An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: D is for… Alfred DEAKIN

Alfred Deakin in 1898 (NLA)

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’.

An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: C is for… COONARDOO

In 1926, Katharine spent ten weeks on Turee Station in the Pilbara. There was red dirt everywhere, the food tasted like petrol, the vegetables ran out, and Katharine was stricken with sandy blight. Yet out of it came some of her most important works, including the novel Coonardoo. It’s the story of the repressed and thwarted love between a white station owner, Hugh, and an Aboriginal woman named Coonardoo. The denial of their love destroys both their lives. It caused an outcry when it was first published for its depiction of the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by one of Hugh’s neighbours. Outraged letters to the editor declared that it was a libel on all the fine people of the north and such things did not happen. They did, of course, and the novel became part of the Australian canon, seen as a groundbreaking portrayal of race relations. Yet this century, its shortcomings have been written about by Indigenous scholars like Jeanine Leane. It is, inevitably, a white depiction of Aboriginal people and nearly one hundred years old; it does not reckon properly with the dispossession of Aboriginal people or empower them. It was ahead of its time and yet of its time. Katharine even acknowledged this in her lifetime, saying decades later that she would have written it differently in the present. I think it’s a beautiful, sparse tragedy and her finest novel, still worthy of attention today, even if we must read it with some caution.

You can find the full story of Coonardoo and its sister works in chapter 22 of The Red Witch, ‘The Station’ – out 17 May.

An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: B is for… Guido BARACCHI

Katharine met Guido Baracchi on a boat home to Melbourne in the last days of 1915. He was a rich socialist, a perpetual student, and a world-class charmer. They fell in love and his radical ideas and unfaithfulness added to the disquiet and turmoil of Katharine’s life from 1916 to 1918. Baracchi introduced Katharine to Karl Marx, among other thinkers, and in 1917 she enrolled as the first student of the very left-wing Victorian Labor College, where he lectured. It was a revelation to find among her papers an unsent letter to him where she sounds so vulnerable and present – a heartfelt scrap showing the richness of her inner life, when most of the papers from this time which have survived are so innocuous. Baracchi broke her heart one more time by suddenly marrying, at 2am, a pantomine chorister he had recently met. But it wasn’t until Baracchi was kicked out of the Communist Party for Trotskyism in about 1941 that she broke off contact with him. And yet, if you read The Red Witch, you will find there was a happy ending of sorts for Katharine and Guido. Guido’s full story is told in Jeff Sparrow’s excellent biography Communism: A Love Story.

The Red Witch is out on 17 May – https://www.mup.com.au/books/the-red-witch-hardback

An A to Z of Katharine Susannah Prichard: A is for… AUSTRALIA

Katharine was actually born in Fiji, but both her parents had grown up in Australia. She loved Australia and spent her career trying to express its distinctiveness, seeking out the stories of the people and places of the country’s back-blocks.

She turned 18 in the year of Federation, 1901, and like many of her generation, saw Australia as the hope of the world – a newly-created nation which would leave behind the old hatreds and injustices of the old country and forge a more just society. Something changed for her in 1916-1917. She saw a country sending its young men off to die while the rich got richer. She fell in love with a socialist and endured the death of her beloved brother at the front. She came to see the hope of the world not in the gradual reform Australia had been undertaking but the revolution in Russia.

She never lost her love for Australia but for the rest of her life she carried a great disappointment in her country that only intensified as it moved further away from its early egalitarian impulses.

I started this A-Z of KSP on my Facebook author page to promote my forthcoming book. I thought I’d share it here too. You can find my Facebook page here

The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, by Nathan Hobby

This is a review I will always treasure! I have been so encouraged by Lisa Hill of ANZLitlovers along the way of researching and writing my biography and I’m thrilled she liked my book so much. I actually reference Lisa at a critical point in the book – her review of Coonardoo highlights a discussion of Aboriginal massacres that has been overlooked in some of the scholarship about the novel.

It means a lot to be put alongside Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead (not to mention the other biographies Lisa lists!) – I found that biography in a secondhand bookshop in Glenelg in April 2014 a few months before I officially started and was so impressed by it I decided I had found a model to aspire to.

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Having come to the end of Nathan Hobby’s superb new biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), I’ve come to the conclusion that I would have liked her very much — but I’m not sure that she would have liked me! Despite all the circumstances against her, she was brave in contesting the prevailing political climate, tenacious in pursuing her craft as an author and generous to a fault. But she fell out with longstanding friends who didn’t share her political views and I probably would have been one of those.

But I would still have bought KSP’s books.  Indeed, I still am.  Reading the bio prompted me to buy two more, so that in addition to those I’ve already reviewed, now I’ve added her last novel Subtle Flame (1967) and her second short story collection Potch and Colour (1944) to my existing Prichard TBR i.e. Working Bullocks (1926)…

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The larger-than-life subject?

I was underwhelmed by Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer; it wasn’t as profound as I hoped or as engaging. It was fine, just not great. But I was taken with her discussion of the problem for the journalist / nonfiction novelist – or, I would add, perhaps biographer – of needing to select a subject who is ‘a ready made literary figure’. She argues that journalist McGinniss chose a subject in murderer Jeffrey MacDonald who just wasn’t interesting enough:

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Launch events for The Red Witch

My first copy of The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard arrived in February and the book became a lot more real to me! We opened a good bottle of Cab Merlot from 2014, the year I began the biography, but alas it didn’t go well with packet sweet and sour chicken which had already been made. I’m so happy with how MUP have published it, from the design to the printing and not to forget the editing. The official publication date has been put back to 17 May due to delays at the ports, but I’ve been assured there were still be copies at my launch eight days earlier. Here’s details of some events taking place:

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A death

My best friend, Jonathan, took his own life a week ago. I hate that his whole story now seems to lead up to his end. If he’d been saved somehow, most people would never know and his life would have gone on, apparently with a completely different arc. I think of that moment in the movie Match Point when the ball could fall on either side. There are so many different, better ways this should have gone.

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Memory and Mortality in Gnomesville

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We were at Gnomesville the other day. Since the 1990s people have been leaving gnomes in the bush by the side of a round-about in a sparsely-populated corner of the Ferguson Valley. There’s thousands of gnomes spread around the trees and along the tracks. A few of the gnomes are broken but not many; I think the broken ones must be removed. One of the main stretches follows a seasonal creek-bed and the flat clear surface is filled with shiny new gnomes with dates from recent weeks written in texta. Perhaps, like me at first, they didn’t notice it was a creek. A good proportion of gnomes on higher ground are spattered with mud, survivors of at least one year of winter’s rains. Others were probably washed away.

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