Echoes of Genesis: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers

In some ways KSP’s first published novel, The Pioneers (1915), resembles the Book of Genesis. It begins with a couple – Donald and Mary Cameron (initially ‘the woman’) – coming to the end of an arduous journey and establishing a homestead in the bush, a homestead which is the foundation for what will become a town over the course of the novel. They are not so much Adam and Eve as Abraham and Sarah – the ambitious, inflexible patriarch and his resourceful wife working cunningly yet virtuously behind the scenes, including when it comes to matching their only son with a wife. A cleansing fire strikes the town early on, perhaps echoing the flood in Genesis. The characters feel, to an extent, archetypal.

Yet we shouldn’t push the comparison too far – I doubt it’s a conscious framework for KSP, and the novel resembles the work of Thomas Hardy as much as anything else, with the familiar plot of a struggle between suitors for the hand of the village’s most beautiful young woman, Deirdre, the novel’s second heroine. Furthermore, the novel changes tone, and the long middle is an involved, heavily plotted cattle-muster caper, not resembling Genesis at all. It is only in the final chapters, as Deirdre, resolves the long tussle between three suitors, that the novel recaptures the poignancy of its beginning. Mary’s final words in the novel reveal its vision:

“Oh God,” she whispered breathlessly, “we broke the earth, we sowed the seed. Let theirs be the harvest – the joy of life and the fullness thereof.” (316)

For a writer who was to be known for her sympathetic engagement with Aborigines, it is interesting to note that this early novel shows no evidence of what is to come. The minor Aboriginal character who accompanies the stockmen is not given a name, referred to instead as ‘the black boy.’

KSP was also to become a Communist; there is a degree of class consciousness in this novel, but only a degree. It centres mainly on the injustice of prejudice against former convicts, one of whom, the Schoolmaster, is an educated Irishman imprisoned for political reasons. In the epilogue, set fifteen years later, Dan, grandson of Mary, remembers her charge to him as he visits her grave:

“Then she told me about prisons here in the early days, mother, and terrible stories of how people lived in the old country. ‘They may talk about your birthstain by and by, Dan,’ she said, ‘but that will not trouble you, because it was not this country made the stain. This country has been the redeemer and blotted out all those old stains.'” (320)

It is an interesting, fast-moving story, still remarkably readable today, 99 years later, even if it feels a little sentimental and melodramatic. KSP’s prose is beautiful in places, and you can sense her determinedly evoking an Australia of a couple of generations earlier.

The book has been reprinted in recent years, but can also be found as an ebook through Project Gutenberg. I read it in PDF format on my tablet, so that the typesetting was exactly the same as the first edition, and even the pages were appropriately yellowed.

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

2 responses to “Echoes of Genesis: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers

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