I started my Katharine Susannah Prichard biography four years ago. Measuring progress by her life (1883 to 1969), this time last year, I was in 1919, just finishing part one; I’m now in 1933 – the most important one of her life – near the end of part two of the book. Continue reading
Saturday 10am #9
This is a paper I presented at the Limina Conference at the University of Western Australia on 27 July 2018. The conference theme was “Home: Belonging and Displacement”.
In her memoir, Perth journalist Justina Williams describes seeing Katharine Susannah Prichard’s house for the first time in the 1930s:
[My uncle] Harry… gave up Sundays to drive us all in the A-model Ford… on an excursion to the hills… Ascending Greenmount’s steep stretch, the radiator fulfilled all [Grandma’s] fears by boiling over.
The car stopped at the junction of Old York Road—the original route to the Eastern Goldfields—and the Great Eastern Highway, almost at the gate of a small wooden cottage half hidden by pale blue plumbago and tangled grape vines. A red witch lived there, Grandma said, named Mrs Throssell… ‘She’s quite a famous writer… An awful scandal about her book…’
My desire to meet her stirred…. [But] [t]he house was empty. Harry got some water somewhere else and we moved on.
Saturday 10am #4
I’ve decided to write a conventional biography for my first one, ‘cradle to grave’ as it’s called. Because of that, I feel the need to start with an introduction that grips readers and gives them a taste of Katharine’s life, why it matters, and some of what lies ahead in the narrative. Perhaps this is misguided; I just picked up Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography off my shelf and she starts in 1879 with Franklin’s birth. Yet as acclaimed as Roe’s biography has been, it didn’t grip me. And Miles Franklin has a name recognition today which Katharine doesn’t have. Continue reading
It’s always a beautiful shock to see Katharine Susannah Prichard in colour. This photo comes from my KSP Writers’ Centre column in May. I’ve written four columns about the heritage of the house itself, with more to come later when I’ve done further research. Katharine lived at the house in Greenmount for nearly fifty years, and the centre hopes to install a series of heritage plaques. The columns are available to read on the KSPWC website:
This month I’m writing the circus chapter of my Katharine Susannah Prichard biography, chapter 24 in the current structure. It’s focused on the writing and reception of her novel Haxby’s Circus (1930). The novel was written at the end of her five year creative peak from 1924 to 1929 and is usually regarded as one of her better novels but less accomplished than the other two novels of this period, Working Bullocks (1926) and Coonardoo (1929). Whatever its flaws it’s an engaging and moving novel. I reviewed it in July 2014, writing that it ‘has the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in KSP’s work, scenes of beauty, darkness and insight’. More recently, Lisa has reviewed it on ANZ Litlovers.
It’s a pity that the edition reprinted several times has always been the British one. The American edition, Fay’s Circus (Katharine’s original title) – published a year later – contains an extra section of 9700 words which scholar Carol Hetherington believes resolves the structural flaw late in the novel. Katharine was writing for a competition deadline and her sick child meant she didn’t write this section as planned in the first version. (Carol Hetherington, ‘Authors, Editors, Publishers: Katharine Susannah Prichard and W.W. Norton’, Australian Literary Studies 22, no. 4 (October 2006): 417–31.) Continue reading
It was uncanny to see Katharine’s husband, Hugo Throssell, as the lead story on the WAToday website today. He was one of many whose lives were destroyed by the Great War and his death in 1933 can be seen as the long term consequence of the trauma he suffered at the front. Kudos to WAToday for examining the impact of war and placing history on its front page. But it was an article which got several things quite wrong. I was going to leave it at a fairly irenic comment at the bottom of the article – but they still haven’t approved the comment nine hours later, so now I’m feeling annoyed. Continue reading
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.