Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is probably not as well-known in Australia, let alone internationally, as she should be. She was born in Fiji, but grew up in Tasmania and Melbourne, travelled overseas and in other parts of Australia, before settling in Western Australia in 1919. She was a founding member of the Australian Communist Party (1920) and also of the Western Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Politics and literature, then, were the twin passions of her life. Her most famous novel and the only one I’d read until now, Coonardoo (1929), was remarkable in its time for its exploration of the relationship between white men and black women.
I don’t usually commence a review with a biography, but it felt appropriate in this case – partly because she is so little known despite her significance and partly because her politics were an intrinsic part of her literature. In the foreword to my new edition of the book, her granddaughter describes Prichard’s values as:
a huge love of and respect for the bush; the importance of living your life with integrity; of caring and fighting for the underdog; of holding strong principles and remaining true to them; and of embracing life with passion.
These values are evident in The pioneers, her first novel which won the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australasia in 1915. She went on to write over thirty works, including novels, plays, short stories and poetry. But, perhaps that’s enough prelude for now – on with the book.
It’s a simple tale really, plot-wise. It starts with a couple, Donald and Mary Cameron, arriving by wagon in an unsettled area of Gippsland (in eastern Victoria) in the early-mid nineteenth century. They clear the land, build a home and establish a successful farm. Very early in the story, while Donald is away getting supplies, Mary is “visited” by two desperate men, Dan Farrell and Steve. A tricky situation for a woman on her own but she manages to win them over and they leave her, unharmed. The novel tells the story of these people – and the others who move into the district – over the next two decades or so, as they work to make lives for themselves, some honestly and some not so. There are archetypal characters here – the hard-working, tough, taciturn farmer; the loving, but wise and stoical wife; the loyal but unappreciated-by-his-father son; and more. There are escaped convicts, cattle rustlers, and a thoroughly bad man.
This may all make it sound rather typical and a bit melodramatic. And, in fact, it does have its melodrama. But the book is more than this. Its overriding style, or approach, is social realism, as Prichard explores the hopes and wishes of a new country struggling to come to terms with its origins and forge a more positive future. Her style is not particularly innovative and, while the combination of social realism and melodrama is appropriate for a novel set in the nineteenth century, the melodrama was a little discordant to my modern ears. Take this, for example:
It was as if that encounter in the valley of shadows had brushed all misunderstandings from the love that was like the sun between them. Deirdre had wrestled with death for possession of him.
A contemporary review suggested that the romance – which drives most of the melodrama – was included primarily to attract readers who may not be interested in the history. This could very well be so.
Despite not being particularly innovative, Prichard’s writing is sure and shows that while this was her first novel she’d been honing her craft for some time. I particularly loved her language. It is gorgeously descriptive. She perfectly captures the paradox of a place that is both beautiful and harsh – and effectively conveys the physical and emotional impact of the landscape:
The bright hours were rent by the momentary screeching and chatter of parroquets, as they flew, spreading the red, green and yellow of their breasts against the blue sky. At sunset and dawn there were merry melodious flutings, long, sweet, mating-calls, carollings and bursts of husky, gnomish laughter. Yet the silence remained, hovering and swallowing insatiably every sound.
The plot, as I’ve suggested, is a little melodramatic and fairly predictable but it’s a well-told tale, nonetheless, of good forces fighting bad, of compromises that are sometimes made, and of bad judgement calls that come back to bite you. The characters, while tending to archetype, are nonetheless real so that you believe them and their various plights. There is, I think, something reminiscent of Dickens here.
The themes reflect very much the values identified by her granddaughter in the foreword. The main characters are imbued with a strong sense of principles that they try to live by. When Mary meets the convicts early in the novel, she says:
But if you will believe the truth it is this: My heart is with you and all like you.
In her twenties, Prichard apparently met the Austrian sociologist, Rudolph Broda, who introduced her to the ideas of socialism and suggested that, as a new country, Australia was leading the world in social legislation. This idea is reflected in the novel. Early on, Mary says to Donald:
It’s a new country and a new people we’re making, they said at home, and I’m realising what they meant now.
Little did she know, then, what this “making” would really involve but defining “a new country” is clearly the goal Prichard set for herself. The novel concludes by suggesting that the new generation will
be a pioneer of paths that will make the world a better, happier place for everyone to live in.
Corny? Or aspirational? Take your pick … but whichever way you see it, this novel makes a significant contribution to the development of the Australian psyche, to our transition from colonial convict-fearing past to an independent self-realised future. I am glad it has been re-released and hope that more people read it.
Katharine Susannah Prichard
Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2010 [first ed. 1915]
NOTE: An ebook version of the novel is available at Project Gutenberg.