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Prichard, Katharine Susannah (1883–1969)

by John Hay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), by May Moore, 1927-28

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), by May Moore, 1927-28

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P1/P (BM)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), writer and political activist, was born on 4 December 1883 at Levuka, Fiji, eldest child of Tom Henry Prichard, newspaper editor, and his wife Edith Isabel, née Fraser. Tom Prichard's succession of lost jobs and deepening depressive illness saw the family move from Fiji to Melbourne, to Launceston, Tasmania, and back to Melbourne where his wife worked as a seamstress. Katharine's anxieties and resentment of poverty, and of the social system which she blamed for this, are focussed in her account of the auction of the family's best furniture in the semi-autobiographical The Wild Oats of Han.

She won a half-scholarship to South Melbourne College under John O'Hara and passed her matriculation examinations in 1902. But the family's financial plight, her mother's illness and the higher priority given to her brothers' education (Nigel was to study medicine) made governessing, journalism and the Melbourne Public Library Katharine's substitutes for university. As a governess, in South Gippsland and in the far west of New South Wales, Prichard began her lifelong practice of filling notebooks with detailed accounts of people and places that would recur in her fiction. Her fascination with literature had begun much earlier, in her grandmother Susan Mary Fraser's home outside Melbourne, with exemplary tales of virtue and romance. In childhood and adolescence she read widely in English and European literature.

Prichard's first published writings were in the children's pages of Melbourne newspapers. The New Idea initiated her career as a journalist, publishing her prize-winning love story, 'Bush Fires', on 5 December 1903 and a six-part romanticized version of her governessing experiences in May-October 1906.

Her journalistic apprenticeship was at once literary and ideological: (Sir) Walter Murdoch's lectures on George Meredith, Bernard O'Dowd's poetry of the New Democracy, Rudolf Broda's socialism and the publications of the Rationalist Press all shaped Prichard's consciousness and sensibility. After her father's suicide in 1907, she lived with her mother, composed her first novel, The Wild Oats of Han (eventually published in 1928), and renounced her Anglicanism as superstition. In 1908, bearing a letter of introduction from Alfred Deakin (a family friend), she set out for London.

As a journalist in Melbourne, London, Paris and North America, Prichard was struck more by the lives of the victims of poverty, oppression and war than by her interviews with the rich and celebrated. In 1913 she published a small collection of poetry, Clovelly Verses, but the decisive event was her success in the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton's All-Empire novel competition. The Pioneers (1915), composed in London but based on her Gippsland notebooks, won her £250 and literary fame in Australia.

Before returning to Victoria in 1916, Prichard met in London the wounded Lieutenant Hugo (Jim) Throssell, V.C. She was to marry him on 28 January 1919 and move from Melbourne to Greenmount, on the Darling Ranges escarpment outside Perth, her permanent home.

If the publication of Windlestraws (1916) did nothing to enhance Prichard's literary reputation, the period 1916-19 at Emerald was to be a literary and political watershed. It was a time of enduring literary and personal friendships: with her in a remarkable circle were Louis and Hilda Esson, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Henry Tate and Frank Wilmot ('Furnley Maurice'). Prichard was also discovering socialism, syndicalism and communism, the writings of Marx and Engels and the political activities of Bill Earsman, Guido Baracchi and Christian Jollie Smith, soon to be founders of the Communist Party of Australia. With Wilmot she began her long campaign against conscription and war, which she saw as symptoms of the malaise of capitalism.

Marriage to Throssell and shifting to the conservative backwaters of Perth focussed rather than diminished Prichard's literary and political energies. Throssell's father George represented a social order now rejected by his war-traumatized son and radical daughter-in-law. Although she was completing her novel about Lightning Ridge, Black Opal (1921), Prichard was also writing political tracts such as The New Order (1919), establishing a local labour study circle as a foundation member of the Communist Party, and strenuously proselytizing and pamphleteering on behalf of the party's Western Australian branch which she helped to found at the end of 1920.

On 10 May 1922 Prichard's only child (and later biographer) Ric Throssell was born, while D. H. Lawrence, whom she never met, was visiting Perth and staying with Mollie Skinner a few miles away.

Although 'The grey horse' won the 1924 Art in Australia prize, and with others in Kiss on the Lips (1932) established her as a writer of short fiction, it was the publication of Working Bullocks (1926) that transformed Prichard's literary reputation. For Miles Franklin it represented 'the breaking of a drought' for the Australian novel. A passionate, lyrical celebration of the intuitive lives of the small community of timber-getters in the Western Australian karri forests, Working Bullocks reflects both Lawrence and Hardy in its symbolic patterns as well as demonstrating the explicit, if idealized, Australianisms of Prichard's fiction. As she wrote to Henry Mackenzie Green:

I think that I know thoroughly every phase of life in Australia I write of; that I absorb the life of our people and country with love and an intense and intimate sympathy; I strive to express myself from those sources … My defect as a writer is probably that I am too much of the soil. But I'd rather be that and fall from universal standards than be less the medium for expression of this place and people.

In 1929 Coonardoo appeared, sharing with M. Barnard Eldershaw's A House is Built the Bulletin £500 novel prize. Like her play, Brumby Innes (1927), which won the Triad's competition for three-act plays, and the short story, 'The Cooboo', Coonardoo originated in the notebooks Prichard completed during her extended stay at Turee, a cattle station in Western Australia's far north-west. The story of Hugh Watt, a white station-owner, and the Aboriginal woman Coonardoo is seen in terms of a romantic tragedy ending in Coonardoo's destruction and the symbolic repudiation of her world. Controversial when published for depicting the sexuality of white men and black women, Coonardoo is a compelling work with passages of evocative, lyrical intensity. Like Working Bullocks, it has been continuously in print and translated into many languages. Perhaps ironically, the literary fame they won led many of her contemporaries and later interpreters to insist upon a dichotomy between the literary artist and the political activist in Prichard, on a disjunction between her aesthetic and ideological stances. To her chagrin, political friends saw her as the celebrated author, while literary critics regretted the didactic and homiletic strains in her works.

Of the last two novels of this productive period, Haxby's Circus (1930) is the less impressive. An episodically tragic work, it is also more humorous than Prichard's other works but has received relatively little critical acclaim. A mural in Myer's Melbourne store, 'Women in Literature', depicts a handsome, brown-haired, high-booted Prichard among the characters of Haxby's Circus, her high forehead and sharply sculptured features anticipating later portraits by Enid Dickson, Noel Counihan and Rhoda Boissevain. Intimate Strangers differs significantly from Prichard's earlier novels. A close psychological analysis of the disintegrating marriage of the sensitive, talented Elodie Blackwood and her devoted but inadequate husband Greg, it is set in a Perth seaside suburb.

In 1933, when Prichard was in Russia collecting material for her book-length polemical pamphlet, The Real Russia (1934), her husband suicided, his war-initiated melancholy having been intensified by his financial failures during the Depression. Prichard, who had left the draft of Intimate Strangers with Throssell, deferred its publication until 1937 and altered the ending: the original suicide of Greg Blackwood was replaced by an implausible marital reconciliation and brave optimism about a dawning socialist utopia. She feared that Greg's suicide might have been interpreted as influencing her husband.

Between 1933 and 1946 Prichard wrote only one new novel, Moon of Desire (1941), aimed in vain at Hollywood as a way of relieving the poverty caused by Throssell's debts. As a political pamphleteer (Who Wants War?, 1935) and author of agit-prop plays such as 'Women of Spain' (1937) and 'Penalty clause' (1940), Prichard was an unremitting worker for the Communist Party, the peace movement, and the Writers' League which she and Jean Devanny set up in 1935. She was also a founding member (later a life member) of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

Prichard's return to literature was signalled by the short stories, Potch and Colour (1944), and the co-editing of Australian New Writing (1943-46); but her major work of the period was the goldfields trilogy, The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948) and Winged Seeds (1950). Although sharing with her earlier novels a concern with the dialectical triad of people-work-Nature, the trilogy replaces the Lawrentian modernism of Working Bullocks and Coonardoo with the aesthetic conventions of socialist-realism, as enshrined in the pronouncements of Zhdanov, the Comintern and the Communist Party of the 1930s and 1940s, and as interpreted by Georg Lukacs and the Soviet critics rather than Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Meticulously, even excessively documented, the trilogy deals in turn with three stages of gold-mining, 1890-1915, 1914-27, 1930-46, and with the lives of the Gough family whose passionate matriarch Sally is the most remarkable of the powerful women who dominate Prichard's fiction. While The Roaring Nineties won praise for its narrative vitality and the characterization of Sally Gough, it has been attacked for allowing ideological preoccupations to subvert character and plot.

In the years following its publication, Prichard found herself isolated in the anti-communist context of Australian society. Vilified by conservative politicians, she intensified her commitment to communism, nuclear disarmament and the peace movement, being awarded the World Peace Council medal in 1959. Yet within the Communist Party, her unswerving loyalty to Russia estranged Katharine from many of her Australian comrades, especially when she refused to condemn the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Although she wrote one more novel after the trilogy (Subtle Flame, 1967) and her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane (1963), her literary ideology was as inimical to the achievements of such writers as Patrick White as her politics were to modern Australia. In 1964 she told Dorothy Hewett: 'My Australia has gone forever now. I don't understand this Australia … and I don't like it'. Hewett's image of Prichard in 1949 characterized the last two decades of her life: 'She had the courage to stand, frail among epithets and flying bottles on the tray of a truck in a Communist Party election campaign'. In 1961 John Hetherington described her: 'She is a small woman, delicately boned, and perhaps five feet [152 cm] tall. Her bobbed hair is white, and the brown eyes behind her glasses have a kind of patient intentness; her nose and chin denote extraordinary determination, and the lines of her mouth are compassionate'.

Prichard died in Perth on 2 October 1969 and was cremated. Many of her works have since been republished and newly translated. Her writing has found new critical interpretations and new readers and the dichotomy between her literature and her politics has increasingly been set aside.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Beasley, The Rage for Life (Syd, 1964)
  • J. A. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (Melb, 1962)
  • R. Throssell, Wild Weeds and Wind Flowers (Syd, 1975)
  • R. Throssell (ed), Straight Left (Syd, 1982)
  • S. Walker (ed), Who is She? (Brisb, 1983)
  • J. Hay (ed), Katharine Susannah Prichard (Perth, 1984)
  • C. Ferrier (ed), Gender, Politics and Fiction (Brisb, 1985)
  • Southerly, 14, no 4, 1953, p 220
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 20, no 4, 1961, p 366
  • Overland, no 43, 1969-70, p 27
  • Prichard papers and letters are in most major State Libraries and the National Library of Australia, which also holds tapes (MS 888).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Hay, 'Prichard, Katharine Susannah (1883–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prichard-katharine-susannah-8112/text14165, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), by May Moore, 1927-28

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), by May Moore, 1927-28

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P1/P (BM)