Ancestry and mythology in Child of the Hurricane

Often in biographies and autobiographies, ancestry is dealt with all at once, in a sometimes unpalatable dose at the beginning of the book. Sometimes an ancestor with some connection, some parallel to the subject is highlighted, their life story summarised. Some biographers are disdainful of this, thinking it based on a rather silly theory of hereditary genius, but I think they’re too quick to be dismissive. Humans have always looked to their ancestors to explain themselves. In the case of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane, her ancestry forms a constellation of stories, myths and anecdotes around her entire childhood, and the book doesn’t throw these off until nine chapters in. It feels like Prichard is remembering for her own sake, not as a writer, but as if she were writing the family history as some people are wont to do in their retirement. She is descended from two inter-married clans who both came to Australia on the El Dorado in 1852, and the stories keep coming: the Prichards might be descended from the fifteenth century Princess Katharine, who makes an appearance in the play Henry V; her great-uncle who built the William Wallace monument in Scotland (true) was on his way to see his sister in Australia when he died at sea (not true); her father was shipwrecked – at some time, she doesn’t when – and swam ashore with a sea-chest and his dog; her mother’s godfather was shipwrecked also, and flagged down a ship with his shirt and it became known as Shirt Island – or so she was told. The mythology of her family was rich and romantic.

Yet for all the family tales, Prichard seems to have sympathy with her aunt’s verdict that ‘She did not regret not knowing more about her antecedents, or think it important to remember them.’ (56) Prichard’s concern with her ancestry seems more a fascination with the mythology itself than a desire to truly unpick and uncover the truth. She wouldn’t have necessarily liked being on the Who Do You Think You Are? show and have the myths critically examined – although, if she were alive today, perhaps her thinking would have shifted, just as the rest of society’s has.

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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

One response to “Ancestry and mythology in Child of the Hurricane

  • Neil Mactaggart

    The Wallace monument is a very large tall struture on the top of a steep hill. From its balconies it offers a view over the surrounding country to the City of Stirling and also the location of the very famous battle of Stirling Bridge where the Scots trouced the ascendent and more powerful Engliish. The former were assisted by the unusual proximity of two rivers that allowed the Scots to skillfully use this to their advantage. Visiting the monument and then Stirling Castle is a moving experience, especially for folks who are ony four generations on from their Scottish forebears. Your subject would have known this I presume.

    Neil Mactaggart

    Like

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