. To meet the deadline, she left out a big chunk from her plan and sent it off anyway. It was short-listed and contracted for publication, but the publisher insisted the name be changed to ‘Haxby’s Circus’ and wouldn’t give her the time to finish the missing section. It was hard to negotiate by post to London, and the book appeared like that despite Katharine’s unhappiness.
When US publisher William Norton wanted to publish it, he gave her time to write the missing section and allowed her to keep her original title. She was much happier with the result and grateful to Norton. However, in 1945 when the novel was selected for reprinting in a cheap Australian war edition to be sent to troops on the frontline, Katharine forgot to send the publisher the US edition to reprint from. The many reprints since have followed the mistake. I ordered in Fay’s Circus on inter-library loan, and the missing section truly does improve the novel, taking away the abrupt change of fortune and mood late in the story.
On the great Katharine Susannah pilgrimage from Melbourne to Canberra in 2016 with Nicole and baby Thomas, we stayed a few nights near Emerald in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges. Katharine lived there in 1918, but it had a place in her personal mythology that was greater than the time she spent there. With its tall, lush bush, Emerald made me think of Pemberton, the setting for Katharine’s breakthrough novel Working Bullocks (1926); I’m convinced she would have felt the similarity too.
We briefly visited Rose Charman Cottage. Katharine’s good friends Hilda and Louis Esson were living there in 1916 and it was a symbol of the domestic bliss Katharine was missing out on when she went to see them there. In 1918, she took over the lease of the cottage and spent her time there glorying in the trees, mourning her dead brother, Alan, killed in the war, and moping over Guido Baracchi while she began to fall for a war hero named Hugo Throssell. She was also reading Marx and writing her spirited third novel, Black Opal (1921). Right at the end of Katharine’s life, she fictionalised this time in her final novel, Subtle Flame (1967). The Emerald year is chapter 17 of The Red Witch, ‘Retreat’.
Katharine’s mother bought the house for her as a wedding gift with the money left by Alan. Maybe she was trying to keep Katharine in Melbourne, but instead, after honeymooning in the cottage, the couple moved to Perth. One of my favourite finds in my quest was a receipt, sitting loosely in Hugo Throssell’s scrapbook at the State Library of WA, from the Emerald General Store. It gives a picture of what they ate on their honeymoon and I found it the most unlikely and delightful relic. (Check out p. 148 of The Red Witch to discover their fare!) It would have been a painful moment when Katharine had to sell the cottage in 1932 after Hugo’s huge debts had brought the family to the brink of ruin.
I was desperate to find an old photo of the cottage, and I finally did – it had been sitting amongst scans I’d taken from Katharine’s papers right back in 2014. It’s the second photo here, labelled in Katharine’s hand on the back ‘The cottage at Emerald’. I excitedly sent it to the present owner, but she told me it couldn’t possibly be the same house. It certainly looks very different after a century of renovations and extensions. The top picture is me in front of a mural at Emerald, depicting Katharine and her literary friends, Nettie and Vance Palmer, who also lived in the cottage for a time, and CJ Dennis, another of Emerald’s literary heroes.
As a young woman in 1907, Katharine had an unlikely friendship with the Australian prime minister, Alfred Deakin. The Prichards had just moved to South Yarra after Katharine’s father had killed himself, and Deakin was a neighbour. He’d known Katharine’s mother when they were both young, but more importantly, Katharine’s secret lover, the Preux Chevalier (his identity is revealed in the book!), was close to Deakin and no doubt gushed about her. Katharine would walk into the city centre with Deakin, a strange sight to imagine in today’s world of extensive security details for prime ministers. They shared a passion for George Meredith. Meredith’s name was once placed next to Dickens as one of the great novelists of the 19th century; today he’s nearly forgotten and I confess I found him impossible to read. Deakin visited him in England in 1907; in 1908, armed with a letter of introduction from Deakin, Meredith allowed Katharine to visit him too.
Deakin is seen as a father of today’s Liberal Party, but he was a progressive who would not have much sympathy with the party in its recent history. Katharine never lost her admiration for him, even as her politics veered further and further left. She wrote a play about him for the 50th anniversary of Federation in 1951; unperformed and unremarkable, it doesn’t deserve a revival, but it is biographically revealing.
For the full story of Deakin, the Preux Chevalier, Meredith – and also Walter Murdoch and Katharine’s surprising defence of compulsory military training in 1908 – check out chapter 8 of The Red Witch, ‘Astir With Great Things’.
This is a review I will always treasure! I have been so encouraged by Lisa Hill of ANZLitlovers along the way of researching and writing my biography and I’m thrilled she liked my book so much. I actually reference Lisa at a critical point in the book – her review of Coonardoo highlights a discussion of Aboriginal massacres that has been overlooked in some of the scholarship about the novel.
It means a lot to be put alongside Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead (not to mention the other biographies Lisa lists!) – I found that biography in a secondhand bookshop in Glenelg in April 2014 a few months before I officially started and was so impressed by it I decided I had found a model to aspire to.
Having come to the end of Nathan Hobby’s superb new biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), I’ve come to the conclusion that I would have liked her very much — but I’m not sure that she would have liked me! Despite all the circumstances against her, she was brave in contesting the prevailing political climate, tenacious in pursuing her craft as an author and generous to a fault. But she fell out with longstanding friends who didn’t share her political views and I probably would have been one of those.
But I would still have bought KSP’s books. Indeed, I still am. Reading the bio prompted me to buy two more, so that in addition to those I’ve already reviewed, now I’ve added her last novel Subtle Flame (1967) and her second short story collection Potch and Colour (1944) to my existing Prichard TBR i.e. Working Bullocks (1926)…
My first copy of The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived in February and the book became a lot more real to me! We opened a good bottle of Cab Merlot from 2014, the year I began the biography, but alas it didn’t go well with packet sweet and sour chicken which had already been made. I’m so happy with how MUP have published it, from the design to the printing and not to forget the editing. The official publication date has been put back to 17 May due to delays at the ports, but I’ve been assured there were still be copies at my launch eight days earlier. Here’s details of some events taking place: