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.