Tag Archives: Australian literature

Angst, class and racism in Possum Gully: some notes on Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career

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I’ve just finished reading Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), a novel still fresh and intriguing 114 years later. It covers a few years in the life of Sybylla, a determined young woman trying to break free of the restraints of poverty and the expectations of marriage in rural New South Wales during the drought of the 1890s . Jill Roe writes, “It was undoubtedly the literary event of 1901, the only significant Australian novel in the year of Federation; and by now it is more or less recognised that in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century, feminism and nationalism went together as radical forces.” (Stella Miles Franklin, epub edn, 133) Continue reading

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Louis and Hilda: Some thoughts on biographical method in Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players

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Peter Fitzpatrick, Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Other times, she is a ghost in all the things I read: I know the people I’m reading about knew her. I know that if the “camera” panned just a little to the left or a little to the right, or if it moved back to take in the whole scene, Alice would be there.

Before I started writing a biography, I wrote a novel about biographers. (It’s how I do things – I imagine them, and then I become them.) I’m revising it at the moment, and I added those sentences to it the other day. I’m reminded of them reading Peter Fitzpatrick’s Pioneer Players: The Lives of Louis and Hilda Esson. Hilda was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best friend; they lived next door to each other as children. The few surviving letters between them show an intimate friendship. Katharine is not exactly a ghost in this dual biography of Hilda and her first husband, Louis; rather, she is one of the major characters. But, naturally, she is out of focus. She is there to help us understand Louis and Hilda better. And I’m so glad for the existence of this and other works evoking the same world Katharine was moving through. Continue reading


Gold Fever: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties

The Roaring Nineties (1946) is the first volume of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s magnum opus, her goldfields trilogy. She spent a decade on the trilogy, regarding it as her finest achievement, and was deeply hurt by the mixed reception she received from critics (especially for the third volume, Winged Seeds). The trilogy is an epic telling the story of the Western Australian goldfields from the discovery of gold and spanning the decades which followed.

The novel is haunted by the presence of displaced and mistreated Aborigines, and begins with a short, violent story of an abduction of two Aboriginal women by prospectors before gold had even been discovered. It is Prichard at her finest, writing in spare and evocative prose. It is a remarkable reorientation of her novel, throwing off-balance this story of whites and their gold; today it would almost be expected, but in 1946 it shows historical insight ahead of its time. From here, the novel tells of the initial gold rush in the 1890s and the establishment of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie Boulder. Prichard brings the dust, tents, excitement, and desperation alive in a way that historical studies cannot do. She researched this novel thoroughly and it shows; sometimes to the detriment of narrative, but mostly to help her create an authentic story. The historical background is never far from the story, forming a spine which moves the story along through a series of incidents, with a large cast of characters moving on and off the stage. It is Sally Gough who is closest to a protagonist, as she makes a living running a boarding house to compensate for her ineffectual aristocratic gambler of a husband, Morrie. The struggle between them is an ongoing aspect of the plot, as he gradually accepts her egalitarian ethos, both in class and gender terms. Sally’s insistence that she and Morrie should not elevate themselves above the others contrasts with Alf and Laura’s move up the class rankings, as mining becomes commercialised and Alf betrays his prospector roots to become a mine manager. The class struggle of the alluvial prospectors against the mining companies and the political establishment occupies much of the last third of book, and is the least engaging, often losing sight of the characters.

The novel is, rather loosely, a frame narrative, with the whole novel presented as the yarns of prospector Dinny Quinn about the early days of the goldfields. This device is used frequently in the early chapters, peters out, and is then revived toward the end of the book. Dinny is rarely central to the action, more an observer who knows all the characters.

Having read about some of the reception history of The Roaring Nineties, and the critical preoccupation of the time with rating it against and comparing it with her earlier work, what surprised me most about the novel is how very typically Prichardian it is. This novel has elements of almost all of her previous novels; it seems far less of a departure than Coonardoo or Intimate Strangers were. The foundation and growth of a community echoes The Pioneers. The depiction of the prospectors with their strong code of ethics (such as “roll ups” where disputes are settled) and their struggle against big companies is similar to the concerns of Black Opal. The mistreatment of Aboriginal women as temporary sexual partners brings Coonardoo to mind. The struggle of Sally Gough for her right to earn money and define herself apart from her husband echoes Haxby’s Circus and Intimate Strangers.


Louisa: the limits of biography

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Brian Matthews, Louisa (Melbourne: McPhee, 1987)

Louisa is both an anguished reflection on biography and its problems and the story of the life of Louisa Lawson, mother of the more famous Henry, but a significant Australian literary figure herself, as editor of a woman’s journal, Dawn, and as poet and suffragette.

Frustrated not only by the gaps in the record but also by the inherent limits of biography as a genre, Matthews interrupts what is often a conventional (but good) biographical narrative with an alternative text, the reflections of ‘Owen Stevens’, Matthews’ alternative self:

Owen Stevens, the biographer’s untrammelled self, will say, do, essay and gainsay all those things that formal scholarship cannot condone and which life, unrounded by a style-sheet, uncompleted and unexplained by footnotes, is teeming.

The ‘alternative text’ also contains experiments in form, such as a short story imagining a woman from the 1970s returning to Louisa’s past, and a music-hall drama to convey Louisa in ways conventional biography would not allow.

I have no doubt Matthews expected or even courted controversy, and he did get it. The book sits as the new far end of a spectrum. It has not been taken up as the new way of writing biography, nor was it expected to. But it does demand fruitful reflection from biographers, scholars and readers on just what is permissible and what is desirable in biography.

In a sense, it is a book which wears its postmodernism loudly and, although it has aged well, it still feels to belong to the milieu when the postmodern was still shiny, exciting and the way forward. Today, nearly thirty years on, my feeling is that the biographer is able to wear the influence of postmodern more quietly. Some of the question and objections ‘Owen Stevens’ raises, some of his speculations, could be integrated with the primary narrative – they don’t need to be exiled and, by extension, highlighted.

The relegation of consideration of sources to some brief notes at the end is a strange move. Surely the whole point of the alternative text is to draw some attention to the scaffolding, to the process of arriving at the settled narrative of a biography. Footnotes are a good place to provide the reader with some awareness of the process.

In How to do Biography (Harvard University Press, 2008), Nigel Hamilton argues that it is only when there is an authoritative biography of a subject already published that a biographer is free to be experimental. Louisa Lawson did not have such a biography in 1987, as far as I know, and no doubt this added to some of the criticism Matthews received. On the other hand, the biography was praised as well, and for good reasons.


Passion and timber: a review of KSP’s Working Bullocks

Working Bullocks (1926) was Katharine Susannah Prichard’s fourth published novel, and her first set in Western Australia, where she’d been living since 1919. Set in the karri forests of the south-west, it uses the fictional towns of Karri Creek and Marritown as stand-ins for places around Pemberton as she tells of romance, struggle and strike in the lives of timber workers.

It take some time to establish itself. The first third is concerned with detailed descriptions of the work of the bullock teams carting logs, and of the protagonist, Red, catching a wild brumby. Prichard is determined to achieve verismilitude (as she did with her observations of opal miners in her previous novel, Black Opal), but perhaps it comes at the expense of readability. Of course, the same passages which bogged me down would have probably been met with delight by contemporaneous readers looking for an experience of the bush.

We know from the start that her hero, Red, is a fascinating character, and he begins to hit his stride about Chapter XI. He is a tormented loner, a man of principles fighting against setbacks; his brothers thought him dead in the war and sold off his fine team of bullocks to the butchers (7). (Strangely, Prichard never returns to Red’s time in the war, a glaring omission in her characterisation.) After his best friend, Chris, dies in a timber accident, Red goes bush for a year, only to return to civilisation when he captures the finest brumby, Boss. He loses Tessa, the girl he had been seeing, but falls passionately for Chris’s sister, the far more suitable and down-to-earth Deb. Deb’s mother challenges him to regain a bullock team to prove he has the means to keep a wife. Having earlier referenced Jacob from Genesis, who worked seven years to earn his wife (48), it seemed to me that the novel had settled into a natural plotline: the trials of Red as he overcomes the odds to rebuild his bullock team. Yet what follows instead is a series of sharp twists in the plot.

There is to be a race between Red’s brumby Boss, and the horse of Tessa’s successful suitor, Leslie Gaze. Yet Tessa comes to him as the race is starting and says he must let Leslie win, because only then will he marry her, and if he does not marry her, she will ‘die’, bringing down both Leslie and Red with her. Red is pushed to his  moral limits, facing a dilemma without a solution, but its terms are not clear enough, at least to this reader; could it be the censor, or at least Prichard’s concern for the censor? It seems Tessa is pregnant and will claim Red to be the father if he will not co-operate. Red throws the race, admits guilt, and walks away from his hope of marrying Deb, having covered himself in shame. He hits the bottle and turns into a harsh leader for the rest of the bullock team.

Soon after this, in chapter XXI, Mark Smith enters the narrative, in an interesting but somewhat unintegrated subplot. He works as Red’s offsider and becomes the closest he has to a friend. But most significantly, he is a communist, an agitator and he channels the workers’ anger at conditions into a strike after Deb’s other brother, Billy, is killed in the sawmill. Prichard paints the picture of a strike well, and it’s fascinating to watch Deb’s mother become a conscientious comrade to the cause during the strike. Yet the subplot is not anticipated; the workers’ conditions have not been foreshadowed as a problem, and the connection to the central plot is not well made.

The strike dies down and Red leaves town after he and Deb fall half in love. The rest of the novel settles into a romantic musical chairs, as Deb and Red must find their way back to each other through the obstacles of Niel the log chopper and the freshly widowed Tessa, back to snare Deb. (In one of the more innovative chapters, XXXI, Deb and Tessa are sharing a room and the narrative point of view switches back and forth between them.)

The sections of the novel told through Deb’s point of view are a highlight of the novel, and none more so than those describing her mystical communion with trees; ‘she had always gone to the trees when she was in trouble’ (273):

The trees were like people she knew who suddenly had become beautiful beyond anything earthly. Their stand and poise, long arms outflung, bodies tall and straight, crooked or gnomish, living flesh with the glamour of ivory, sloughing their bark, dark shapes wrapped in fibre. Deb swung to them in a fury of worship and admiration. The invocation, passion and lamentation of the trees swayed her. (275)

Deb and Red embody a simplicity and purity of life, two characters connected to their environment, work and appetites.

We should be grateful for Working Bullocks. It captures everyday working life in the Western Australian timber industry ninety years ago, yet balances that with a passionate, romantic sensibility. It was the novel which made her reputation on publication, and is usually regarded as one of her seminal works, yet while five or six of her other novels are in print today, I do not think Working Bullocks has been reprinted since 1991.


KSP’s Black Opal: a saint and a singer in a utopia under threat

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Katharine Susannah Prichard’s third published novel, Black Opal (1921), is set in the opal mining settlement of Fallen Star Ridge. It has two significant plot strands: the Ridge’s pure, beautiful Sophie coming into womanhood and torn between three men; and the attempt of an American to buy out the individual miners and commercialise operations.

Perhaps the truer title would be Fallen Star Ridge, as the novel is focused on the opal mining community itself as an ideal. Between the publication of her first novel, The Pioneers, and this one, KSP had committed to communism, and the influence is evident. In chapter VIII of part I, the narrative stops and KSP paints a picture of the workers’ utopia the settlement represents.

Ridge miners find happiness in the sense of being free men. They are satisfied in their own minds that it is not good for a man to work all day at any mechanical toil; to use himself, or allow anyone else to use him, like a working bullock. A man must have to time to think, leisure to enjoy being alive, they say.  (64-5)

To a man, Ridge miners have decided against allowing any wealthy man, or body of wealthy men forming themselves into a company, to buy up the mines, put the men on a weekly wage, and work them, as the opal blocks at Chalk Cliffs had been worked. (65)

The utopia is threatened first by missing opals (who stole from their brother?) and then an attempt by the American, John Armitage, to buy up the mines. As a kind of utopia, it is rendered convincingly, a plausible depiction of how people might have led a  co-operative existence a century ago in rural Australia.

Central to the utopia is Michael, a saintly autodidact who looks after the needy in the community and quietly dispenses wisdom. I can’t help wondering if KSP imagined a similar role for herself, if she was to ever find herself living within a workers’ community; she must have often wondered how to reconcile her bookishness with her commitment to the working class. The workers of the Ridge are not the anti-intellectuals one might assume:

Ridge folk were proud of Michael’s books, and strangers who saw his miscellaneous collection – mostly of cheap editions, old school books, and shilling, sixpenny, and penny publications of literary masterpieces, poetry, and works on industrial and religious subjects – did not wonder that it impressed Ridge folk; or that Michael’s knowledge of the world and affairs was so extensive. He had tracts, leaflets, and small books on almost every subject under the sun. (9)

At the beginning of the novel, Michael makes a promise to Sophie’s dying mother that he will make sure she does not leave the safety of the Ridge for the evils of the world beyond it. Trying to keep this promise is nearly his undoing; it is to no avail – Sophie leaves, which is nearly her undoing.

Spoilers Ahead Continue reading


KSP’s The Wild Oats of Han

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I’m trying to read the fiction of Katharine Susannah Prichard at least roughly in order, but of course that’s never as straightforward as it sounds. The Wild Oats of Han wasn’t published until 1928, but it was actually written in 1908, meaning that perhaps I should have it read it first; I’m reading it second.

Its genre is complicated, too. It’s presented as a children’s novel, but (my 1968 edition at least) is introduced with a note from KSP saying it ‘is truly, really story’, an idiosyncratic way to say it really happened. It is perhaps a memoir of childhood written in the form of fiction. Regardless, it is beautiful.

In this book, KSP’s prose is lyrical and captures the mind of a child incredibly well. Han is a dreamy, rebellious girl, a fascinating character, a girl who ‘scarcely knew the world of the real from the world of the unreal: both were blended in the crystal of her mind.’ (16) A mentor figure, Sam the woodcutter, tells her that ‘wild oats is a crop most people sow when they live like children’. (56) (The meaning has surely narrowed over the years.) Han determinedly sows her oats, skipping school to glory in the beauty of the bush; enchanted by the circus; battling her nemesis, Miss Whittler; in love with the family and friends around her. It is episodic, each short chapter almost self-contained, with only a loose progression of the overall narrative. Things change in the last few chapters, as the circumstances of her parents (absent characters for most of the novel) impede on her idyllic life, and she must go ‘down into the great mysterious world they had talked so much of, to take her part in the joy and the labour and the sorrow of it.’ (160)

Jack Beasley comments that the novel ‘is more a story about children for adults, than for children themselves’ (A Gallop of Fire, 31), and I agree with him. Its achievement lies in its evocation of the enchanted world of a child’s mind, which is not necessarily something a child can appreciate – only adults in retrospect; it reminds me in this respect of Randolph Stow’s Merry Go Round in the Sea. Early in Wild Oats, Han comes across a cave which amazes her:

Han went to school the next day. But the smell of the hills was in her nose: it was like a taste in her mouth. Memory of the cave haunted her. She had a mind-picture of the great underground room, so vast and deep that, leaning over the edge, she could not see how far it went, only the bones glimmering on the floor in the darkness. (31)

A children’s novel would require that there really be a human skeleton to discover at the bottom of the cave, or at least that some great adventure occur there. Yet Wild Oats evokes the gap between our childhood expectations of adventure gained from stories, and the reality that adventure is more a state of mind.