Monthly Archives: June 2016

Review: Potch and Colour by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Here’s my slightly tatty copy of Potch and Colour, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s 1944 collection of short stories. It’s the only copy I’ve ever seen – it’s not particularly rare or valuable, but it shows up less often than her better known books. I found this copy serendipitously in a secondhand booksale run by the library where I work. I wish it had the beautiful dust cover I have glimpsed at low-resolution in an antiquarian bookdealer’s catalogue (right).Potch and Colour 2

Katharine wrote some incredible short stories. I would go as far as to say that I think the form suited her better than the novel, even if she is not as remembered for it. This collection mainly includes stories originally published in journals after her first collection, Kiss On the Lips (1932), but the first appearance of some of them still needs to be established. One story, at least, is quite early – “The Bridge”; I found a newspaper copy of it on Trove from 1917 (unfortunately, it’s not one of her “incredible” stories; but it’s here, if you’re interested).

This collection divides into two types of story – goldfields “yarns” and the more substantial, realist stories, several of them about Aboriginal characters. The yarns are old-fashioned and entertaining enough with flashes of inspiration. They point the way to The Roaring Nineties, the first novel of the goldfields trilogy, which Katharine was already writing when Potch and Colour was published.  But it’s the other stories which impressed me.

There’s three particularly worth commenting on.

The first is “The Siren of Sandy Gap,” which manages to be both humorous and an astute critique of marriage. Susan, “a little woman, well over fifty,”  leaves her tight-fisted husband  George for the more jolly Dave. She “lives in sin” with Dave unapologetically but talks fondly to her ex-husband when he comes to beg her to return to him. When her new lover becomes morose and fights with her ex-husband over her, she runs off with a third, younger man. “‘I want to go away and have some peace and happiness in my life,’ Susan said. ‘They’ve no right to think I must just do what they say.'”

The second is “Flight,” a story which begins with a police officer charged with removing three “half-caste” (sic) Aboriginal children from their families. He doesn’t particularly agree with their removal, but his strongest feeling is not about the injustice so much as the embarrassment in the eyes of the locals as they watch him ride his horse with the girls. When he arrives at his house, the point of view shifts to his wife, who feels compassion for the girls, but of a very narrow kind – she feels strongly they shouldn’t have their hands tied for the night and sneaks out to untie them, telling them she’ll come back first thing in the morning to retie them. And then the point of view shifts to the girls themselves and the options that face them, untied as they are. It’s a traditional, beautifully crafted story which is devastating and prescient in its critique of the Stolen Generations policy.

The third is “Christmas Tree,” a poignant portrait of failed wheat farmers in Western Australia in the Depression. It’s one of the occasions Katharine gets the balance right between her politics and aesthetics, as she reveals the injustice of the banking system not didactically but through the eyes of one of its victims. Perhaps her husband Hugo’s failure as a farmer before World War One fed into her account. My supervisor Tony Hughes-D’Aeth tells me this story gets a mention in his literary history of the WA wheatbelt, forthcoming from UWA Publishing.

Katharine’s stories are not in print at the moment, though several “best-of” collections have been published – the ones containing just her short stories are Happiness, published in 1967, two years before she died, and Tribute (1988), selected and edited by her son Ric Throssell. Rather than a new selection or a reprint of one of the old collections, I think the best thing for the future would be a collected stories edition.  It could showcase her development as a writer and the themes which preoccupied her over different periods and show how substantial her body of short fiction is.

Review – How to Survive the Titanic: or The Sinking of Bruce Ismay by Frances Watson


Thanks partly to James Cameron’s film, our cultural memory of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 is one of a linear narrative. There’s a clear chronology; we “remember” it as if looking through a camera, able to pan out from the experience of the individuals to the ship as a whole. There is a clarity to the disaster.

Frances Wilson’s How To Survive the Titanic (2011) has undone these things for me. Instead, she captures so well the uncertainty, the fact that for anyone in 1912 trying to understand what happened – even for survivors – there was a mess of contradictory reports, eyewitness statements which diverged as much as they converged. (The first report received over the radio was that the Titanic was being towed back to port, with no loss of life.) J. Bruce Ismay, former owner of White Star Lines and the managing director of the shipping company, was on board the Titanic and jumped into a lifeboat as it was lowered. After contributing greatly to the confusion about what happened, he spent the rest of his life as a pariah.

This is a biography focused on a single incident in a man’s life. Watson’s book begins with that critical moment when Ismay decides to save his life;  the rest of the book moves backward to explain how Ismay became the man who made that decision, and forward to tell the story of the long consequences. I greatly admire Watson’s handling of her material; she shows a mastery of creative non-fiction in her control of time, scene, and detail. An example: in chapter one she weaves survivors’ accounts of watching the Titanic sink to contrast them with Ismay turning away; she finds three quotes from three different survivors which use the word “Fascinated,” and she begins each quote with that word, creating a kind of poetry and heightening the effect of the contrast.  How to Survive the Titanic is a witty and profound biography of a man’s ordinariness in extraordinary circumstances. The reversal of the survivor genre is refreshing: the story of a man who failed to be a hero.

The uncanny parallel of the Titanic disaster to the 1898 novella Futility (retitled Wreck of the Titan) is a well-known factoid. (As a child, pre-internet, I think I first read of it in the ubiquitous Reader’s Digest Strange Stories, Amazing Facts.) But the more subtle literary parallel Watson pursues in her book is that between Ismay and the titular character of Conrad’s Lord Jim, who similarly fails to be heroic when he jumps ship. She makes a convincing case for it to be the text with which to illuminate and compare Ismay. It’s a bold and interesting biographical technique, even if I found myself impatient with the lengthy exploration of it. In every other way, I found this book unputdownable.


Discovery inside a cheap paperback

Stopping by Curtin Library I thought I’d check their KSP collection – could be an edition I hadn’t seen or even a signature… Still amazed to find this message from KSP inside a cheap paperback edition. It’s been sitting unnoticed on their shelves for decades. I took it to the front desk and suggested they consider moving it to a special collection. 

Link: Cooper, Cather, Prichard, ‘Pioneer’: The Chronotope of Settler Colonialism – Australian Literary Studies Journal

I was chuffed when my PhD co-supervisor, Tony Hughes-D’Aeth, gave a paper last year (partly) about Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel The Pioneers. Now a version of that paper has been published in Australian Literary Studies; you can read it free during June before it goes behind the paywall.

Abstract: This essay considers three novels which each bear the word ‘pioneer’ in their titles: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823), Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers (1915). The three novels, although moving widely across time and space, are taken as representative of the creative literature of settler colonialism. A model of reading settler colonial literature is advanced that draws on four distinct features found across the three novels. These are: a tendency to spatialise the historical time of settler colonialism within the geography of the novel; the condensation of settler legal anxiety into a legal drama in the text; the application of a generational structure to Indigenise the settler; and the recurrence in the text of a ‘primal scene’ by which the settler society remembers its foundational violence in repressed form.

Source: Cooper, Cather, Prichard, ‘Pioneer’: The Chronotope of Settler Colonialism – Australian Literary Studies Journal

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s “A City Girl in Central Australia”

For several months now, it’s been 1905 for me. In May of that year, at the age of twenty-one, Katharine Susannah Prichard set out to work for six months as a governess for the Quin family at the Tarella Station in far-western New South Wales. It was a critical season in Katharine’s life.

Source: Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – home | Your KS #11: “A City Girl in Central Australia”

My June column for the KSP Writers’ Centre is now on their blog. It’s about Katharine’s fascinating and largely forgotten serial “A City Girl in Central Australia” or “Letters from the Back o’ Beyond”. I’ve ordered in the microfilm of the magazine it first appeared in and next week I’m reading it again. (So far I’ve been reading it from my photographs of the clippings in Katharine’s papers.) It’s also going to be the subject of a paper I’m giving at the UWA Limina Conference at the end of July – “Boundary-rider: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography”.