Boundary-rider?: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography

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I gave two papers on Katharine Susannah Prichard in July. The first was on 9 July at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Canberra and was called “History of a troubled autobiography: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane”. I’m hoping to develop it further into a chapter of the critical section of my thesis and also as a standalone publication. It was a little scary presenting my paper to an audience of Australian literature academics, but they were generous in their responses and I think it went well. I have been encouraged toward some further reading in mid-century Marxist responses to auto/biography and Freudian thought.

My second paper was at the Limina postgraduate humanities conference at UWA on 29 July. The conference theme was “beyond boundaries,” and so I wrote a paper on the boundaries between fiction and autobiography in Katharine’s 1906 serial, “A City Girl in Central Australia.” I’d been looking at this serial for chapter six of my biography (“Outback: Tarella Station, 1905”), and it fitted neatly with some of the thinking I’d been doing for the paper on Child of the Hurricane. It’s pitched toward a general audience and I’m not reworking it for scholarly publication, so I present it here on my blog. Continue reading


My Review of Suzanne Falkiner’s ‘Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow’ | Westerly Magazine

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Mick fits very much at the ‘documentary biography’ end of the spectrum. It is a restrained, detailed biography, avoiding not just speculation but also, largely, interpretation, instead collating and arranging sources into a chronological account.

Source: A Review of Suzanne Falkiner’s ‘Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow’ | Westerly Magazine

If I start to feel I’ve not done enough this year at the halfway point, I can at least remind myself that I have read and reviewed Suzanne Falkiner’s 900 page biography of Randolph Stow – and now you can click the link above to see my review on the Westerly website! The actually amazing feat is that Falkiner wrote it in four years. (At least that’s what I wrote down from her speech at the beginning of the year.)

Probably every Western Australian whose ancestors arrived in the nineteenth century can claim a connection to Stow. I discovered a new one from reading the biography which did not make it into the review: he and I are from the same clan. My paternal grandmother was a  Sewell, and so was his mother, both descended from the two Sewell brothers who came out from England in the 1830s. I think Stow and my grandmother were fourth cousins. She wouldn’t have liked his books; she may well have been aware of the connection, as she knew more family history than she told.

On the other side of my family, as I’ve mentioned before, his grandmother boarded with my maternal grandmother’s family in Subiaco around the time of World War Two. I asked my (still living) Granny what she remembered of Stow’s grandmother, and she said that Mrs Stow would keep feeding the chickens rhubarb leaves, which really upset my Granny’s mother. (Oh, that’s getting confusing.) I’m afraid that’s the closest to a literary anecdote I can offer.

My colleague Heather Delfs responded to my tweet about my review of this 900 page book with “I hope the gist is ‘just no’. 900 pages seems excessive.” I’m torn on this issue. Stow is interesting and important enough to warrant 900 pages of the right kind, though 900 page biographies are enough to put me off, too. My KSP biography will run to 900 pages if I get to the end of her life. Crucially, I want to see it published in three volumes of about 300 pages, each with their own narrative trajectory. It’s the way I would prefer to read long biographies.


An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis by Philip Butterss

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One of the few books – or objects of any sort – to come down to me from my great-grandparents is this battered copy of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Why did it survive when nothing else did? It’s not a signed copy, it’s not even a first printing, but an eighteenth impression from 1918. Like many Australians, my great-grandparents  would have loved this book during the war and perhaps that’s why it survived. As a kid, I remember my bewilderment at the cupid drawings and the impenetrable slang it is written in.

I dug it out from my bookshelf for the first time in many years because I’ve been reading Philip Butterss’s An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Published in 2014, it won the 2015 National Biography Award. I’ve just returned from Canberra where I had the chance to hear Butterss speak at a National Centre for Biography seminar.

Butterss’s biography covers the whole of Dennis’s life with a careful briskness and an admirable clarity. It’s a different kind of biography to what I’m attempting, perhaps more concerned with setting his work in the context of life and conveying information than weaving a narrative and creating scenes. That’s partly a consequence of its conciseness and scope; the author also mentioned to me the limited number of personal papers to draw on. The discussion of Dennis’s literary works are well integrated and gave me a good sense of his poetry. Butterss argues convincingly for Dennis’s significance to Australian literature while also demonstrating the limitations of Dennis’s work.

C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was contemporaneous with Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was seven years younger. I was struck by some parallels and points of comparison.

  • Both had their first big success in 1915 during World War One, Dennis with the publication of Sentimental Bloke and Katharine with The Pioneers. Both books were popular works a long way removed from the war. Both writers had tribute dinners organised for them at Cafe Francais in Melbourne to celebrate their success a few months apart. It would be fair to say Dennis never developed far beyond what he achieved with that book, returning to the same characters and milieu in subsequent works with diminishing returns. Although Katharine’s breakthrough book sold well, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Sentimental Bloke, and it left her more incentive to develop as a writer.
  • While World War One radicalised Katharine, moving her to embrace communism, it shifted Dennis the other way. He’d been a radical and worked for Labor politicians, but he became quite conservative in his later years. In Butterss’ account, it was wealth and success more than the war which affected him. If The Pioneers had made Katharine a fortune, would it have affected her politics?
  • Both wrote in the Dandenongs east of Melbourne during the war. Dennis worked on Sentimental Bloke in Kallista in the early part of the war, while in 1918 Katharine wrote Black Opal 10km south of there in Emerald. This is why they appear together on this writers’ monument in Emerald. 20160115_125644
  • Both were journalists with strong ties to the Herald and Weekly Times – but while Katharine worked for the paper before the war, Dennis worked for it after the war.

I don’t yet know if they ever met, but they probably did. They at least had a number of associates in common, including Louis Esson, Furnley Maurice, and E.J. Brady.

I found particularly interesting the chapters in the biography on Dennis’s posthumous reception – his ‘afterlives’. I hadn’t realised that he is actually marginal in the Australian canon, his popular poetry not generally embraced by critics. His popularity has had its ups and downs over the decades, but more downs in recent years, light verse just not resonating with the reading public. However, the biography itself, the first full-length critical study, has ensured he is now better remembered a century on from his great success.

 


Link: Katharine Susannah votes!

Just in time for the election, my column over on KSP Writers’ Centre website:

Those who find themselves sick of politics during this election campaign would have been wise to not admit it if they were visiting Katharine Susannah Prichard. Katharine’s old journalist friend, Freda Sternberg, was visiting in 1944 and said, “I’m not interested in politics.” Katharine snapped back, “No sane person is entitled to say that.” (KSP to Ric Throssell, 18 Sept. 1944)

Source: Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – home | Single Post


Review: Potch and Colour by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Here’s my slightly tatty copy of Potch and Colour, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1944 collection of short stories. It’s the only copy I’ve ever seen – it’s not particularly rare or valuable, but it shows up less often than her better known books. I found this copy serendipitously in a secondhand booksale run by the library where I work. I wish it had the beautiful dust cover I have glimpsed at low-resolution in an antiquarian bookdealer’s catalogue (right).Potch and Colour 2

Katharine wrote some incredible short stories. I would go as far as to say that I think the form suited her better than the novel, even if she is not as remembered for it. This collection mainly includes stories originally published in journals after her first collection, Kiss On the Lips (1932), but the first appearance of some of them still needs to be established. One story, at least, is quite early – “The Bridge”; I found a newspaper copy of it on Trove from 1917 (unfortunately, it’s not one of her “incredible” stories; but it’s here, if you’re interested).

This collection divides into two types of story – goldfields “yarns” and the more substantial, realist stories, several of them about Aboriginal characters. The yarns are old-fashioned and entertaining enough with flashes of inspiration. They point the way to The Roaring Nineties, the first novel of the goldfields trilogy, which Katharine was already writing when Potch and Colour was published.  But it’s the other stories which impressed me.

There’s three particularly worth commenting on.

The first is “The Siren of Sandy Gap,” which manages to be both humorous and an astute critique of marriage. Susan, “a little woman, well over fifty,”  leaves her tight-fisted husband  George for the more jolly Dave. She “lives in sin” with Dave unapologetically but talks fondly to her ex-husband when he comes to beg her to return to him. When her new lover becomes morose and fights with her ex-husband over her, she runs off with a third, younger man. “‘I want to go away and have some peace and happiness in my life,’ Susan said. ‘They’ve no right to think I must just do what they say.'”

The second is “Flight,” a story which begins with a police officer charged with removing three “half-caste” (sic) Aboriginal children from their families. He doesn’t particularly agree with their removal, but his strongest feeling is not about the injustice so much as the embarrassment in the eyes of the locals as they watch him ride his horse with the girls. When he arrives at his house, the point of view shifts to his wife, who feels compassion for the girls, but of a very narrow kind – she feels strongly they shouldn’t have their hands tied for the night and sneaks out to untie them, telling them she’ll come back first thing in the morning to retie them. And then the point of view shifts to the girls themselves and the options that face them, untied as they are. It’s a traditional, beautifully crafted story which is devastating and prescient in its critique of the Stolen Generations policy.

The third is “Christmas Tree,” a poignant portrait of failed wheat farmers in Western Australia in the Depression. It’s one of the occasions Katharine gets the balance right between her politics and aesthetics, as she reveals the injustice of the banking system not didactically but through the eyes of one of its victims. Perhaps her husband Hugo’s failure as a farmer before World War One fed into her account. My supervisor Tony Hughes-D’Aeth tells me this story gets a mention in his literary history of the WA wheatbelt, forthcoming from UWA Publishing.

Katharine’s stories are not in print at the moment, though several “best-of” collections have been published – the ones containing just her short stories are Happiness, published in 1967, two years before she died, and Tribute (1988), selected and edited by her son Ric Throssell. Rather than a new selection or a reprint of one of the old collections, I think the best thing for the future would be a collected stories edition.  It could showcase her development as a writer and the themes which preoccupied her over different periods and show how substantial her body of short fiction is.


Review – How to Survive the Titanic: or The Sinking of Bruce Ismay by Frances Watson

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Thanks partly to James Cameron’s film, our cultural memory of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is one of a linear narrative. There’s a clear chronology; we “remember” it as if looking through a camera, able to pan out from the experience of the individuals to the ship as a whole. There is a clarity to the disaster.

Frances Wilson’s How To Survive the Titanic (2011) has undone these things for me. Instead, she captures so well the uncertainty, the fact that for anyone in 1912 trying to understand what happened – even for survivors – there was a mess of contradictory reports, eyewitness statements which diverged as much as they converged. (The first report received over the radio was that the Titanic was being towed back to port, with no loss of life.) J. Bruce Ismay, former owner of White Star Lines and the managing director of the shipping company, was on board the Titanic and jumped into a lifeboat as it was lowered. After contributing greatly to the confusion about what happened, he spent the rest of his life as a pariah.

This is a biography focused on a single incident in a man’s life. Watson’s book begins with that critical moment when Ismay decides to save his life;  the rest of the book moves backward to explain how Ismay became the man who made that decision, and forward to tell the story of the long consequences. I greatly admire Watson’s handling of her material; she shows a mastery of creative non-fiction in her control of time, scene, and detail. An example: in chapter one she weaves survivors’ accounts of watching the Titanic sink to contrast them with Ismay turning away; she finds three quotes from three different survivors which use the word “Fascinated,” and she begins each quote with that word, creating a kind of poetry and heightening the effect of the contrast.  How to Survive the Titanic is a witty and profound biography of a man’s ordinariness in extraordinary circumstances. The reversal of the survivor genre is refreshing: the story of a man who failed to be a hero.

The uncanny parallel of the Titanic disaster to the 1898 novella Futility (retitled Wreck of the Titan) is a well-known factoid. (As a child, pre-internet, I think I first read of it in the ubiquitous Reader’s Digest Strange Stories, Amazing Facts.) But the more subtle literary parallel Watson pursues in her book is that between Ismay and the titular character of Conrad’s Lord Jim, who similarly fails to be heroic when he jumps ship. She makes a convincing case for it to be the text with which to illuminate and compare Ismay. It’s a bold and interesting biographical technique, even if I found myself impatient with the lengthy exploration of it. In every other way, I found this book unputdownable.

 


Discovery inside a cheap paperback


Stopping by Curtin Library I thought I’d check their KSP collection – could be an edition I hadn’t seen or even a signature… Still amazed to find this message from KSP inside a cheap paperback edition. It’s been sitting unnoticed on their shelves for decades. I took it to the front desk and suggested they consider moving it to a special collection. 


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