Golden Miles (1946), the second in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy, spans 1914 to 1927 in the Western Australian goldfields, from the eve of World War One to the eve of the Great Depression. Sally Gough is the central character even more clearly than in The Roaring Nineties, and the rather untidy narrative takes her through a series of trials, with Paddy Cavan the nemesis lurking close to many of her misfortunes. At the beginning of the novel, she kicks him out of her boarding house for his gold stealing racket. He promises she will pay a high price; in one sense, the rest of the novel proves him true, even if he is only minimally directly responsible. The other way to sum up the disparate happenings of the novel is as the tales of the fate of Sally’s four sons coming to adulthood, each representing a different way of living in the world. All of this is against a bigger backdrop, as Sally’s son, Tom, reflects: “There were those sinister forces outside Sally, her home and her sons, always threatening the security of the small fort she had built for herself. No one lived alone in a world where war, disease and the ruthless struggle for wealth and power, swept thousands of little people like her into the maelstrom of economic and national crises.” (99)
Given my biography is confined to Prichard’s early years (1883-1919), I am contemplating if any light can be shone on her early years from The Roaring Nineties (1946). One potential illumination is in the depiction of a minor character, the young Violet, who appears as a bartender in Chapter 30. She has put on hold her ambitions to be a singer to support her family; her father is a drunk who does not provide. This is not too far removed from Prichard’s situation at the end of school, when she gave up going to university to look after her sick mother, and then later provided for her family during her father’s bouts of depression. Sally is worried for Violet – is she destined to be ground down by the hard life of the goldfields and not shine like she’s meant to? Prichard does let Violet escape to pursue her dream and receive singing lessons in Melbourne, only to shatter it cruelly in Chapter 65, when Violet’s mother pretends to be ill to summon her back. Sally wonders what will become of her:
Nothing touched the core of Violet’s being, Sally imagined. It was wrapped in her dream of being a singer. She had maintained herself apart from the demoralizing influences about her because of it. The tragedy was that she should have been forced back among them… Sally had a presentiment of the doom hanging over the girl. She would be caught in the hungry life force surging beneath the surface of this race-course crowd. But Violet – her spirit would always demand something more than ephemeral excitement. (439)
Prichard would sing to her father in his final illness, she tells us in her autobiography, but the song went out of her soul after his death. The next year (1908) she would meet with the famous singing teacher Mathilde Marchesi, who demanded she stay and receive singing lessons; she didn’t, perhaps something she always regretted. The young woman on the cusp of maturity with much potential but at risk of being dragged down by other forces recurs throughout her work, Sophie the singer in Black Opal being particularly close to Violet’s character here. Sophie had a happy ending; we wait to see what will befall Violet in the next two volumes.
The Roaring Nineties (1946) is the first volume of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s magnum opus, her goldfields trilogy. She spent a decade on the trilogy, regarding it as her finest achievement, and was deeply hurt by the mixed reception she received from critics (especially for the third volume, Winged Seeds). The trilogy is an epic telling the story of the Western Australian goldfields from the discovery of gold and spanning the decades which followed.
The novel is haunted by the presence of displaced and mistreated Aborigines, and begins with a short, violent story of an abduction of two Aboriginal women by prospectors before gold had even been discovered. It is Prichard at her finest, writing in spare and evocative prose. It is a remarkable reorientation of her novel, throwing off-balance this story of whites and their gold; today it would almost be expected, but in 1946 it shows historical insight ahead of its time. From here, the novel tells of the initial gold rush in the 1890s and the establishment of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie Boulder. Prichard brings the dust, tents, excitement, and desperation alive in a way that historical studies cannot do. She researched this novel thoroughly and it shows; sometimes to the detriment of narrative, but mostly to help her create an authentic story. The historical background is never far from the story, forming a spine which moves the story along through a series of incidents, with a large cast of characters moving on and off the stage. It is Sally Gough who is closest to a protagonist, as she makes a living running a boarding house to compensate for her ineffectual aristocratic gambler of a husband, Morrie. The struggle between them is an ongoing aspect of the plot, as he gradually accepts her egalitarian ethos, both in class and gender terms. Sally’s insistence that she and Morrie should not elevate themselves above the others contrasts with Alf and Laura’s move up the class rankings, as mining becomes commercialised and Alf betrays his prospector roots to become a mine manager. The class struggle of the alluvial prospectors against the mining companies and the political establishment occupies much of the last third of book, and is the least engaging, often losing sight of the characters.
The novel is, rather loosely, a frame narrative, with the whole novel presented as the yarns of prospector Dinny Quinn about the early days of the goldfields. This device is used frequently in the early chapters, peters out, and is then revived toward the end of the book. Dinny is rarely central to the action, more an observer who knows all the characters.
Having read about some of the reception history of The Roaring Nineties, and the critical preoccupation of the time with rating it against and comparing it with her earlier work, what surprised me most about the novel is how very typically Prichardian it is. This novel has elements of almost all of her previous novels; it seems far less of a departure than Coonardoo or Intimate Strangers were. The foundation and growth of a community echoes The Pioneers. The depiction of the prospectors with their strong code of ethics (such as “roll ups” where disputes are settled) and their struggle against big companies is similar to the concerns of Black Opal. The mistreatment of Aboriginal women as temporary sexual partners brings Coonardoo to mind. The struggle of Sally Gough for her right to earn money and define herself apart from her husband echoes Haxby’s Circus and Intimate Strangers.