- by Eileen Whitehead
- The Guardian
- Issue #1952
The historical period in which Katharine Susannah Prichard grew up proved tumultuous politically. She was born in 1883 in Levuka, Fiji, where her father Tom worked as a newspaper editor: his ongoing search for work taking him and his family to Launceston and then Melbourne where he worked as editor of the Sun newspaper.
Her family was to experience hard times due to her father’s uncertain employment and subsequent fits of depression, which she blamed on the social system. Even at a young age, she was aware of the dichotomy of the social structures: extreme poverty on the one hand and obscene wealth on the other.
Although intellectually gifted, her family’s poverty meant her brothers would benefit from further education while Katharine, who had gained University entrance, was forced to become a governess. Undeterred, she attended night lectures at the University of Melbourne studying, amongst other things, economics and the history and policy of the Australian Labor Party.
She also became interested in the Fabian Society of George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, Guild Socialism, Syndicalism, and the anarchism of Kropotkin. Her philosophical reading led her away from Christianity to Rationalism and from Plato, Socrates and Epictetus to Buddhism, Theosophy and Christian Science.
Katharine’s love of literature fed her lifelong habit of keeping journals, eventually leading to a successful literary career. She inherited a democratic, humanist tradition extended – through her plays and novels – by the complexities of the early twentieth century.
She had been horrified by life in the slums of Melbourne and hearing stories reported by the Anti-Sweating League of young women working long hours on high-pressure machines for low wages. She learnt of women being forced to submit to sexual advances from bosses in order to take work home to earn an extra shilling making clothes. And her later novels and plays reflected these inequalities.
Her father’s death from suicide in 1907 saw her leave to work in London, Paris and North America as a journalist. In 1913, she published a small collection of poetry, Clovelly Verses and in 1915, won £250 in Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition, for The Pioneers, based on her Australian notebooks.
Both brothers served in the First World War. The loss of her elder brother, Alan, hardened her resolve to work for peace and “oppose political and economic intrigues that foster the barbarous insanity of war.”
The Russian Revolution introduced her to the theories of Marx and Engels: she had found her system of thought for a reorganisation of the social system. Poverty, oppression and war had left a great impression on Katharine Susannah Prichard: she understood the importance of “mateship” and unionism to the working class, and her work reflected this by perpetuating the distinctive Australian culture.
Injustice shaped her consciousness and, engrossed by the philosophy of Marx and influenced by the improvements the Bolshevik Revolution had gained for the Russian people, Katharine later helped found the Communist Party of Australia in 1920.
Her artistic inspiration constantly interacted with her political analysis of a rapidly changing Australia, as seen in her novels and plays: always revealing the society in which she lived. Her first published writings had appeared in New Idea in 1903, which published “Bush Fires”, a prize-winning love story. However, in 1908, she wrote a semi-autobiographical children’s novel, The Wild Oats of Han, not published until 1928. In it her resentment of poverty and the actual experience of her family having to sell their best furniture became the focus.
In 1916, while in London, she met Lieutenant Hugo (Jim) Throssell, VC, and they later married in 1919, settling in Greenmount outside Perth, WA. Here Katharine established a labour study circle before giving birth to son Ric Throssell in 1922.
Four years later, the publication of Working Bullocks secured her reputation – in the mould of Lawrence and Hardy – as a writer capable of revealing the essence of Australia. It dramatised the lives of timber workers in the Karri forests of the South West of WA, demonstrating the essence of the alienating process which denies working people the product of their labour: becoming the bullocks.
Katharine won the Triad Play Competition with her powerful political play, Brumby Innes, in 1927, dealing with sexism, racism, class injustice and the rape of the environment. A more controversial novel Coonardoo, followed in 1929 – probably the first novel to humanise indigenous culture – dealing with the injustice of the attempted destruction of an entire people.
The 1920s were Katharine’s most productive time when she wrote her most adventurous novels, stories and plays. At this time, as an active communist, she helped organise unemployed workers and left-wing women’s groups. During the 1930s, she actively campaigned to support the Spanish Republic and other socialist causes.
Many differences of opinion were had between her and other Communist writers such as Frank Hardy and Judah Leon Waten about applying socialist realism in Australian fiction. Also, her commitment to left-wing politics did not endear her to conservative social society dominating the Perth art scene at the time and, throughout her life, she endured a certain social exclusion. Her friends were other free-thinking intellectuals, also challenging social norms at the time.
While in the Soviet Union in 1933, collecting material for The Real Russia, a book-length polemical pamphlet, Katharine’s husband committed suicide – as had many others during the Great Depression. His real estate business and other ventures had left the family in colossal debt.
On her return, Katharine became involved with the Movement Against War and Fascism (MAWF) founded that year. Before her trip, she had written a draft of Intimate Strangers, in which the male character, Greg Blackwood, had suicided. Concerned that this might be construed as influencing Jim’s suicide, she altered the ending and deferred its publication until 1937.
During the 1930s, Katharine was an unremitting worker for the Communist Party, writing Who Wants War (1935), and agitprop plays such as Women of Spain (1937) and Penalty Clause (1940). With Jean Devanny, she set up the Writers’ League in 1935 and was a founding member of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Her novel, Moon of Desire was written in 1941 aimed at Hollywood in an attempt to relieve her debts.
Renting out her cottage in 1942, Katharine moved to Sydney to be closer to her son, Ric, who was serving in the military and allowing her to serve on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia. After the war, she came close to selling the cottage to pay Jim’s outstanding debts, but, fortunately, a friend intervened and paid the debt for her.
Katharine wrote Potch and Colour (1944) during the war and became co-editor of Australian New Writing (1943-46). Her major work, however, was her Goldfields Trilogy: The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950).
They provide a substantial reconstruction of social and personal histories that, although set in the Goldfields from 1890 to 1946, reflected her political philosophy that no-one is immune from war, disease and the ruthless struggle for wealth and power, which sweeps the mass of people into a maelstrom of economic and national crises. It shows her experience of the effect of war – the damage to her own husband shown in the character of Dick, returning broken and changed.
Winged Seeds continues with the next generation of the Gough family experiencing the threat of global events – the Depression followed by WW2. The torch of socialism is introduced by the grandson organising his fellow miners before another world war engulfs them.
Aged eighty-four, her last novel Subtle Flame, was published in 1967 with, once again, her humanity, compassion and reverence for life to the fore. Set in Melbourne towards the end of the Korean War and around the Peace Conference of 1959, it’s a story about the inner meaning of life and the struggle of “man’s” integrity and the influence of society.
It’s poignant in that it’s about an Editor of an important Melbourne newspaper, considering her father had held the same position. The book is a passionate plea for world peace and is now considered an important social document.
Katharine Susannah Prichard died at her home in Greenmount in 1969, and her ashes were scattered in the surrounding hills. She pioneered the Australian novel as a viable art form. In a letter written to Vic Williams, she hoped her works would help people realise the future they could create for Australia. What would she make of that country today where inequality is even worse, where greed and materialism are gods, and our government spends billions on armaments?