Tag Archives: The Pioneers

Link: Cooper, Cather, Prichard, ‘Pioneer’: The Chronotope of Settler Colonialism – Australian Literary Studies Journal

I was chuffed when my PhD co-supervisor, Tony Hughes-D’Aeth, gave a paper last year (partly) about Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel The Pioneers. Now a version of that paper has been published in Australian Literary Studies; you can read it free during June before it goes behind the paywall.

Abstract: This essay considers three novels which each bear the word ‘pioneer’ in their titles: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823), Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers (1915). The three novels, although moving widely across time and space, are taken as representative of the creative literature of settler colonialism. A model of reading settler colonial literature is advanced that draws on four distinct features found across the three novels. These are: a tendency to spatialise the historical time of settler colonialism within the geography of the novel; the condensation of settler legal anxiety into a legal drama in the text; the application of a generational structure to Indigenise the settler; and the recurrence in the text of a ‘primal scene’ by which the settler society remembers its foundational violence in repressed form.

Source: Cooper, Cather, Prichard, ‘Pioneer’: The Chronotope of Settler Colonialism – Australian Literary Studies Journal

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers, redux part 1


1963 edition of The Pioneers, lightly revised. The comic book style cover is a little unfortunate, but probably captures some of the novel’s spirit.

Two years ago I was trying to decide if Katharine Susannah Prichard was going to be the subject for my biography. I read Ric Throssell’s existing biography first and then John Hamilton’s recent biography of Katharine’s husband, Hugo Throssell. It seemed to me there was room for a new biography, but I needed to know Katharine was a writer I could work on for years. I’d read and loved Coonardoo years earlier, and now I tackled The Pioneers (1915), her first published novel. It was reading it in the arts courtyard at UWA between sessions at the 2014 Perth Writers’ Festival that I decided she really did seem the writer for me. Pioneers is little read today, and yet I found it engaging, an intriguing mix of generational saga and romance set in nineteenth century Australia. It was interesting even in its flaws and cliches, and had moments of beauty and drama.

Two years later, I’ve just finished re-reading it for different reasons. After a flash forward into World War I to prepare a speech, I’m up to 1904 in my biography, the year Katharine spent as a governess in Yarram, South Gippsland, 220km south-east of Melbourne. The tales and landscape of this country inspired her to write the novel nine years later when she was in London. Working out where to fit Pioneers in my story of Katharine’s early life is a challenge. Its writing in 1913 in London reveals much about her development as a novelist and her relationship to Australia, as well as glimpses of her politics and worldview at this time. Its publication and reception in 1915 mark a kind of climax in her story, the point at which she achieves the success she has been chasing since she set out to be a writer as a schoolgirl. (The plots of non-fiction aren’t as neat as fiction – the resolution of  her love life, her radicalisation, and the struggle to write a worthy follow-up to Pioneers form a second climax.) Yet this current 1904 chapter requires some discussion of the origins of Pioneers.

I was in Yarram for two nights last month, staying with Nicole and baby Thomas in a renovated presbytery which dates from the 1890s. It brought my biography alive to imagine Katharine walking past this house on her way to the showground where she was disqualified from the ladies’ trot for racing; or arriving at her first grown up ball, probably held at the Mechanics’ Institute next door to us. I also gained a sense of the land, the hills in the distance, the farm land denuded of trees, the isolation of the town and its nearby settlements, including old Port Albert. (All of this will require its own blog post, another time.)

In the 1960s, Katharine wrote to Len Fox that, “The whole story was woven about stories told to me by pioneers – and an escaped convict – it does not ‘belie its title’, but deals honestly with the pioneering period in South Gippsland from the coast about Tararille, Port Albert and into the hills region.” She complicates any attempt to pinpoint the historical and geographical basis of the novel by renaming all the places, but “Port Southern” is clearly Port Albert, and “Wireeford” is probably Yarram. If the novel is shaped by the contemporaneous conventions of historical fiction it’s only lightly, with some attempt to imagine the pioneering conditions and recount the growth of the area (particularly in an overview in chapter 18). Taking Katharine’s own account of the novel’s origin, it’s more as if she’s shaped the tales of the area she heard to fit the conventions of the romance and the generational saga, the genres she was actually writing within.  (The point of comparison in her oeuvre is her late goldfields trilogy, which similarly weaves in the tales and folklore of a place, but does so within a framework of historical events, from a visit by the premier to the impact of the wars and the depression.)

Pioneers is very relevant to her year in Yarram regardless of how I come to understand her later use of it, and I will be writing about it as one of three biographical “origins” of the novel I’m aware of so far – the other two being her viewing of McCubbin’s painting The Pioneer (also completed in 1904 but not exhibited until a few years later) and the November 1902 Pioneers’ reunion of the many descendants of her Prichard grandparents, who’d arrived in Victoria fifty years earlier.

Katharine Susannah and the “fifteenth-rate” writer, Charles Garvice


Katharine Susannah became instantly famous across the Commonwealth when she won the Australasian section of the great Hodder and Stoughton All-Empire Competition in April 1915 (the very month of Gallipoli) for her unpublished novel, The Pioneers. It was the big break she had been working hard towards for a decade. I think The Pioneers, for all its faults, is genuinely a very good novel, but at the time of the competition, a number of critics were unwilling to take the winning entry seriously because of the judge, British writer Charles Garvice.

The columnist in Wellington’s Dominion wrote, “…to foist such a fifteen-rate novelist as Mr Garvice upon Australasian writers as judge of their work was little short of an insult” (May 29, 1915, 14). Almost no-one remembers Garvice today, but at the time, he could claim to be the biggest-selling British author alive, having sold millions of the romances he produced many times a year. Among serious lovers of literature his name was a byword for dross. It seems that to have him judge a literary competition was a little like inviting Danielle Steel or Dan Brown to do so today. When his own books are so forgotten, it is a beautiful irony that one of his great legacies was to launch the career of such a significant Australian writer. Even if Garvice wasn’t a great writer, could he have been a good reader, able to discern something special in Katharine Susannah’s work? The Pioneers is a romance, melodramatic at times yet with characters more vivid and a plot more interesting than the genre usually produces.

I would love to know Katharine Susannah’s opinion of Garvice’s work, and the complicated feelings she would have felt at being awarded the prize by him. I think she would have been biting her tongue, and a little uneasy amidst the jubilation.


Garvice has fascinated at least two writers in recent years. In her fine essay “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist”, Laura Sewell Matter tells of her quest for Garvice, after finding some pages of an Icelandic-language book wash up on a beach in Iceland and eventually tracking it down as a translation of one of Garvice’s novels. She flies to London to read one of only two copies held by libraries in the world. It is a classic biographical quest, the genre I researched for my MA, the quest for Garvice tied up to Laura’s quest to find herself. You can download the essay from her website. Steve of Bear-Alley blog wrote a post on Garvice in 2010, tracking down some biographical details for Garvice, as well as a long (and still incomplete!) bibliography of Garvice’s works.

Echoes of Genesis: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Pioneers

In some ways KSP’s first published novel, The Pioneers (1915), resembles the Book of Genesis. It begins with a couple – Donald and Mary Cameron (initially ‘the woman’) – coming to the end of an arduous journey and establishing a homestead in the bush, a homestead which is the foundation for what will become a town over the course of the novel. They are not so much Adam and Eve as Abraham and Sarah – the ambitious, inflexible patriarch and his resourceful wife working cunningly yet virtuously behind the scenes, including when it comes to matching their only son with a wife. A cleansing fire strikes the town early on, perhaps echoing the flood in Genesis. The characters feel, to an extent, archetypal.

Yet we shouldn’t push the comparison too far – I doubt it’s a conscious framework for KSP, and the novel resembles the work of Thomas Hardy as much as anything else, with the familiar plot of a struggle between suitors for the hand of the village’s most beautiful young woman, Deirdre, the novel’s second heroine. Furthermore, the novel changes tone, and the long middle is an involved, heavily plotted cattle-muster caper, not resembling Genesis at all. It is only in the final chapters, as Deirdre, resolves the long tussle between three suitors, that the novel recaptures the poignancy of its beginning. Mary’s final words in the novel reveal its vision:

“Oh God,” she whispered breathlessly, “we broke the earth, we sowed the seed. Let theirs be the harvest – the joy of life and the fullness thereof.” (316)

For a writer who was to be known for her sympathetic engagement with Aborigines, it is interesting to note that this early novel shows no evidence of what is to come. The minor Aboriginal character who accompanies the stockmen is not given a name, referred to instead as ‘the black boy.’

KSP was also to become a Communist; there is a degree of class consciousness in this novel, but only a degree. It centres mainly on the injustice of prejudice against former convicts, one of whom, the Schoolmaster, is an educated Irishman imprisoned for political reasons. In the epilogue, set fifteen years later, Dan, grandson of Mary, remembers her charge to him as he visits her grave:

“Then she told me about prisons here in the early days, mother, and terrible stories of how people lived in the old country. ‘They may talk about your birthstain by and by, Dan,’ she said, ‘but that will not trouble you, because it was not this country made the stain. This country has been the redeemer and blotted out all those old stains.'” (320)

It is an interesting, fast-moving story, still remarkably readable today, 99 years later, even if it feels a little sentimental and melodramatic. KSP’s prose is beautiful in places, and you can sense her determinedly evoking an Australia of a couple of generations earlier.

The book has been reprinted in recent years, but can also be found as an ebook through Project Gutenberg. I read it in PDF format on my tablet, so that the typesetting was exactly the same as the first edition, and even the pages were appropriately yellowed.