I really like Nettie and Vance Palmer, the Australian literary power couple of the first half of the twentieth century. (And lifelong friends with Katharine Susannah Prichard.) Last year I read both volumes of their published letters – a tiny fraction of the massive archive in the National Library. I was too busy to review the first (old) collection but my review of the new collection of love letters, edited by Deborah Jordan, is now up on the Westerly website.
Autobiography is an impossible genre. Memoir is easier – the writer is allowed to present an aspect of their life, to create a story out of one of its strands or seasons. Autobiography has to try to include them all. The desire to remember and record names, dates, and places is in the tension with the need to craft a narrative. And different phases of life require quite different types of writing which might not go together. The problems of autobiography are on show in Justina Williams’ Anger and Love (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993), but it’s an important, fascinating text. Continue reading
I’ve just found a remarkable passage about the USA in a letter from the Australian playwright Louis Essson during his stay in New York to Vance Palmer (both friends of Katharine Susannah Prichard) dated February 16th 1917:
The country is not a democracy at all, but a plutocracy. The president has the power of a Kaiser, and all diplomacy is secret. The people haven’t a say in anything. Politically America is far behind Australia and in reality behind Britain or Germany. If a strong President arose, a Caesar or Cromwell, he could simply keep his position and make himself perpetual dictator. Labour has no strength here. At a recent strike at Bayonne the men were simply shot down, the authorities assisting Rockefeller.
What Esson didn’t foresee was that exactly a century later it hasn’t taken a Caesar or Cromwell but a reality TV star – the PT Barnum of our day – to take the country into apocalyptic times.
Dispelling any smugness I might have about the superior insights of the Australian left in 1917, Esson then veers into appalling racism, quite typical of the time: “Some terrible thing will happen here, which I hope will be spared Australia. I feel sure Australia must be kept white and have severe immigration laws.”
One of the few books – or objects of any sort – to come down to me from my great-grandparents is this battered copy of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Why did it survive when nothing else did? It’s not a signed copy, it’s not even a first printing, but an eighteenth impression from 1918. Like many Australians, my great-grandparents would have loved this book during the war and perhaps that’s why it survived. As a kid, I remember my bewilderment at the cupid drawings and the impenetrable slang it is written in.
I dug it out from my bookshelf for the first time in many years because I’ve been reading Philip Butterss’s An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Published in 2014, it won the 2015 National Biography Award. I’ve just returned from Canberra where I had the chance to hear Butterss speak at a National Centre for Biography seminar.
Butterss’s biography covers the whole of Dennis’s life with a careful briskness and an admirable clarity. It’s a different kind of biography to what I’m attempting, perhaps more concerned with setting his work in the context of life and conveying information than weaving a narrative and creating scenes. That’s partly a consequence of its conciseness and scope; the author also mentioned to me the limited number of personal papers to draw on. The discussion of Dennis’s literary works are well integrated and gave me a good sense of his poetry. Butterss argues convincingly for Dennis’s significance to Australian literature while also demonstrating the limitations of Dennis’s work.
C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was contemporaneous with Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was seven years younger. I was struck by some parallels and points of comparison.
- Both had their first big success in 1915 during World War One, Dennis with the publication of Sentimental Bloke and Katharine with The Pioneers. Both books were popular works a long way removed from the war. Both writers had tribute dinners organised for them at Cafe Francais in Melbourne to celebrate their success a few months apart. It would be fair to say Dennis never developed far beyond what he achieved with that book, returning to the same characters and milieu in subsequent works with diminishing returns. Although Katharine’s breakthrough book sold well, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Sentimental Bloke, and it left her more incentive to develop as a writer.
- While World War One radicalised Katharine, moving her to embrace communism, it shifted Dennis the other way. He’d been a radical and worked for Labor politicians, but he became quite conservative in his later years. In Butterss’ account, it was wealth and success more than the war which affected him. If The Pioneers had made Katharine a fortune, would it have affected her politics?
- Both wrote in the Dandenongs east of Melbourne during the war. Dennis worked on Sentimental Bloke in Kallista in the early part of the war, while in 1918 Katharine wrote Black Opal 10km south of there in Emerald. This is why they appear together on this writers’ monument in Emerald.
- Both were journalists with strong ties to the Herald and Weekly Times – but while Katharine worked for the paper before the war, Dennis worked for it after the war.
I don’t yet know if they ever met, but they probably did. They at least had a number of associates in common, including Louis Esson, Furnley Maurice, and E.J. Brady.
I found particularly interesting the chapters in the biography on Dennis’s posthumous reception – his ‘afterlives’. I hadn’t realised that he is actually marginal in the Australian canon, his popular poetry not generally embraced by critics. His popularity has had its ups and downs over the decades, but more downs in recent years, light verse just not resonating with the reading public. However, the biography itself, the first full-length critical study, has ensured he is now better remembered a century on from his great success.
Sylvia Martin’s new biography of Palmer reveals, unsurprisingly, a woman who lived in the shadow of her parents, Nettie and Vance Palmer, Australia’s literary power-couple of the first half of the twentieth century. Toward the end of the biography, Martin quotes the verdict of David Martin (presumably no relation) on Palmer’s life: ‘Her attempt to write from within the Palmer constellation, her failure to escape. Chain-smoking her life away in Sunbury mental hospital, felled by her sexuality. Aileen was the poet’ (246). Sylvia Martin’s accomplished biography largely confirms this verdict while adding the important dimension of her political activism and war service.
My review of this recent biography has just been published on the Westerly blog. Aileen Palmer is a fascinating subject and Martin is an elegant biographer. She achieves a balance of narrative and research I’m striving for in my own biography. Reviewing it was a fruitful exercise for my own thinking about the art of biography.
Bill also reviewed this book last month – https://theaustralianlegend.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/ink-in-her-veins-sylvia-martin/
Both Bill and Lisa have written helpful reviews of a new biography, The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Australia’s First Female Labor Parliamentarian by Lekkie Hopkins. Both reviews touch on the two concerns of this blog brought up by the biography – Katharine Susannah Prichard and the art of biography. I look forward to seeing how Hopkins has treated the conjectural relationship between Prichard and Holman, a WA Labor parliamentarian. I can’t offer an especially informed opinion on whether they would have known each other – my current biography stops at 1919 just before Prichard arrives in WA! The 1920s and 1930s are the most “silent” period of Prichard’s life for biographers. The weekly letters to her son Ric (covering 1944-1969) have not yet started; and Prichard’s own account of her early life in Child of the Hurricane basically stops at 1919, with a chapter postscript about the 1920s to 1930s written at the editor’s request (I discovered in the archives) and focused on her horse, when the rest of life was too painful to examine. I feel honoured to be quoted by both Bill and Lisa on what makes for good biography from one of my recent posts. As they mention, I wasn’t referring to the Holman biography when I made that observation; I’m yet to read it.
A review of The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Australia’s First Female Labor Parliamentarian by Lekkie Hopkins.
Mary Alice (May) Holman was born in 1893 in Broken Hill, NSW to miner and unionist Jack Holman and his (very) new wife, the 17 yo Katherine. Jack had problems in Broken Hill as the mining companies attempted, successfully, to reduce workers’ pay and conditions during the recession, and moved to the goldfields around Cue in Western Australia, settling at Nannine – a thriving centre then, but these days not even a ghost town – where he was joined by his wife and daughter a couple of years later. Katherine returned to Broken Hill for the birth of their second daughter and when she came back her mother came too and lived with the family for the rest of her life.
Hopkins has Katherine travelling by coach between Nannine and Yalgoo (southwest…
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Katharine Susannah Prichard, the subject of my biography, became famous in March 1915. She was a journalist living in London and she’d been announced as the Australasian winner of the Hodder & Stoughton £1000 Novel Competition for The Pioneers. I’m jumping forward in my research to 1915 for a talk I’m giving later in the year, and today I’ve been “troving” this competition. Continue reading
My impression is that the history of journalists and newspapers in colonial Australia, and particularly Melbourne, is largely untapped. I wish someone had tracked more closely the movements of Frank “Critchley” Parker (1862-1944), as his life intersects in some significant ways with the childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard. This is Critchley Parker Sr I’m talking about, as in recent times there has been interest in his son and his curious death; I’ll return to that. Continue reading
Katharine Susannah Prichard was seventeen in 1901 when My Brilliant Career was published, the same age as the main character, Sybylla. In a radio broadcast paying tribute to Franklin in 1944, Prichard remembered, “What a sensation it created! Most of the well known writers at that time were old, and here was a girl writing with vigour and realism which amazed everybody.” Continue reading
I’ve just finished reading Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), a novel still fresh and intriguing 114 years later. It covers a few years in the life of Sybylla, a determined young woman trying to break free of the restraints of poverty and the expectations of marriage in rural New South Wales during the drought of the 1890s . Jill Roe writes, “It was undoubtedly the literary event of 1901, the only significant Australian novel in the year of Federation; and by now it is more or less recognised that in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, feminism and nationalism went together as radical forces.” (Stella Miles Franklin, epub edn, 133) Continue reading