It’s with some sadness I’ve finished reading Katharine Susannah Prichard’s final novel, Subtle Flame (1967). I still have to go back and read two earlier, obscure novels (Windlestraws and The Moon of Desire) in the rare book room of the library, but, chronologically, I’ve come to the end of the line in my long running reading project.
It was an astonishing accomplishment for Prichard to publish a novel at the age of 83 after having suffered a stroke, and I’m full of admiration that it exists at all. Unfortunately, Subtle Flame is one of her least successful novels. More than any of her novels, it exists to argue a cause – the very worthy one of world peace at a moment in history when nuclear annihilation seemed imminent. However, despite its shortcomings as a work of fiction, it is of great biographical interest and has flashes of Prichard’s great powers as a writer.
The protagonist is David Evans, a successful newspaper editor who receives the shattering news that his son Robbie has been killed in the Korean War. It sends him on a pilgrimage, as he leaves his wife and three other adult children and his job to discover a worthy cause to devote himself to. Converted to the cause of peace by his reading, he embarks on a one-man crusade to stir the apathetic masses to action. His path leads him into poverty and at his lowest, he is taken in by a former employee, Jan; he abandons his idealism for an affair with her and to work on the woman’s magazine she has started. Yet when he recovers he returns to the cause and the more pure love of Sharn, the tireless, nun-like activist. His work is interrupted by various small crises, but most notably his entanglement with a young drug addict whom he is trying to save from the other criminals. He ends up in jail; emerges to suffer a stroke when attacked by hecklers while giving a speech, only to recover enough to finally consummate his love with Sharn and promise to marry her.
It is a novel which neglects its own dramatic potential, shown particularly in its failure to examine David and Claire’s marriage. David walks out on Claire to pursue his Samaritan mission of self-discovery; when she dies before he has even spoken to her again, his reaction is muted, and the event seems to have left him largely unaffected. The novel does attempt to show the pull between the demands of trying to change the world and those of helping individuals in trouble, but only in the character of Tony, the drug addict; the consequences and meaning of a man walking out on his family responsibilities to pursue this dream are only lightly tapped.
Prichard was a journalist herself before she became a novelist, as were her father, uncle, and brother. So it is quite incredible that it is only in her final novel that she explores journalism as a theme. Through the mouthpiece of David, she shows the possibilities she saw in journalism to influence society. Like David, she no doubt came to see the objective stance expected of the journalist inadequate. He attempts a new kind of journalism, not merely detailing the facts but “devising an intellectual bomb which would blast the apathy of readers, stir them to seek further information and to ally themselves with movements already pressing for the abolition of nuclear weapons: the prevention of atomic war” (44). David’s embarrassment (181) about editing Girls to make ends meet echoes Prichard’s feelings about writing the “Women’s World” page in the Herald from about 1909 to 1911.
It is also the first novel of hers to be set in Melbourne, the city where she lived for most of her childhood and early adulthood. The city is significant as a setting, with David walking the streets of the city centre and the suburbs, and Prichard taking particular care to evoke the criminal-ridden slums, especially in the drugs subplot. In his monograph on Prichard, A Gallop of Fire, Jack Beasley notes that Prichard did not revisit Melbourne to research the novel and sees that “the atmosphere is redolent of Katharine Susannah’s youth, of that Edwardian horse-drawn Melbourne” (170). He seems to have put his finger on something significant, with the action of the novel drawn from the headlines of the 1960s – world conflict, drug addiction – but the fictional world seeming to not quite fit it.
If Prichard had set the novel in Edwardian Melbourne or a little later, a disguised biographical element would be more apparent: the character of David and his political journey as a wish-fulfillment for the journey Thomas Henry Prichard (THP), her father, did not make. Like David before his conversion, THP was a Melbourne newspaper editor proud of his use of irony. He has two sons and two daughters – one son a promising young man who dies in a futile war (World War I / Korean War), the other a doctor; one of the daughters a committed political activist, the other more conventional. THP did not live long enough to see his son Alan die in World War One, but if he did, it would have been a crisis point. In about 1906, Alan nearly died from appendicitis and it “was a shock Father never recovered from” (Child of the Hurricane, 105), precipitating his suicide in 1907. David’s journey seems the one Prichard would have wished her father to take had he lived long enough to suffer the loss of Alan. Like Myff, the activist daughter in Subtle Flame, she could have guided her father into using his journalistic skills for good:
He could use that ‘brilliant ironical style’ of his more effectively. Not find himself limited and leg-ironed by the policy of a newspaper. He would make a name for himself as an independent writer of courage: turn out special articles exposing political skulduggery, religious hypocrisy, economic chicanery. (19)
This interpretation is highly speculative, and few works of fiction can be reduced to a simple, singular genesis. I suggest it only as a possible psychological meaning of the plot which rings true with the deep influence THP had on Prichard in life and death. It also suggests a way in Prichard’s mind the death of Alan could have done good, in spurring others on to fight for a better world. Prichard’s own complete commitment to communism came soon after Alan’s death. In itself, this reminds us that the biographical elements are unstable and polyvalent. David’s journey could relate to Prichard’s wish for THP, but it also mirrors many events in her own life and those of others.
Subtle Flame is not one of Prichard’s novels likely to find a continuing audience, but is a fascinating coda for those interested in her life and work. It was translated into Russian, but has never been reprinted in English. A contemporary review, a little too harsh but quite insightful, can be found on Trove from The Canberra Times.