Prichard, Katharine Susannah

views updated

PRICHARD, Katharine Susannah

Nationality: Australian. Born: Levuka, Fiji, 4 December 1883; moved with her family to Australia, 1886. Education: Home; some study at South Melbourne College. Family: Married Hugo Throssell in 1919 (died 1933); one son. Career: Governess in South Gippsland and at Turella sheep station, New South Wales; teacher, Christ Church Grammar School, Melbourne; journalist, Melbourne Herald and New Idea, Sydney; freelance journalist in London and Europe, 1908; editor, "Women's Work" column, Melbourne Herald, 1910-12; returned to London and worked as a freelance journalist, 1912-16; correspondent in France, 1916; full-time writer from 1916; settled in Greenmount, Western Australia, 1919; founding member, Communist Party of Australia, 1920. Awards: Bulletin prize, 1928. Died: 20 October 1969.


Short Stories

Kiss on the Lips and Other Stories. 1932.

Potch and Colour. 1944.

N'Goola and Other Stories. 1959.

Happiness: Selected Short Stories. 1967.


The Pioneers. 1915; revised edition, 1963.

Windlestraws. 1916.

The Black Opal. 1921.

Working Bullocks. 1926.

The Wild Oats of Han (for children). 1928; revised edition, 1968.

Coonardoo, The Well in the Shadow. 1929.

Haxby's Circus, The Lightest, Brightest Little Show on Earth.1930; as Fay's Circus, 1931.

Intimate Strangers. 1937.

Moon of Desire. 1941.

The Roaring Nineties: A Story of the Goldfields of Western Australia. 1946.

Golden Miles. 1948.

Winged Seeds. 1950.

Subtle Flame. 1967.

Moggie and Her Circus Pony (for children). 1967.


The Burglar (produced 1909).

Her Place (produced 1913).

For Instance (produced 1914).

The Great Man (produced 1923).

The Pioneers (produced 1923). In Best Australian One-Act Plays, 1937.

Forward One (produced 1935).

Women of Spain (produced 1937).

Penalty Clause (produced 1940).

Brumby Innes (produced 1972). 1940.

Good Morning (produced 1955).

Bid Me to Love (produced 1973). Edited by Katharine Brisbane, with Brumby Innes, 1974.


Clovelly Verses. 1913.

The Earth Lover and Other Verses. 1932.


The New Order. 1919.

Marx: The Man and His Work. 1921(?).

The Materialist Conception of History. 1921(?).

The Real Russia. 1934.

Why I Am a Communist. 1957(?).

Child of the Hurricane: An Autobiography. 1963.

On Strenuous Wings: A Half-Century of Selected Writings, edited by Joan Williams. 1965.

Straight Left: Articles and Addresses on Politics, Literature, and Women's Affairs 1910-1918, edited by Ric Throssell. 1982.

Editor, with others, Australian New Writing 1-3. 3 vols., 1943-45.


Critical Studies:

The Rage for Life: The Work of Prichard by Jack Beasley, 1964, Prichard by Henrietta Drake Brockman, 1967; Wild Weeds and Windflowers: The Life and Letters of Prichard by Ric Throssell, 1975; Prichard: Centenary Essays edited by John Hay and Brenda Walker, 1984; As Good as a Yarn with You: Letters Between Miles Franklin, Prichard, Jean Devanny, Marjorie Barnard, Flora Eldershaw and Eleanor Dark edited by Carole Ferrier, 1992; Katharine Susannah Prichard: On Guard for Humanity: A Study of Creative Personality by Jack Beasley, 1993.

* * *

Most of the short fiction of Katharine Susannah Prichard deals with rural working-class life in western Australia. It often focuses on the struggle for survival and demonstrates the brutalization that may occur in the course of this; simultaneously implicit is the desire for a better life unmarked by the racism, sexism, and prejudice that distort and deform human relationships. Prichard wrote to H. M. Green in 1938 a comment that in many ways sums up the essence and tone of her work:

I am impelled to interpret life and the ways of the people of my own time in their essential aspects: the struggle for existence and organisation for a social system which will enable them to grow in beauty and strength of mind and body, and knowledge and reason, with all the spiritual blossoming that involves.

Nonetheless, Prichard's short fiction is rarely didactic. The fact that she was part of the group that formed the Australian Communist Party in 1920 and remained an active member until her death has colored many of the critical accounts of her work; a book about her by her friend and fellow writer (of a very different political persuasion) Henrietta Drake-Brockman described her as "still the most controversial figure in Australian literature." A counterposing of the perceived commitment of her work to the critical hegemony of what Frank Hardy has called the Patrick White Australia Policy has led to her being read as a key exponent of the realist mode of Australian writing.

Prichard did see her own work as relating organically to the lives of the Australian working class: "I know every phase of life in Australia I write of…. I absorb the life of our people and country with love and an intense and intimate sympathy; I strive to express myself from these sources" (from Green's book A History of Australian Literature, 1962). Certainly, this suggests a dominant orientation towards realism, but her stories mingle romantic and realist modes. There are affinities with the writing of D. H. Lawrence, though Prichard denied any explicit influence. (Her story "The Grey Horse," for example, has been seen as resembling The Boy in the Bush, but she points out in a letter to the critic Hartley Grattan that it had been submitted for a literary competition long before the Lawrence-Skinner collaboration was available for her to read.) In another comment on her own work (from G. A. Wilkes's article in Southerly) Prichard states she was attempting a complex type of realism, if not something more hybrid: "I dream of a literature to grow up in this country which will have all the reactions to truth of a many-faceted mirror." Implied here is that there are many angles from which reality can be represented. Though the insistence remains that it is crucially important that the representations seek to be "reactions to truth," this is a rather more complicated notion than that of reflections of truth.

The majority of the stories deal with everyday incidents of rural life. In her foreword to Potch and Colour, Prichard describes the book as "yarns that have been told to me [that] belong to a time that is passing … folk-lore really." Many of her stories have this quality of recording rural popular culture or mythology; a notable example is "The Frogs of Quirra-Quirra," in which a return joke is played on the local practical joker of Quirra, a town infested with frogs. He is fooled by a fake request for frogs from a French restaurant in Kalgoorlie, and he dispatches hundreds of them in boxes. A laconic humor pervades the more lighthearted stories such as this one, but even in the more somber stories (many of which are in N'Goola) that deal with madness and death—such as "The White Turkey," "A Devout Lover," or "The Long Shadow," about the campaign against the execution of the Rosenbergs—a kind of gaiety transfigures the dread. Prichard's stories include some of the most effective and powerful representations of the Aboriginal population and the consequences of the forcible appropriation of their land and the breaking up of their families. One particularly moving piece, the title story of N'Goola, tells how a young girl, N'Goola, taken away from her father at the age of six and put into a mission school, is searched for by him for 25 years and found shortly before his death. In this story, as in others—such as "The Cooboo" or "Happiness" from her first collection, Kiss on the Lips, or "Flight" (also in N'Goola)—the devastation wrought on Aboriginal people by colonization is communicated without any of the sentiment or paternalism that marks much other writing by white Australians about Aborigines. Vance Palmer's comment in his foreword to N'Goola that "if a change has come over our attitudes to the Aborigines it is largely due to the way Katharine Prichard has brought them near us" is probably overstated; nonetheless, these stories, along with Coonardoo, stand out in their time as particularly sensitive and complex renderings of race relations and the situation of the Aboriginal people. Prichard faced many difficulties in her own life. Her husband committed suicide in the early 1930s, and she was plagued by financial worries for a long period. There were conflicting demands upon her time; as a dedicated activist she needed to relate politically to the lives and struggles of working-class people—and this nourished her writing—but she also needed space to work at the art of fiction. Her correspondence with other women writers (some of which is collected in As Good as a Yarn with You) gives an indication of how she responded to some of these pressures, exacerbated often by the fact of her being a woman writer. While Prichard cannot be read specifically as a feminist, several strong women acting independently of the sexual politics of their times are depicted in her short fiction. A notable example is Susan in "The Siren of Sandy Gap" (Potch and Colour). The power of Prichard's stories could be seen as not unconnected to their motivating impulse, which she summed up in this way:

People should only write when they can't help writing: have something definite to say, some rage, or vision of beauty they are bursting with.

—Carole Ferrier