Monthly Archives: November 2014

Katharine Susannah and the “fifteenth-rate” writer, Charles Garvice

Charles_Garvice_-_Linked_by_Fate

Katharine Susannah became instantly famous across the Commonwealth when she won the Australasian section of the great Hodder and Stoughton All-Empire Competition in April 1915 (the very month of Gallipoli) for her unpublished novel, The Pioneers. It was the big break she had been working hard towards for a decade. I think The Pioneers, for all its faults, is genuinely a very good novel, but at the time of the competition, a number of critics were unwilling to take the winning entry seriously because of the judge, British writer Charles Garvice.

The columnist in Wellington’s Dominion wrote, “…to foist such a fifteen-rate novelist as Mr Garvice upon Australasian writers as judge of their work was little short of an insult” (May 29, 1915, 14). Almost no-one remembers Garvice today, but at the time, he could claim to be the biggest-selling British author alive, having sold millions of the romances he produced many times a year. Among serious lovers of literature his name was a byword for dross. It seems that to have him judge a literary competition was a little like inviting Danielle Steel or Dan Brown to do so today. When his own books are so forgotten, it is a beautiful irony that one of his great legacies was to launch the career of such a significant Australian writer. Even if Garvice wasn’t a great writer, could he have been a good reader, able to discern something special in Katharine Susannah’s work? The Pioneers is a romance, melodramatic at times yet with characters more vivid and a plot more interesting than the genre usually produces.

I would love to know Katharine Susannah’s opinion of Garvice’s work, and the complicated feelings she would have felt at being awarded the prize by him. I think she would have been biting her tongue, and a little uneasy amidst the jubilation.

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Garvice has fascinated at least two writers in recent years. In her fine essay “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist”, Laura Sewell Matter tells of her quest for Garvice, after finding some pages of an Icelandic-language book wash up on a beach in Iceland and eventually tracking it down as a translation of one of Garvice’s novels. She flies to London to read one of only two copies held by libraries in the world. It is a classic biographical quest, the genre I researched for my MA, the quest for Garvice tied up to Laura’s quest to find herself. You can download the essay from her website. Steve of Bear-Alley blog wrote a post on Garvice in 2010, tracking down some biographical details for Garvice, as well as a long (and still incomplete!) bibliography of Garvice’s works.

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“Tributes to writers who are dead always sadden me”

Tributes to writers who are dead always sadden me. I know how much better it would have been to appreciate their work when they were alive. But, today, I am happy to be talking about Miles Franklin, whose novels are among the finest written in Australia, and who still lives and works among us – glory be!

It’s Katharine Susannah Prichard, in a 1944 ABC broadcast about her friend Franklin. Captured in print in the year 2000 in Delys Bird’s edited selection, KSP: Stories, Journalism and Essays, it sounds ghostly: the “today” is ghostly; the “lives and works among us” is ghostly. Franklin had ten years left to be celebrated before she died, and Prichard a whole twenty-five. I hope they felt appreciated enough in their lifetime, but I don’t think either of them did.

Did Prichard imagine the posthumous tributes the people of the future might pay her? Would these imagined tributes have been any comfort to her, or only a sadness?

The Christian tradition talks of the “great cloud of witnesses” observing the living. The cloud is a metaphor but the concept is meant quite literally – the dead await the resurrection in the New Testament; their story is not done, their awareness is not finished. Yet even the NT does not talk much of a duty to remember the dead, beyond remembering the example of their faith. We remember them for our sake, not for their sake.

Prichard didn’t believe in life after death; she regarded all supernatural beliefs as superstitious. I can’t be paying tribute to her, then, for her sake. Or not exactly. Not “her” as a living being, but possibly “her” as our cultural memory of her. I can pay tribute to her as a dead person, occupying that peculiar state all the dead occupy. (It’s overwhelming to start trying to conceptualise just what a dead person is.)

We pay tribute to the writers of the past for other reasons than how it makes them feel. We do it because it deepens us. It recognises the reach of the dead into the present. It recovers a piece of the past, the best we can hope for, snatches and scenes of stories from the rubble.


Revolutionary Tourists

Marion at Historians are Past Caring has a splendid post on “Revolutionary Tourists” – Wordsworth and Byron, drawn to other people’s wars and revolutions. The long history of this phenomenon is often ignored in discussing current ISIS tourism.
It’s different, but it intersects with Katharine Susannah Prichard’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1933; she tried to see it as the utopia she wanted it to be, and wrote a book to that effect.

Historians are Past Caring

In the summer of 1790 William Wordsworth was 20 years old, and half way through a fairly undistinguished Cambridge degree, when he and a friend, Robert Jones, set out to walk across France from Calais to the Alps. It was to be a gap year, an opportunity to postpone the serious business of growing up and settling down. Each of them had just £20 to pay their way, and most of their journey was on foot, walking 12 to 15 miles before breakfast.

The French Revolution had broken out a year before – they reached Calais on 13 July, the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille – but the revolution was still largely a constitutional affair, and in the countryside they weren’t seriously affected by the political changes going on around them.

More than a year later, Wordsworth went back to France, reaching Paris at the…

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The other Thomas Prichard: letting go of co-incidences

I find a startling revelation about someone with my subject’s name. It’s the right time, it’s the right place, and it’s in line with certain things I know about the subject, but it’s shocking enough to entirely change the story of that person.

There are only two possibilities. This discovery is full of meaning. Or it has no meaning at all, because it’s not the right person. But if it’s not the right person, and it has no meaning at all, it feels like it should.

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I’ve been researching Kattie’s father, Thomas Henry Prichard (1845-1907). He’s a fascinating figure, viewed next to his daughter – so very conservative, strongly opposed, for example, to a minimum wage, and a writer of modest talent compared to Kattie. He set out to make his fortune in Fiji around 1870, which was eventually where Kattie was born.

I was looking for something else about him when a “Thomas Prichard” suddenly came up in a brief discussion of the Daphne case in one book – he was the co-owner of an Australian ship which kidnapped one hundred islanders for the plantations of Fiji in 1869. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but led to new legislation specifically outlawing the practice. Was this how Prichard spent his youth? Was this one of the stories he avoided telling his daughter? It would make such a sensational story!

If it was true, which it wasn’t. The book in question led me back through so some dubious sources, the chain going back to a Pacific Island enthusiast’s website. All the best sources I could find, including contemporary newspaper reports, started it was William D. Pritchard, not a Thomas H. Prichard, who had been co-owner of that boat. Tom had nothing to do with it. It isn’t even particularly a co-incidence, although it is a sloppy mistake by the scholar.

But it still feels like it should have meaning. If it was a novel, finding out there was another character with the same name in such close proximity would mean much. Either a long lost relative in the 19th century, or a novel driven by the very randomness of the occurrence in the 1990s.

Perhaps one could write a new kind of history composed of co-incidences, near misses, and associations, a tangle of footnotes. I’m not sure what the point would be. It would really be a writer insisting, “this co-incidence is too amazing for me to have to admit it means nothing. I’m making it mean something by writing about it.”

I use this example, but it’s happening all the time, these plot developments that belong to a different story, a character not actually in my book, even if their namesake is. I have to let them go, all the co-incidences and near misses of history.