by Nathan Hobby
Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Red Witch,is due out from Melbourne University Press on 9 May 2022. To get us warmed up for the real thing, Nathan has written a brief account of Prichard’s early life, as a woman and as a writer.
Katharine Susannah Prichard, the great Australian novelist and prominent communist, was born in Levuka, Fiji on 4 December 1883 to Australian parents. Her father, Tom, was working as editor of the Fiji Times. In March 1886, a hurricane wrecked Levuka, causing many white colonists, including the Prichards, to leave. The family returned to Melbourne where Tom struggled to find work over the next decade.
In his spare time, he wrote poetry and fiction. From an early age, Katharine wanted to emulate him and set out to be a writer herself.
Denied the chance to go to university, Katharine convinced her parents to let her work as a governess so she could see more of Australia to give her material to write about. She was in Yarram in 1904, a town in Gippsland (eastern Victoria), and then on a station in outback New South Wales in 1905. The latter inspired a breakthrough serial, published in New Idea, which mixed romance and autobiography, ‘A City Girl in Central Australia’ (1906).
Throughout 1906 and into 1907, the family watched on helplessly as Tom’s mental health deteriorated. After he killed himself late one June morning, Katharine became a resolute atheist.
In that last year of Tom’s life, a family friend she called ‘the Preux Chevalier’ began pursuing her; he was a newspaper editor and a social campaigner. She was to be entangled with him for a decade. Tom had been an outspoken political conservative while the Preux Chevalier was a political progressive. Exposed to a new world of ideas, Katharine’s politics was shifting to the left—she wasn’t a communist yet, but a patriotic reformist. One of the revelations I make in The Red Witch is the Preux Chevalier’s likely identity.
Katharine also changed career after her father’s death, following in his footsteps as a journalist. In 1908, New Idea commissioned her to conduct a series of interviews with celebrities in London and Paris. In 1911, when she returned to live in London, the Preux Chevalier moved, with his family, halfway across the world to be with her.
Turning thirty at the end of 1913, she decided to enter Hodder and Stoughton’s ₤1000 Novel Competition, having saved enough money to work on a novel for three months. She returned to her observations of Gippsland in her 1904 notebook and weaved a fast-paced novel about the nineteenth century settler-colonists of the area called The Pioneers. She was joint winner of the competition and The Pioneers was published in 1915.
In the meantime, the Great War had broken out and Katharine was initially a patriotic supporter. She returned to Melbourne in January 1916 and became involved with a radical playboy named Guido Baracchi. It was an unhappy relationship, but he introduced her to radical circles and she turned against the war.
Something was desperately wrong with the world and she looked to the Russian Revolution of 1917 for answers. At the end of that year,her brother, Alan, was killed in France. Soon after, she was betrayed by Guido one last time when he suddenly married another woman.
Katharine spent 1918 in a bush cottage, reading Marx, writing a new novel, Black Opal, and corresponding with a soldier she had met in London, Hugo Throssell. A horse-loving outdoors man who had been awarded the Victoria Cross, he came from a wealthy Western Australian family.
Hugo was sent home from the front late in the year and set his mind on wooing her. Wounded and devastated by the war, he told Katharine he was convinced by her radical politics and asked her to marry him. Impulsively, she agreed. They were married at the registry office in Melbourne on 28 January 1919, the day the city was quarantined by the Spanish flu epidemic. They set off to make their home in Western Australia.
Katharine thought she had found her happy ending, and for a time she was right. Yet she was to live another fifty years and there was more tragedy and more triumph to follow; the full story is told in The Red Witch.
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Melbourne University Press, 2022 (Release date 9 May)
Online launch – The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc
The book will be launched by Karen Throssell, poet, memoirist and granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
Host: Lisa Hill, ambassador for Australian literature and ANZ Litlovers blogger
Speaker: Dr Nathan Hollier, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing
Finishing with questions and discussion.
“Please join Nathan Hobby to celebrate the publication of
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (Miegunyah Press).
If possible, wear something red!
You may wish to drink a glass of dry sherry (Katharine’s favourite drink) or whatever else takes your fancy.” Lisa Hill (here)
Nathan’s PhD thesis at UWA was based on the writing of Prichard’s biography. We had planned to run an extract from the thesis here but were refused permission by The Red Witch’s publishers, so Nathan kindly wrote this introduction to Prichard’s early life to take its place. On Friday (15 April 2022) we will be running an editorial on Prichard from the Workers Star,1939.
Nathan Hobby is a Perth author, librarian and honorary research fellow at the University of Western Australia. His novel The Fur (Fremantle Press 2004) won the TAG Hungerford Award. He blogs at nathanhobby.com.