Boundary-rider?: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography

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I gave two papers on Katharine Susannah Prichard in July. The first was on 9 July at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Canberra and was called “History of a troubled autobiography: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane”. I’m hoping to develop it further into a chapter of the critical section of my thesis and also as a standalone publication. It was a little scary presenting my paper to an audience of Australian literature academics, but they were generous in their responses and I think it went well. I have been encouraged toward some further reading in mid-century Marxist responses to auto/biography and Freudian thought.

My second paper was at the Limina postgraduate humanities conference at UWA on 29 July. The conference theme was “beyond boundaries,” and so I wrote a paper on the boundaries between fiction and autobiography in Katharine’s 1906 serial, “A City Girl in Central Australia.” I’d been looking at this serial for chapter six of my biography (“Outback: Tarella Station, 1905”), and it fitted neatly with some of the thinking I’d been doing for the paper on Child of the Hurricane. It’s pitched toward a general audience and I’m not reworking it for scholarly publication, so I present it here on my blog.

Boundary-rider?: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography

Nathan Hobby, PhD candidate, English and Cultural Studies, UWA
Limina Conference, 29 July 2016

I’m writing a biography of the early life of the Australian novelist Katharine Susannah Prichard for my PhD thesis. In 1905 she was an aspiring writer working as a governess on the Tarella sheep station in far-western New South Wales. Sometime that year, probably in July, she was on an excursion to the outlying parts of the property when she met the station’s boundary-rider, whose task it was to ensure that the outer-fences of the property were kept intact. He showed her his hut and she was impressed by the shelves of books lining the walls. Several years later, in a newspaper article, she used him as the embodiment of the self-educated worker.[1] She doesn’t mention him in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, despite devoting a chapter to her time at that station. However, a boundary-rider is the adopted father of the hero of Prichard’s 1906 work, “A City Girl in Central Australia,” a six-part serial based on her time at the station. This obscure serial is the focus of my paper today. How does its boundary-crossing between fiction and autobiography affect our understanding of Prichard? And how should I use it as a source for my biography?

For literary critics, the boundary of fiction and autobiography has often been discussed in terms of the fictive elements of any autobiography. Autobiography’s claim “to provide information about a ‘reality’ exterior to the text” has been problematised.[2] Lydia Wells completed a PhD here at UWA in 1999 examining a number of autobiographies as “autobiographical fictions.” There is much which could be said about this approach, but as a biographer, it’s not the one which interests me most.

Literary biographers often move in the other direction, interpreting their subjects’ fiction autobiographically. Sometimes the act is prefaced with an apology or a recognition of the uncertainty involved. Sometimes the names of fictional characters are simply substituted with real-life counterparts and fiction is read as unproblematic autobiography. As one example, Hazel Rowley mines Christina Stead’s fiction as an autobiographical source in her 1992 biography,  “decoding” the real world equivalents of characters in her novel The Man Who Loved Children and other works. This earned her a stern rebuke from the critic Michael Wilding in a review entitled, “Fiction is not Fact,” as he complains that “all the mutations of fiction, all the complexities of multiple sources are ignored.”[3] Wilding is correct to insist on the significance of “mutations” and “multiple sources” in fiction, but Rowley actually acknowledges those complexities more than he credits her. The title of the review, “Fiction is not Fact,” is also problematic. Although fiction is not fact, the everyday usage of the terms as opposites is also misleading. As Wilding suggests in his comment, the relationships between fiction and its more ostensibly ‘factual’ counterpart, autobiography, are complex. Writers and publishers as well as literary biographers are often involved in both marking and blurring boundaries between the two.

At first glance, the boundary between fiction and autobiography in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s oeuvre is clear. Living from 1883 to 1969, she published thirteen novels and one full-length autobiography. Her best known novels are not usually understood to have strong autobiographical elements. Despite her middle-class urban upbringing, she wrote about workers in rural settings. Working Bullocks (1926) tells the story of south-west WA timber-workers fighting for freedom from industrial oppression. Coonardoo (1929) is set on a Pilbara station and tells of a thwarted love affair between the station owner and an Aboriginal woman. These novels have a basis in her life only to the extent that she made research trips to these places to gather material.

However, there are two less celebrated novels where the boundary is not clear. In Prichard’s 1928 children’s novel, The Wild Oats of Han, she invites an autobiographical interpretation, writing in the foreword:

The first thing children ask about a story is usually: “But is it true?” And this one, it can be said, is a truly, really story. Katharine Susannah would stake her breath on it. Just here and there a few details stray from the strict path… (n.p.)

A second novel in which the boundary with autobiography is less clear is Intimate Strangers, published in 1937 four years after the suicide of Prichard’s husband, Hugo Throssell. It’s the portrait of a troubled marriage between a musician, Elodie, and a war veteran, Greg, who can’t settle back into civilian life. The novel was drafted before Throssell’s death and originally ended with Greg committing suicide. With the hope of preventing autobiographical interpretations, Prichard changed the ending to an unlikely reconciliation between Elodie and Greg. Of course, it’s also adult readers whose first question about a story is often, “But is it true?” In contrast to Wild Oats, Prichard was adamant that Intimate Strangers must not be interpreted autobiographically. She claimed that the protagonists were directly based on her friends, Rose and Les Atkinson, not on herself and Throssell.[4] After Prichard’s death, her son and biographer, Ric Throssell, revealed that Prichard feared that the manuscript could have contributed to Hugo’s suicide.[5] When the critic Jack Beasley and others expressed this possibility more definitely, Throssell reacted strongly against it.[6]

These two examples of the contested boundary between fiction and autobiography in Prichard’s writing have a fascinating antecedent in “A City Girl in Central Australia,” a work predating her first published novel by nine years. It represents an underexplored stage in Prichard’s development as a writer and further complicates her relationship with autobiography. It shows a period when there was no fence between fiction and autobiography for Prichard.

We know from her autobiography and other sources that in May 1905 at the age of twenty-one, Prichard travelled to the Tarella sheep station in far western New South Wales to work for six months as the governess to the Quin children. She already intended to be a writer and while there she wrote incessantly about the land and her experiences in a “big black exercise book.”[7] She fell in love for the first time with the children’s older brother, Alfred Quin. Her time on the station was also the beginning of her fascination with the outback, reflected in many of her later writings.

A year after her stint at Tarella Station, New Idea published the first part of “City Girl.”[8] The original New Idea was a monthly magazine based in Melbourne and begun in 1902; it ‘aimed to publish “the best that is thought or written, the world over, on every topic which appeals to women”’.[9] A historian of women’s magazines of this period, Maya Tucker, notes that New Idea published several serials in the first decade of the century, “mostly based on real life incidents in the life of the writer.” Tucker mentions examples from Miles Franklin and Mary Gilmore as well as “City Girl.”[10] Whatever the reality, these serials were interpreted autobiographically by readers, something encouraged by the magazine in its introductions to the episodes of “City Girl.” The first introduction notes that “the present story tells about [Katharine Susannah Prichard’s] experiences on a large station in Central Australia.”[11]  The second introduction reminds readers that in the previous issue “Miss Prichard told how she set out on a long journey, to take up life as a governess on a station in the heart of Australia. She now gives some racy glimpses of the daily doings on the station.”[12]

The serial takes the form of letters from a young governess named “Kit” to her mother from a sheep station with the lightly-disguised name of “Willara,” combining the nearby town of “Wilcannia” with “Tarella.” The dates of the letters closely match Prichard’s own experiences in 1905 at Tarella. While Prichard’s most common diminutive was “Kattie,”, she was also called “Kit,” including in a note from her father dating from this same time.[13] Her use of her own nickname as the protagonist’s name further encourages readers to interpret the work autobiographically.

As an epistolary serial, “City Girl” is written in first person, a contrast to her use of the third person for all thirteen of her novels. Later in life she preferred third person narration so much that in the 1950s she drafted her autobiography in the third person, writing in the original version of the preface, “I have always found it difficult to write in the first person, so that in this [auto]biography  it has been easier to refer to Katharine Susannah as a person about whom I have heard & to whom certain things have happened….”[14] With the encouragement of her publisher, she did finally adopt a consistent first-person approach for her autobiography. However, the use of the first-person in “A City Girl” and a novella called “Diana of the Inlet”, published in 1912, suggest that first person narration was not difficult for Prichard in her early career.

“City Girl” is a strange work, having a deliberate basis in real events and people while consciously exaggerating many elements, culminating in high melodrama in the final instalment. Prichard writes of it, “While descriptions of the country and station life were vivid and realistic, I had strung them on a thread of fiction; silly, sentimental fiction at that.”[15]

In the first episode, “The Coach Drive to Willara,” the rough but honourable coach-driver, Billy Northwest, saves Kit from harassment by beating up the “evil-smelling […] Irish brute” travelling next to her, and ensures she is not “interfered with” when they stay the night at an inn.[16] In her autobiography, Prichard confesses, “As a matter of fact […] the driver was a sober respectable middle-aged man, not in the least likely to tie himself in knots outside a female passenger’s door. But my romantic imagination required a reckless and dashing cavalier like the hero of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, a novel popular at the time.”[17] A letter writer to the Barrier Miner newspaper rebuked her for the exaggerations in her first instalment:

We can forgive her once on the score of her youth and her extreme ignorance, for surely youth and ignorance must be the cause of her writing such a contorted description of the outback country. She looks upon a trip into the heart of our back country as an adventure; she looks upon all who dwell here as specimens to be commented upon by her uncertain pen. She saw only in her travels the flippant side of life that appealed to her vanity—not the worth in those who in this land fight on bravely with the droughts and the duststorms and floods.[18]

The letter writer concludes, “Let us hope that “Kit’s” contribution to the next New Idea will smack of a little common-sense and be tainted with just a hint of truth.”

Despite various “hints of truth,” the letter-writer would have been angry with the “contorted” elements of the rest of the serial, too. Kit arrives and teaches the children in-between excursions around the station and her romance with Billy Northwest. There is a shearing strike and a ball to celebrate the rains, both incidents with some historical basis. After the ball, Billy elopes with another woman, only to abandon her and become an opal miner. Unaware of this, Kit is visiting the opal mines on a farewell excursion with others from the station at just the right time to comfort Billy on his deathbed. He’d been pushed down a mineshaft by the same “brute” he’d saved Kit from earlier in the serial. “I knelt beside my wild-man, for it meant good-bye now. My heart was breaking with sorrow and the woe of it all. The fine face, in clean-cut pallor; the strength of its magnificent, restless youth was still just then.”[19] Even in this scene, where the serial seems at its most fictional, Prichard seems to have maintained the chronology of her own experiences, having visited White Cliffs at the same time in her stay and drawing on the lengthy descriptions of the opal fields. The fictional death of Billy Northwest in the serial recasts the “death” of her romance with Alfred Quin in real life, described in her autobiography.

Deciding how to use “City Girl” in my biography of Prichard has been a challenge. Although treating it as an entirely reliable autobiographical source would be an obvious mistake, ignoring its potential as a semi-autobiographical source would also be a missed opportunity.

For one thing, the exuberant tone of the serial gives what is probably a truer sense of Prichard’s character at this time, before the suicide of her father, than the less excitable narration of her year at Tarella that we find in her autobiography.

More concretely, there are historical clues and details which can be cautiously used. As one example, “City Girl” offers a portrait of the Reverend Newton we would not otherwise have. He only has a minor role in Prichard’s life—a paragraph in my biography—but adds an extra dimension to the account of her time there. Later, his brother was to be her closest friend while she was in London in 1908. The paragraph about him in my biography reads:

In June, a young Anglican minister, Reverend Fred Newton, who had begun a church at Ferntree Gully near the [Quins’ summer house], arrived at the station on a holiday to improve his health.[20] He was one of five people to leave answers to a survey Katharine started in her commonplace book. To the question “What is life?” he responds in the negative, “Without God—a failure.” To the question “What is love?” he responds, “The summit of human happiness.”[21] Katharine doesn’t mention him in [her autobiography], but in “City Girl” she plays out a strange flirtatious relationship between “Mollie, my eldest pupil” who is “all sunshine and storms” and the “young parson who is here with a lung.” Kit chaperones the pair on an excursion one weekend. When they stop and talk, Molly says she is possessed by seven devils and wishes she was dead; the parson tries to console her and she turns on him. “‘Be quiet!’ she chided strenuously. ‘You just want to catch cold and die—or go to Melanesia or some other black place. You’re a wicked man!’”[22] As it turns out, the parson is sent to the Pacific Islands and Mollie is heartbroken. In real life, Newton returned to Ferntree Gully in September, his health much improved, although after a relapse, he died in 1919 soon after marrying someone other than Miss Quin.[23]

In this case, my discovery in Trove of Newton’s visit to Tarella connected to a previously unknown name in her commonplace book and to a character in “City Girl.”

At several points like this in my biography, I present “City Girl” as a refraction of Prichard’s time at the station. I join the incidents in “City Girl” to historical evidence, but allow the serial to retain its ambiguous status. These are two important guidelines in appropriately using autobiographical fiction as a biographical source.

I want to conclude by briefly considering why Prichard moved away from the boundary-blurring of “City Girl” and found it so hard to write about herself later in her career.

Her life circumstances offer some possible explanations. A year after “City Girl” was published, Prichard’s father, Thomas Henry Prichard, killed himself after months of severe depression. Writing about her own life suddenly became much harder; even fifty years later, she was unable to write in her autobiography that her father had committed suicide. Her painful experience with Intimate Strangers, that novel she was working on when her husband committed suicide in 1933, only compounded this sense.

Another factor is Prichard’s career shift into journalism in 1908. Her approach to writing novels came to resemble a journalist pursuing a story, shown in the research trips she conducted for most of her novels. Like a journalist, she turned away from writing directly about herself.

A third factor is Prichard’s conversion to communism in about 1918. A preoccupation with the details of her own life became ideologically suspect. Jeffrey Sparrow refers to “an underlying theoretical suspicion by communist intellectuals of biography as inherently individualist, unmaterialist and non-Marxist.”[24]

Yet as much as these three factors, failure and success may also have been the reason for the trajectory of Prichard’s career away from autobiographical fiction. At some stage, Prichard pasted the clippings of “City Girl” in a scrapbook with the hope of having them published as a book, giving it her own title (perhaps the original title), “Letters from the Back O’Beyond.” A handwritten note states that this “screed is dedicated with an armful of olive-branches to those whom it has the misfortune to offend. I would like to tender my grateful acknowledgements to the editor of The New Idea – by whose courteous permission it is reprinted. KSP.” It was not to be; “City Girl” has never been republished in its entirety. Similarly, the autobiographical Wild Oats of Han was written in 1908 but was presumably rejected by publishers at the time, remaining unpublished for twenty years. If either of these two works had been published as her first book before her success with less autobiographical works, her writing may have developed differently. Instead, Prichard won the £1000 Hodder and Stoughton Novel Competition in 1915 for The Pioneers, a romance set in the pioneering days of Gippsland and not particularly autobiographical. The novels she wrote subsequently continued even further in the same direction.

“Kit,” the playful governess who probably took delight in the autobiographical ambiguities of “A City Girl in Central Australia”, was to become a boundary-rider, maintaining the fences between fiction and autobiography. But let us add the question mark to “boundary-rider,” reminding us of a time when the fence wasn’t up yet.

 

[1] “The Australian Reader,” Book Monthly 10 (1913) 857-860.

[2] Wells, ‘Australian Women’s Autobiographical Fictions’, 11.

[3] Wilding, ‘Christina Stead: A Biography’, 8.

[4] Throssell, ‘Stranger Fiction’.

[5] Throssell, Wild Weeds, 71.

[6] Beasley, A Gallop of Fire, 114; Throssell, ‘Stranger Fiction’.

[7] Prichard, Hurricane, 80.

[8] Prichard had previously won the New Idea love story competition in 1903 for a piece called “Bush Fires”. The female protagonist, Kath’rin, rides into a bush-fire to rescue her estranged lover. They are reconciled just before the fire overcomes them and they both perish.

[9] Tucker, ‘Women’s Magazines’, 326.

[10] Ibid., 334.

[11] Prichard, ‘City Girl I’, 1082.

[12] Prichard, ‘City Girl II’.

[13] MS6201/1/10.

[14] MS6201/8/6.

[15] Prichard, Hurricane, 79.

[16] Prichard, ‘City Girl I’, 1083.

[17] Prichard, Hurricane, 79.

[18] “Experiences of a Governess,” Barrier Miner (Wilcannia, NSW), June 9, 1906, 5

[19] Prichard, ‘City Girl VI’, 356.

[20] “Church News,” Australasian (Melb.) September 23, 1905, 52.

[21] MS6201/1/6.

[22] ‘City Girl II’.

[23] “Church News,” Australasian (Melb.) September 23, 1905, 52.

[24] ‘Engineering Your Own Soul’, 9.

 

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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

8 responses to “Boundary-rider?: the early Katharine Susannah Prichard on the edge of fiction and autobiography

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