Tag Archives: Child of the Hurricane

Ancestry and mythology in Child of the Hurricane

Often in biographies and autobiographies, ancestry is dealt with all at once, in a sometimes unpalatable dose at the beginning of the book. Sometimes an ancestor with some connection, some parallel to the subject is highlighted, their life story summarised. Some biographers are disdainful of this, thinking it based on a rather silly theory of hereditary genius, but I think they’re too quick to be dismissive. Humans have always looked to their ancestors to explain themselves. In the case of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Child of the Hurricane, her ancestry forms a constellation of stories, myths and anecdotes around her entire childhood, and the book doesn’t throw these off until nine chapters in. It feels like Prichard is remembering for her own sake, not as a writer, but as if she were writing the family history as some people are wont to do in their retirement. She is descended from two inter-married clans who both came to Australia on the El Dorado in 1852, and the stories keep coming: the Prichards might be descended from the fifteenth century Princess Katharine, who makes an appearance in the play Henry V; her great-uncle who built the William Wallace monument in Scotland (true) was on his way to see his sister in Australia when he died at sea (not true); her father was shipwrecked – at some time, she doesn’t when – and swam ashore with a sea-chest and his dog; her mother’s godfather was shipwrecked also, and flagged down a ship with his shirt and it became known as Shirt Island – or so she was told. The mythology of her family was rich and romantic.

Yet for all the family tales, Prichard seems to have sympathy with her aunt’s verdict that ‘She did not regret not knowing more about her antecedents, or think it important to remember them.’ (56) Prichard’s concern with her ancestry seems more a fascination with the mythology itself than a desire to truly unpick and uncover the truth. She wouldn’t have necessarily liked being on the Who Do You Think You Are? show and have the myths critically examined – although, if she were alive today, perhaps her thinking would have shifted, just as the rest of society’s has.

KSP’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane: a polite rebel in dinner party mode

Katharine Susannah Prichard takes the name of her autobiography from the circumstances of her birth, born in the fury of a hurricane in Fiji in 1883. The epithet echoes through this account of her early life to a moderate extent, as an image of her rejection of the ‘normal’ way to live, disavowing religion at a young age, marrying late, and finally embracing communism. Yet KSP comes across in this book not as a furious rebel, but an intelligent, singular woman, determined to rather politely live life her own way. It was published in 1964, but only traces her life until 1932.

Her childhood took her from Fiji to Tasmania to Melbourne, following the unstable fortunes of her father, Thomas Henry Prichard, a journalist. She becomes a journalist herself, determined to be married to her career, and sets off for London in 1907 and then again during the war. Along the way, her political and artistic development is lightly suggested.

The book offers moments of insight into her life, but she shows us what she wants us to know and no more.  It is not confessional nor particularly emotional. Instead, chapters are commonly structured around an encounter with a particular interesting person. Even in this period of her life, she is acquainted with many people of note, including Aleister Crowley, Alfred Deakin, and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Sometimes it reads a little too much like a structured sequence of dinner party anecdotes, but anecdotes from the most interesting of dinner party guests.

For me, one of the most interesting sections of the book is the description of a family reunion in 1902 of many of the eighty-five descendants of Grandfather and Grandmother Prichard on the fiftieth anniversary of their landing in Australia. All the original Prichard brothers and sisters were still alive at this point. It is an elegaic picture of what is already a distant memory for her, describing it in the 1960s.  She reflects that it’s now hundred years after their landing, and the descendants are too numerous to count. She writes:

I seem to be the only rebel among them. What would he say to me, I wonder, that grandfather whose name will live on the books I have written, and who made his bold venture into the unknown? Would he understand that  I am seeking to find as he did, a new and good life, though not only for the members of my own family, but for the families of mankind?

Curiously, Child of the Hurricane gives little insight into Katharine’s writing. She doesn’t write much about her motivations for writing, nor the process. She does describe, briefly, locking herself in her room for months to write her first novel, The Pioneers, and later gives some detail of a research trip for her novel Black Opal. (This research trip is given the quality of anecdote by its structure – she reports how the dray driver wouldn’t talk to her as he drove her out to the remote town; it’s only at the end of the story that she discovers he assumed she was a ‘city who’er’ and was trying to retain his respectability.) I wonder whether my expectations of her writing about writing reflect more recent expectations of writers’ autobiographies; perhaps we are more curious about the occupation of writing these days.

She writes briefly but compellingly of her great attraction for ‘Jim’, the war hero Hugo Throssell who was to become her husband. Yet their marriage and the whole years of her life 1918 to 1932 are given just one short chapter of eight pages, and much of this is taken up with stories about the horses they owned. We know from her son’s biography how hard it was to even write that Jim took his own life, and no doubt she could not bear to reveal any more than she did.  The book’s real focus is her early life, from 1883 to 1918 with the chapter on her marriage more a postscript.

Suicide haunted Katharine’s life; she herself seems a resilient and mentally healthy person, but even in the course of the book, she must narrate the suicide of her father and her husband. There are also deaths by suicide of two of her acquaintances. She admired Rachel, Countess of Dudley greatly, interviewing her as a young journalist; perhaps she knows more than the standard accounts of Rachel’s accidental death by drowning, because she wonders what ‘crisis in her own life caused her to walk out into the lake’ (137). Katharine also writes approvingly of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s decision to end her life when faced with incurable cancer (191); a case of euthanasia.

I’m grateful that we have this account of her life from Katharine. It doesn’t live up to her own literary potential, but it is an important record of her fascinating life and times, albeit a partial one.