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.