In case you missed the original announcement in April, I just wanted to remind you that this blog has moved. You can now find it at https://nathanhobby.com, still going strong. (Well, if not a flood of posting, there has at least been a decent trickle.) Hope to see you over there – please do subscribe if you haven’t already.
The great Australian artist Tom Roberts volunteered to serve in a London military hospital during the Great War. He ended up serving as an unofficial batman to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, who was being treated for war wounds. I picked up Humphrey McQueen’s comprehensive 1996 biography of Roberts and found a lively account of their friendship. Another biography I wish I had the time to read. Each chapter has the name of a literary work from “Such is Life” to “The Good Soldier”. I love this acknowledgement at the back:
Paul Kelly for offering me a column in the Weekend Australian. The $585 I earned each week for two days work during the almost three years was the equivalent of a literary fellowship, without which this book would still not be completed. Rupert Murdoch let us get away with it until the week before the first draft went to the publishers.
One must always look for creative ways to fund the writing of a book.
Another note: McQueen’s great account of Roberts and Throssell is quoted or paraphrased at length in John Hamilton’s biography of Throssell Price of Valour without referencing. Mcqueen’s book does appear in the bibliography, but I don’t think that’s enough. Even “popular” biographies owe it to other writers and to the readers to acknowledge their sources fully.
Katharine ca. 1904, from her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, p. 42.
Governess – Katharine Susannah Prichard at Yarram, 1904: a reading by Nathan Hobby
KSP Writers’ Centre Sunday Session
4:00pm – 5:30pm Sunday 19 February 2017
11 Old York Rd, Greenmount WA
$10 general entry / $5 members (proceeds to KSP Writers’ Centre)
Patience is an important virtue in writing a biography—or any book—and realistically it’s going to be a couple of years before my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard appears. In the meantime, I’m excited to have a chance to share a chapter at the KSP Writers’ Centre Sunday Session.
The writers’ centre is in the hills of Perth, in the house Katharine lived in from 1919 until her death in 1969. Being involved with the centre has put me in touch with a community of writers who care about Katharine and her legacy. It’s also given me the rare opportunity to spend time in my subject’s house. The centre has many writing groups across genres, demographics, and timeslots. If you are a Western Australian writer, I encourage you to join up and be involved in some way – it needs your support more than ever in these days of limited government funding.
It’s chapter five I’ll be reading, “Governess,” the story of 1904 in Katharine’s life. I chose it because it’s a dramatic and largely unknown year of her life, as well as being quite self-contained as a narrative. Twenty-years-old and living away from home for the first time, Katharine set the tongues wagging in Yarram, a small country town in Gippsland. She beguiled several men, including a drug-addicted German doctor on the run from his wife. Starring in a play, she earned a new nickname. She gathered notes and impressions that she would turn into her first award-winning novel, The Pioneers, a decade later.
What better place to hear the story of this important year in Katharine’s life than at the house she lived in for fifty years? Tickets at the door.
Dark Night: Walking with McCahon Martin Edmond (Auckland University Press, 2011)
Dark Night is a profound work of creative non-fiction. Edmond retraces – quite literally – the steps of the New Zealand painter, Colin McCahon, following the route he took as he had a breakdown and went missing in Sydney for a day and a night. It has elements of a biography of the late artist and criticism of his work; an autobiography of Edmonds; a narrative of Edmond’s observations of the streets and haunts of Sydney; and reflections on religion, art, history, and the authentic life. It is not a biographical quest in the archival sense I’m used to using the term; but it is a biographical quest of a different kind. The life of McCahon becomes a lens for Edmond to examine the world. He writes well, observing acutely while never over-writing, and with genuine insight into the questions of existence.
Your KS #15: Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Source: Your KS #15: Cyril Cook & the Lost Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard | Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – home
One of the most interesting things to happen in my research this year has been the discovery of “lost” letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard and new insight into the circumstances of Cyril Cook’s 1950 thesis on Katharine. It was my AS Byatt’s Possession moment, and I wrote about it for the KSP Writers Centre newsletter; read about it on the KSPWC website!
Post #5 in my Australian Short Story Festival series
Katharine Susannah Prichard published two books in the 1950s – Winged Seeds, a goldfields novel, at the beginning of the decade in 1950, and N’goola and Other Stories at the end of the decade in 1959. It was a difficult decade for Katharine -she felt the sting of Cold War persecution as a Communist; her health was poor; her only son was living overseas and then interstate; and the writing projects she had envisaged in 1950 did not work out how she hoped. N’goola brings together this decade of troubled writing. There’s much in it which surprised and interested me. Continue reading
Sue at Whispering Gums has given a great overview of David Marr’s Seymour lecture, “Here I stand”. He focused on the biographer’s craft, and he said so many things of great relevance to me, but I’ll just engage this comment:
Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with [Patrick] White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers”
I love biographical quests; they’re how I came to biography. For my Master’s thesis , I wrote a biographical quest novel (“The Remains”) and a dissertation on aspects of the genre, including the influence of its non-fiction counterparts. From AJA Symons Quest for Corvo to Laura Sewell Matter’s “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist” and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – and not forgetting Martin Edmonds Dark Night: Walking with McCahon, which I’ve just started – I’ve encountered some superb non-fiction biographical quests. Continue reading
One of the few books – or objects of any sort – to come down to me from my great-grandparents is this battered copy of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Why did it survive when nothing else did? It’s not a signed copy, it’s not even a first printing, but an eighteenth impression from 1918. Like many Australians, my great-grandparents would have loved this book during the war and perhaps that’s why it survived. As a kid, I remember my bewilderment at the cupid drawings and the impenetrable slang it is written in.
I dug it out from my bookshelf for the first time in many years because I’ve been reading Philip Butterss’s An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Published in 2014, it won the 2015 National Biography Award. I’ve just returned from Canberra where I had the chance to hear Butterss speak at a National Centre for Biography seminar.
Butterss’s biography covers the whole of Dennis’s life with a careful briskness and an admirable clarity. It’s a different kind of biography to what I’m attempting, perhaps more concerned with setting his work in the context of life and conveying information than weaving a narrative and creating scenes. That’s partly a consequence of its conciseness and scope; the author also mentioned to me the limited number of personal papers to draw on. The discussion of Dennis’s literary works are well integrated and gave me a good sense of his poetry. Butterss argues convincingly for Dennis’s significance to Australian literature while also demonstrating the limitations of Dennis’s work.
C.J. Dennis (1876-1938) was contemporaneous with Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was seven years younger. I was struck by some parallels and points of comparison.
- Both had their first big success in 1915 during World War One, Dennis with the publication of Sentimental Bloke and Katharine with The Pioneers. Both books were popular works a long way removed from the war. Both writers had tribute dinners organised for them at Cafe Francais in Melbourne to celebrate their success a few months apart. It would be fair to say Dennis never developed far beyond what he achieved with that book, returning to the same characters and milieu in subsequent works with diminishing returns. Although Katharine’s breakthrough book sold well, it wasn’t nearly as successful as Sentimental Bloke, and it left her more incentive to develop as a writer.
- While World War One radicalised Katharine, moving her to embrace communism, it shifted Dennis the other way. He’d been a radical and worked for Labor politicians, but he became quite conservative in his later years. In Butterss’ account, it was wealth and success more than the war which affected him. If The Pioneers had made Katharine a fortune, would it have affected her politics?
- Both wrote in the Dandenongs east of Melbourne during the war. Dennis worked on Sentimental Bloke in Kallista in the early part of the war, while in 1918 Katharine wrote Black Opal 10km south of there in Emerald. This is why they appear together on this writers’ monument in Emerald.
- Both were journalists with strong ties to the Herald and Weekly Times – but while Katharine worked for the paper before the war, Dennis worked for it after the war.
I don’t yet know if they ever met, but they probably did. They at least had a number of associates in common, including Louis Esson, Furnley Maurice, and E.J. Brady.
I found particularly interesting the chapters in the biography on Dennis’s posthumous reception – his ‘afterlives’. I hadn’t realised that he is actually marginal in the Australian canon, his popular poetry not generally embraced by critics. His popularity has had its ups and downs over the decades, but more downs in recent years, light verse just not resonating with the reading public. However, the biography itself, the first full-length critical study, has ensured he is now better remembered a century on from his great success.
Toward the end of her biography of Randolph Stow, Suzanne Falkiner offers a beautifully expressed quote from Louis Menand:
How much one can accurately convey of a life lived so much on the interior is debateable. As the American academic Louis Menand has observed, in the matter of historical research (and by extension biography), what has been written about takes on an importance that may be spurious:
A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance – even though they are merely the bits that have floated to the surface. the historian clings to them while somewhere below the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.
Suzanne Falkiner Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (UWA Publishing, 2016) 726.
It’s more of a problem for a subject about whom little has survived – Shakespeare as an extreme example, the early Katharine Susannah Prichard as a less extreme example. Yet it subtly affects all biographies. Falkiner’s book would look very different if she her main source wasn’t Stow’s letters to his mother.