Monthly Archives: January 2014

A resolute woman: Katharine Susannah Prichard in Wild Weeds and Windflowers

Executive Councillor

Wild Weeds and Wind Flowers: The Life and Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard / by Ric Throssell (Angus & Robertson, 1975)

Wild Weeds is a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), one of Australia’s most important novelists, but just as much it is a memoir, written with the intimate care and investment of a son who loved his mother deeply. The foreword is valuable as an explanation of intent and of KSP’s troubled relationship to biography. Throssell starts by writing that ‘Katharine persuaded herself to write about her own life in sheer self-defence.’ Throssell’s biography also often feels like a defence against the misreadings and intrusions of literary critics, and against the criticism her life-long communism drew. He writes in the foreword:

I cannot attempt a dispassionate study. I can pretend to no cold, academic impartiality. Mine is a personal picture. I make no literary evaluation of my mother’s work; no assessment of the rights and wrongs of the political beliefs which were an essential part of her writing and her life. That is for others to do, or for the most impartial observer of all: time.

A biography of KSP could run much longer; 250 pages can only sum up some of the significant phases of a long and interesting life. Throssell notes that the early chapters up to the death in 1933 of Hugo Throssell (KSP’s husband and Ric’s father) are derived from KSP’s autobiography. KSP’s childhood was one of moving around from Fiji to Tasmania to Melbourne, following her father’s unstable journalistic career; he was to kill himself in 1907, an event KSP could not speak of, even to her son, until the end of her life. It is difficult to know how much more light Throssell could have shed on a pivotal, unknown moment in his mother’s life.

KSP’s adventurous years as a journalist in London end with her marrying the Victoria Cross winner, Hugo Throssell, in 1919 and moving back to his home state of Western Australia. She was to make it her home, even in the long decades after his death.

John Hamilton’s recent biography of Hugo Throssell add an extra dimension to the years of their marriage, and the tragedy of his suicide in 1933. The child’s eye view Ric Throssell provides of his father’s last days is poignant. The ability of him and his mother to carry on afterwards is remarkable.

Throssell does not return to Western Australia after World War Two, and there is a sense of the pain of that geographical distance between mother and son in much of the rest of the narrative.

Throssell spends more time on KSP’s Goldfields trilogy than any of her other works. This is justifiable simply in terms of the fact that it took up more of her life than any other work. But it is also because Throssell is arguing the trilogy’s significance in the face of the mixed reception it got.

The political aspects of KSP’s life appear mainly late in the book as two discrete chapters reaching back to her early life. KSP’s increasing isolation as one of the few faithful Communists seems tied to the disappointments in the reception of her later work. If I read correctly, there is a sense in the 1950s and 1960s of her and her work being ‘out of fashion’. It is painful to read of the aging woman stung by misunderstandings and attacks on her work by the first generation of research students writing on her. The first clearly hurt the most – she had helped him with both his research and his writing only to be subjected to a speculative Freudian reading about her father.

KSP emerges in this book as a resolute, generous woman, an artist and a believer right up to the end. She lived a worthy and inspirational life and Wild Weeds and Windflowers is a valuable portrait, unique for being written by someone who knew her so intimately.

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Giving a sense of everyday life

I think biography should attempt to give a sense of how the subject has lived their everyday life. Not in exhaustive detail, but well chosen sketches. Most of the attention of the biography, of course, needs to be taken up by the more dramatic moments, but a sense of the everyday gives some context for the dramatic.

As in a novel, a key way to convey such a picture is in long sentences summing up a long period of time by observing the patterns. In his biography of his mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Ric Throssell does it well at this point:

…and somehow contrived to write among the distractions of the city and the realities of the present: the war, the pot-boiling chores still necessary to earn her living; the political commitments she had accepted; friends who called unendingly to talk of art and literature, of world affairs and industry, and the personal problems of love, marriage, children and the state of their health — friends among the men of power in industry and radical politics; those whose names were to fade into obscurity; young writers who later achieved recognition; the known and once-famous, who drifted with the years and disappeared; the unimportant, insignificant, unaccomplished men and women who earned Katharine’s affection by simply being what they were.

Ric Throssell,  (2012-05-23). Wild Weeds and Windflowers: The life and letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard (p. 120). Allen and Unwin. Kindle Edition.


The biography of Hugo Throssell

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The Price of Valour by John Hamilton (Pan MacMillan, 2012)

Hugo Throssell is a fascinating, tragic figure, well deserving of his own biography apart from his role as husband to one of Western Australia’s most important writers, Katharine Susannah Prichard. Indeed, they met in London during WW1 as two Australian celebrities in their respective fields. (The photo here is not of Prichard, but Throssell with an unidentified nurse.) Throssell was a war hero, Victoria Cross winner and son of a prominent conservative politician. The tension between this and his marriage to a communist writer is part of what drives this biography by John Hamilton.

Hamilton is a journalist by background, and has written two other books about World War I. He approaches Throssell as a military historian; in telling the story of Throssell’s life, it is the trench battles in World War I which receive the most attention. This is appropriate, because it is Throssell’s role as a war hero which made him famous, and the trauma of battle which would contribute greatly to his suicide in 1933.

Hamilton’s research is the greatest achievement of this book. He managed to track down the only (then) living person who could remember Throssell well, a niece who died at nearly 95 a year before the book was published. He finds official records which shed much light on so many aspects of Throssell’s life – not just his military service, but even a note from the Northam RSL requesting that the premier remove Throssell from his role as the soldier’s representative on the Soldiers Settlement Scheme (303).

It’s always an achievement in biography to revivify long lost events in ways that go beyond the bare official record, but don’t seem indulgent. One scene which comes vividly to life in this case is the description of the infamous event at Northam on Peace Day, 19 July 1919, when Throssell declared that the war had made him a socialist (286). ‘The crowd’s warmth toward the speaker gave way to a frozen, disbelieving silence.’

I was going to write that a second example was that of the grand opening of Throssell’s rodeo (330), which helped ruin him financially – but looking back, it is a lengthy quote from the local paper, The Swan Express, which brought it to life for me. It’s a device Hamilton uses often through the book, and I’m not sure what to make of it. The extended quotes are well chosen, and present the events in the language and outlook of the day, which is surely valuable. Yet is it ‘good’ method in a biography? I imagine it might be disallowed in a more academic biography. (On that note, although providing a thorough and helpful bibliography, Hamilton does not properly reference the quotes; another case of a convention of popular biography vs academic biography.)

Writing in The Canberra Times, reviewer Michael McKernan argues that the division of the book into ‘triumph’ (in World War I) and ‘tragedy’ (in his marriage) is an incorrect one – the war experiences were part of the tragedy, setting up what was to follow. Hamilton may not disagree – as a military historian he seems very aware of the cruelty and tragedy of war – but in another important sense, perhaps McKernan’s comment reveals fundamentally different ways of looking at the meaning of war.

For me, there are important underexplored questions in the account of Throssell’s tragedy. To what extent did his speech at Northam make him a pariah? His job with the soldier’s settlement scheme continued until 1930. Were the objections to his rodeo scheme related to his politics? The question may be unanswerable, and Hamilton has at least provided some good evidence. Another question – what was Throssell’s politics, and how did it relate to his entrepreneurial activities as a land developer, gold miner, and rodeo promoter?  And what was the state of Katharine and Hugo’s marriage when she left on her extended trip, going to stay for a time with her ex-lover and his new partner in Russia? Again, probably unanswerable, and I may be wrong to ask for further speculation than Hamilton provides.


Looking through the archive of JSB

I finally worked up the courage to look through the archive of one of my prospective biographees yesterday. It felt a little like they were bringing his body out, two boxes of his remains. (Biographer Martin Thomas makes this comparison in The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews, the weight of his papers about Mathews roughly equal to that of a corpse.)

JSB’s archive was quite sterile. I was reminded of a fictional biographer’s comments:

Scientists often think differently from the rest of us as to what constitutes a good biography; a dry as dust account of the subject’s work and a few bald details as to dates of birth, marriage and death, suits them best. That this was Henry’s opinion soon emerges from an examination of those chests’ contents. They include a published copy of each one of his learned tomes, as well as papers from other haematologists… – Barbara Vine, The Blood Doctor p. 23.

The first document in the box was a defence of freemasonry. This was a major preoccupation of his. Much of the box was taken up by his typescripts of radio broadcasts on various general knowledge topics. The only letters were from after his death,  relating to his estate.

There was a list of everyone who attended his funeral in 1954. This could be a lead, come to think of it. There would surely be a couple of them alive still, people who might be able to provide memories of the man. There was also a list of each floral tribute received; it was a long list – the funeral must have been awash with flowers.