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’.