Tag Archives: 1930s

Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Winged Seeds: A Review

1934-slnsw

Spoiler Alert

The third novel in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy, Winged Seeds (1950) sees her writing about a war which was only just over. It begins brightly in 1936, with vivacious twins turning up on the doorstep of the trilogy’s hero, the aging Sally Gough. Pat and Pam are twenty years old and the stepdaughters of Sally’s arch-enemy, Sir Paddy Cavan. Their visit gives Prichard an opportunity to show us the state of the goldfields at the time. Their flirtatious ways set tongues wagging in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and a barometer of the sexual mores of the time. Yet the twins are not as easy as they seem; Pam is faithful to her fiancee fighting in the Spanish Civil War and Pat is in love with Sally’s grandson, Bill. They are fiercely anti-fascist, but cannot reveal their true sympathies until they turn twenty-one and inherit their father’s fortune, currently held by their wicked stepfather. Bill is the communist hero of this installment, taking on the mantle from his uncle, Tom, who dies early in the novel, his lungs destroyed by the mine. Bill is torn between his dedication to the cause and his desire for the “siren” Pat.

With various other subplots, there is already plenty enough to sustain an interesting narrative, but as in several other novels of Prichard’s, she unpicks her own set up. The twins leave suddenly; Bill goes off to fight World War Two. The protagonists of the first half only put in guest appearances for the rest of the novel, as the focus returns to Sally, as she struggles with what to make of World War Two, swayed and confused by debates around it, as well as re-living the grief of the Great War in which she lost one son and a second from its after-effects. Bill returns home from Greece injured, only to recover and be sent to New Guinea, where he goes missing, presumed killed by the Japanese. Pat drifts away from her commitment to progressive politics, marrying an American officer.  What was the novel building toward in its first half if not for Bill and the twins to do something extraordinary for the cause of communism? There is poignancy, though, in Sally trying to make sense of Bill’s death, and to find transcendence in the midst of death and disappointment.

The trilogy finishes wearily, with the two survivors, Sally and Dinny, burying Kargoola, the Aboriginal woman who they have known from the beginning, and finding hope in the winged seeds blown out from the kargooluh plant. Sally’s sons were dead, her grandson Billy was dead, but the ideas they lived for were immortal:

The life force strives towards perfection. What other imperative is there in living? The struggle had gone on through the ages. The vital germ in a seed attained its fine flowering and full fruit. How then could the great ideas and ideals of human progress be denied and annihilated? They could not. That was what Bill had believed , and what he tried to make people understand. (379)

Sandra Burchill comments that “… the optimistic vision for the future is not supported by any event in the novel and exists as a contradiction of what the trilogy has defined as a worsening situation both locally and internationally…” (364) The Cold War was a difficult period for Prichard to be writing in. She was a survivor like Sally, and had lived long enough to see more deaths and disappointments than most could bear.

At times the novel shimmers with the intensity and beauty of Prichard at her best. The scene in which Sally confronts her cheating lover, Frisco Jo, is particularly vivid. However, these passages are surrounded by long sections of “reportage”, the broader picture of the conditions of the goldfields conveyed through a session of “yarning” in which characters become mouthpieces for the information (Burchill, 313-314). It is a bold attempt to achieve a bigger canvas, but it is a significant reason why the trilogy was not as well regarded as Prichard hoped.

It is in print with Allen and Unwin, including in digital form; you can also pick up a secondhand first edition for not much more.

Work Cited

Burchill, Sandra. “Katharine Susannah Prichard: Romance, Romanticism and Politics.” PhD diss., UNSW (Australian Defence Force Academy), 1988.
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Anguished Portrait of Marriage: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate Strangers

intimate-strangers

When Katharine Susannah Prichard set off from Perth for London and then a tour of the Soviet Union in May 1933, she left the manuscript of Intimate Strangers behind. It is the story of the troubled marriage of Elodie and Greg Blackwood, set in Perth during the Depression. The manuscript she left behind finished with the suicide of Greg after he has gambled their house away, and presumably before Elodie even has a chance to tell him she’s leaving him for the adventurous Jerome Hartog. While Prichard was somewhere in Sibera, war-damaged Hugo Throssell shot himself, having piled up huge debts from a failed ‘dude ranch’ venture at their home. She later expressed niggling doubt to her son, Ric, that perhaps part of his state of mind had been caused by reading the ending of the novel. Before publication in 1937, she altered the ending to set up a reconciliation between Greg and Elodie. The novel and the suicide will always be associated, and the issue has resurfaced often in the years since, including when the novel was turned into an ABC mini-series in 1981 and a magazine ran a sensationalised headline. In the introduction to the 1990 edition, Ric acknowledged parallels between Greg and Elodie and Katharine and Hugo, but emphasised the differences and the creative alchemy that amalgamates and transforms people and events beyond simple equivalencies; ‘the unknowable truth remains unknown.’

Intimate Strangers is a portrait of marriage as a concept and institution more than a portrait of a particular marriage. Elodie and Greg’s problems in their marriage of fifteen years are set against the troubled relationships of those around them, especially virginal tomboy, Dirk, who holds a line of suitors in her sway, not wanting to marry any of them, but eventually yielding to one for money. On the beaches of Calatta and then back in the suburbs of Perth, Elodie contemplates running away with Jerome as Greg continues his dalliances and fails as a provider. Over and over, the novel circles around the questions of finding sexual and personal fulfillment in marriage and out of it, with sexual attraction pulling people away from commitment. There is no clear message; the appeal and the problems of adultery are both presented. The resolution has Elodie and Greg recommit themselves to each other at the same time as they applaud Dirk’s escape from her marriage. In the moral world of the novel, Dirk’s escape is permissible because the marriage’s oppression mirrored that of the capitalist oppression of workers; as part of that, her husband Ted was violent, leaving her bruised. Greg is not as bad as Ted, but by today’s standards at least, he rapes Elodie in Chapter 6.

Intimate Strangers is distinct among Prichard’s novels. Most of her novels are researched, taking place among a particular occupation group – opal miners, timber workers, circus workers, station workers. Intimate Strangers is closer to the middle-class, urban world Prichard moved in. The urban setting is unusual for her, although as Throssell points out in the introduction, two of her lesser-known works, Windlestraws (1916) and Subtle Flame (1967) are also set in cities. Her other novels are also much more plotted; more than any other her other works, Intimate Strangers occurs within the characters’ consciousness, their inner conversations and impressions. However, just in case you were in doubt that you were really reading Prichard, in chapter 19 Dirk and Elodie turn up to a rally of unemployed workers in Fremantle to hear Tony speak, and the speeches of a number of the unemployed are reported. The tumult of the Great Depression is not foregrounded, but intrudes most here and when Greg loses his job in the downturn.

The novel is drenched in seawater and sand, lovingly evoking Perth beaches in the amalgam place of Calatta, part Rockingham, part Cottesloe. The characters begin on holiday there for the first half of the book, and return a couple of times, including for the final resolution. All the characters live to swim or sunbake or walk along the beach or fish. It is a valuable picture of Western Australian beach culture in the 1930s, sitting alongside J. M. Harcourt’s descriptions in Upsurge! (1934).

The novel enjoyed a brief renaissance in July 1981 with the broadcast of the two part mini-series adaptation. A review for the mini-series by Cul Cullen in The Women’s Weekly is one of the most hyperbolic hatchet jobs I’ve come across, describing it as ‘the silliest thing to flicker, unwatched, across our screens’; ‘aimless, stitled and utterly without relevance to a contemporary audience.’ Surely it couldn’t have been that bad; but the only way to know today is to watch the only copy I can see listed in the world at the National Archives. (In his introduction, Ric Throssell writes that it was also The Women’s Weekly which published the article at this time blaming the novel for his father’s suicide. However, The Women’s Weekly is now fully digitized for that year, and there is no trace of the article. It may have been a different magazine.)

While avoiding simplistic autobiographical readings of Intimate Strangers, it is an anguished book from an anguished period in Prichard’s life. The characters’ ponderings on how to find happiness and satisfaction in life and particularly marriage are themes which resonate today as well, even if the novel reads as a product of its age. It is not the Prichard novel I’d recommend readers start with, but it is a significant work in her corpus, demonstrating her versatility, and shedding light on its context.