Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers has reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel, Haxby’s Circus (1930). It’s a sympathetic and astute review, giving a good sense of its themes and characters.
It comes the same week I’ve been writing about Haxby’s Circus in my biography. In the comments on Lisa’s review, Fay Kennedy mentions the origins of the novel in an incident when Katharine was at her brother’s surgery comforting a trapeze artist with a broken back. She writes about it in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane. The incident was reported in a number of newspaper digitised on Trove, including the last paragraph in this article “District News” Cohuna Farmer’s Weekly (Vic), 23 November 1917, 3:
It comes right in the middle of the second conscription campaign, and an intense time in Katharine’s life. So much happened in Katharine’s life in 1917 – two deaths, a broken heart, and political development. It’s been a big month trying to cover it all.
When I get stuck or there’s something I don’t want to do, I sometimes procrastinate in Trove, searching for undiscovered Katharine Susannah Prichard newspaper articles. I was rewarded today with a timely and unexpected treasure. I’m writing about 1905, Katharine’s year on the Tarella Station in western-New South Wales, and here was Katharine offering an otherwise unknown memory about that year. It’s in a 1913 article in South Australia’s Observer they’ve entitled “What Australians Read”. They’ve reprinted (stolen) much (perhaps even all) of an article by Katharine published in The Book Monthly, and I’m so glad they did or I probably would not have found it.
In this article, Katharine begins with an anecdote from that year on the station in which
I happened once on a boundary-rider’s hut. It had earthern [sic] floors. A rough wooden bed covered with a coloured blanket, two clumsy chairs, and a heavy, hand-made table, on which stood some large tin mugs that shone like silver,were, all its furniture, but a narrow shelf ran round the white-washed walls, and on it were a score of books—two or three-of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, a volume of Byron’s poems, a damaged green “Treasure Island,” “Adam Bede,” some much-thumbed, cheap edition[s] of Dickens, “Rienzi,” another of Lord Lytton’s works, and some battered schoolbooks. Those who know Australians bush and back-country life are not surprised that the country folk, rough and simple though they be, often seek the masterpieces of English literature rather than the popular works of modern writers.
Katharine had already romanticised the boundary-rider in her 1906 serial, A City Girl in Central Australia, turning him into Billy Northwest, the rough hero Kit, her narrator, falls in love with. The self-educated man of the back-country is a recurring character in her fiction, most notably in Black Opal with the figure of wise socialist Michael, who holds together Lightning Ridge with the knowledge he’s gained from the books in his hut. She saw herself as self-educated, even though she excelled at school and matriculated. The night classes she attended at Melbourne University in 1906 and 1907 and the Victorian Labor College classes in 1917 were no substitute for the degree she missed out on.
After this portrait of the well-read folk in the back country who have read the English canon as it was then, Katharine goes on to outline an Australian canon for her British readers. Despite the predictable titles she mentions, it’s interesting as it comes so much earlier than any other extant writings of hers on Australian literature. I’m struck by the fact it’s missing Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, even though Katharine would later speak of how much of an impact it had on her (its influence on the City Girl serial seems quite strong to me). It also connects to work by other bloggers – Sue over on Whispering Gums blog has written some great posts on Australian reading lists, including this recent one.
There’s more I could say about this article; it’s a minor but significant source, giving some clues to 1913 (a year which will be hard to trace), her literary development, her perspective on Australia while she was living in London, and another glimpse of 1905 in Tarella.
I spent some time trying to find the original article. No library in Australia holds The Book Monthly; Trove directs users to the digitisation provided by Hathitrust, and yet they’ve geoblocked everyone outside the US from accessing it due to possible copyright issues! No-one benefits from this kind of madness.
My impression is that the history of journalists and newspapers in colonial Australia, and particularly Melbourne, is largely untapped. I wish someone had tracked more closely the movements of Frank “Critchley” Parker (1862-1944), as his life intersects in some significant ways with the childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard. This is Critchley Parker Sr I’m talking about, as in recent times there has been interest in his son and his curious death; I’ll return to that. Continue reading