Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in my detective work for The Red Witch was my discovery of the likely identity of ‘the Preux Chevalier’ (pictured). It’s the pseudonym Katharine gives a man in her autobiography who had a critical role in her life. He was a friend of her parents who started secretly meeting Katharine in her twenties just before her father died. She learned a lot from him about politics, journalism and culture but he grew more and more obsessive about her. He gave up his job and moved his whole family – including five daughters – to London when she moved there. He made her promise she would never marry, threatening to kill himself. Such was his shadow over her life that she felt compelled to write about it in her autobiography, but his daughters were still alive so she wouldn’t reveal his name.
Katharine’s third published novel, Black Opal (1921), is a transition work. It has the exuberance and frivolity of her early work but also the political weight and accomplished descriptions of a community at work of her mature writing.
Working as a governess near Wilcannia in 1905, she’d taken a trip out to the White Cliff Opal Fields. The breakthrough serial she wrote inspired by that year, “A City Girl in Central Australia”, ends with a bizarre plot twist in White Cliff. The lure of opals didn’t fade. After the success of The Pioneers, she travelled to the new opal fields, Lightning Ridge, with the express goal of researching her next novel. She writes in her autobiography that the pub owner initially gave her a very cold welcome, thinking she was a visiting prostitute.
Katharine gives opal a mystical allure. It will drive men crazy, they will give up everything for the pursuit of it. She would later treat pearls (Moon of Desire ) and gold (the goldfields trilogy [1946-1950]) in a similar way.
Set in the opal mining settlement of Fallen Star Ridge, Black Opal has two significant plot strands: the Ridge’s pure, beautiful Sophie coming into womanhood and torn between three men; and the attempt of an American to buy out the individual miners and commercialise operations. Black Opal is not only historically intriguing as a novel of ideas, but also a gripping read. The plot slips into melodrama, and co-incidences abound, yet we care about Michael and Sophie and all the rest of the Ridge folk. Katharine has a narrative instinct and profound insight into life. It’s what made her famous a century ago, and its what makes her books still worth reading.
You can read more in chapter 15 of The Red Witch, ‘The Opal Fields’.
Only a handful of Katharine’s notebooks survive. One of them is the ‘Ti-tree journal’, and has pages of angst poured out over her storm of feelings about Guido Baracchi while staying among the ti-trees near Black Rock, Melbourne, in 1916. Most of the others are detailed notes she took on her trips to research her novels. They don’t make for easy reading and aren’t obvious to use in a biography, although they do show how she worked. She would write down slabs of dialogue, nomenclature, little word sketches of scenes. A lot of it just didn’t make sense to me. There are a few gems though, including a key at the back of her Pioneers notebook where she specifies what she has renamed each of the towns in Gippsland for the novel. And then there’s the revelations from a notebook in 1929. What seems to be a transcription of the final letter from her mysterious lover, the Preux Chevalier, probably copied out in her notebook to keep it secret while preserving it. A draft of a letter to an Australian poet whom she had grown very close to. She writes to him from the beach at Rockingham describing events she fictionalised in the novel Intimate Strangers. It took years to work out what I was looking at, but it did all finally come together when I found the final, sent version in that poet’s archives. You can read about that in chapter 24 of The Red Witch, ‘The Mirage is Breaking Up’.
As a novice biographer, I got obsessed with trying to unearth the lost years of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s father, Tom Prichard, in Levuka, Fiji. Like many other young men, he left the Victorian goldfields in about 1868 as part of the ‘Great Fiji Rush’. I found a ‘Tom Pritchard’ who went on trial for ‘blackbirding’ (which is to say, slavery) in Fiji and thought I’d found an incredible revelation. It wasn’t him though. Our Tom eventually became editor of the Fiji Times, the job he held when he returned to Melbourne to marry Katharine’s mother, Edith, in 1883. In December of that year, Katharine was born in Levuka.
Katharine’s names have often been misspelt – her given name, her middle name, AND her last name. Yet the replacement of the more common ‘Katherine’ for ‘Katharine’ has some ambiguities. In her archives, I found her birth certificate and it looks like it’s been written down as ‘Katherine’. Presumably, the clerk got it wrong!
She was actually named for a dead aunty, Katherine Susan Davies, her mother’s elder half-sister. Katherine Susan died soon after childbirth in 1873, ten years before Katharine was born. Her widower was Slingsby Davies, who soon remarried his late wife’s sister, Hannah Frances. With Katharine growing up on North Road in Caulfield two doors down from Uncle Slingsby and Aunt Hannah, the families were quite entangled. She keeps on talking about Slingsby in her autobiography, trying to settle old scores and hurts. Their family was richer and more successful than hers, and one of the houses they lived in for some time on North Road belonged to Slingsby. The echoes of names are strong too, with Katharine adopting the character name ‘Hannah Frances’ for the titular autobiographical character in The Wild Oats of Han (1928). I spent a lot of time pursuing the Davies, and found out various things about them, only to realise they weren’t germane enough to the story to keep. It’s one of the hardest parts of a biography, pruning hard-won archival discoveries from the manuscript.
In her childhood and young adulthood, Katharine was usually called ‘Kattie’ by friends and family. I call the first part of my biography ‘Kattie’. By the end of her life, Katharine wasn’t the sort of woman you could imagine calling ‘Kattie’ – she was too formidable. It might also be true to say that some of the buoyancy had left her after going through so many tragedies. By then, one of the few nicknames she seemed to welcome was ‘Comrade Katya’, which she encouraged her Soviet correspondents to call her.
Katharine’s friend and physician, Greenmount communist Dr Alexander Jolly, was summoned to her house when she had a stroke late on 2 October 1969. He couldn’t save her and she died not long before her son, Ric, arrived from the airport for a visit. If she had any last words, it was Jolly who heard them.
Katharine used to credit Jolly with keeping her alive through her seventies and eighties when she had been expected to die from her bad heart and high blood pressure.
At the pivotal 1949 federal election, 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 the 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’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, was once obsessed with a theatre actor named Henrietta Watson whom he watched perform while he was still in school. On a dare, he wrote to her years later while working as a stockman on Ashburton Downs and then, when in London after being evacuated from Gallipoli in 1915, he looked her up. She was charmed to hear from ‘Ashburton Jim’, VC winner, and there was the beginnings of a romance between Hugo and Henrietta, cut short for some reason. On the war hero speaking circuit, Hugo liked to tell the story of Henrietta and eventually wrote it up as a story he called ‘Intimate Strangers’.
Rather than being jealous, Katharine decided to take the title for her novel exploring the strains of a marriage in middle-age. She wrote the first half of her Intimate Strangers just before the Great Depression, and that half is full of the beaches of Rockingham and a sense of the Roaring Twenties in Perth. In the second half, the Depression hits and the mood changes.
She denied it was autobiographical and insisted it was based on a couple she knew. I tracked that couple down and wrote of the similarities and differences in chapter 24 of The Red Witch, ‘The Mirage is Breaking Up’. Even if Rose and Les Atkinson were models, the autobiographical aspects are impossible to ignore and there are new revelations in my book. It all matters so much because she originally had her returned war hero character commit suicide – only for her war hero husband in real life do the same. She changed the ending, unconvincingly many think.
Katharine’s friendship with Dorothy Hewett is intriguing. Hewett (1923-2002) started out in awe of Katharine as a young Perth poet and playwright who joined the Communist Party. But Hewett began to have doubts about the party as the atrocities committed by Stalin were revealed and the Soviet Union cracked down on dissident writers. Katharine stayed loyal to the Soviet Union; Hewett criticised it and then left the party altogether. Katharine was in her 80s by then and frail; she’d already had one stroke. Hewett didn’t want to be the death of her from a political argument, and so stopped visiting her in Greenmount.
When Katharine died in 1969, Hewett finally said all the things she’d been leaving unsaid in a brutal obituary that accused Katharine of willing her own creative death after the suicide of her husband. The obituary made Katharine’s son, Ric Throssell, so angry he vowed to write his own account of Katharine’s life – and he did, the first biography of Katharine, Wild Weeds and Windflowers (1975).
But Hewett made peace with Katharine in her heart and wrote a much more appreciative tribute to her on her 100th birthday in 1983 called, ‘Happy birthday Brave Red Witch!’. It was fascinating to find Ric’s notes on his interview with Hewett in about 1972; he jotted down how he wasn’t looking forward to talking to her, but he seemed to have been enchanted by her and the conciliatory things she had to say by then.
Hewett’s own biographical legacy is complicated, and her daughters Kate (named after Katharine) and Rozanne Lilley have written about their experiences as teenagers of sexual abuse by visitors to their house in their respective books Tilt and Do Oysters Get Bored?.
The story of Katharine and Hewett’s complicated friendship is told in The Red Witch chapter 38 ‘Hardliner’.
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.
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”.