Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary responses to Coonardoo

Book cover

Ask and you shall receive, they say, and so when Lisa (ANZLitLovers) expressed interest in what Prichard’s contemporaries thought of her novel Coonardoo, I thought I’d love to know too. However, I’m sure Nathan Hobby will cover this in some detail in his upcoming biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I don’t want spoil that, so will keep this to a brief survey of some of the reactions I found in Trove.

First though I was horrified by the frequency with which Prichard’s name was spelt incorrectly. This must have driven Hobby mad in his research. She is frequently written as KathErine, not KathArine, and occasionally Catherine, and even Kathleen. Really? Then, there’s her last name, which was often reported as PriTchard not Prichard. It must have driven HER mad too, at the time. Sometimes, too, her married name, Mrs Hugo Throssell, is used.

Because I was looking for contemporary responses, I narrowed my search to 1928 to 1930, covering the time when Coonardoo won the Bulletin Prize (shared with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built). Most of the pieces I read came from literary and book pages (or B.P.s), with a couple of more extended articles or reviews, and one or two letters to the editor to round out the response!

Humourless and sordid

I’ll start with the comments relating to ideas about what literature should be, or, should not be: it should not be, many argued, grim, humourless or sordid. Heaven forbid, it seems, that writers address society’s serious issues. Much better to entertain with romance and humour. Of course, those can leaven serious books, I know, but we shouldn’t eschew grim pieces – Barbara Baynton is a good example – which can make important points.

A.T.C., writing in Perth’s Sunday Times (27 January 1929), calls Coonardoo “sordid and utterly destitute of romance”. Socialist and journalist S.A. Rosa writing in The Labor Daily (10 August 1929) was also critical:

Both Coonardoo and Hugh wasted their lives. Why? Is it really necessary, too, that there should be a persistent atmosphere of gloom in a novel dealing with Australian life in the interior? Is there no humor in such a life?

In Perth’s The Daily News (3 August 1929, the Books and Authors writer compares Coonardoo unfavourably with its Bulletin prize-winning mate:

‘A House Is Built’ is the more enjoyable, and the more robustly Australian than the sun-dried desolation of Katharine Prichard’s unhappy story of the North-West.

There are more, including “Austral” in Adelaide’s The Advertiser (4 September 1929):

I, at any rate, have never read a book which combines so much dreariness, sordidness, and monotony with such an utter lack of humor.

 Not all were so negative, however. The West Australian‘s (27 July 1929) Book Reviews page writer accepts that “there is a good deal that is undeniably squalid” in Prichard’s image of station life in the North-West, but argues that there is also great descriptive beauty and profound knowledge of “the Australian aboriginal in his native state”. (See below for more on this issue.)


Closely related to the above criticisms, and often contained in the same article, were accusations that the book is not representative of the bush. Some of these express concern that books like Coonardoo gave a bad impression of Australia for overseas readers, particularly the English. They are defensive about Australia, wanting to maintain the notion of “the wonderful personality of the outback man, his unbounded generosity, his unconventional hospitality, his self-sacrificing bravery and unostentatious generosity” (Capricornian, 10 October 1929).

A.T.C. (mentioned above) comments in the same piece on the Coonardoo‘s being published:

There should be a foreword in the book pointing out that it is but a phase of life in the North-west of Western Australia, and does not picture the real white social existence in that part of WA. It deals with the natives and their contact with rather dissolute whites … The pity of it is that a book of this nature will be accepted in England as typical of the country …

Similarly, the writer in Rockhampton’s The Capricornian (25 July 1929), quotes a friend in England, “a journalist of no mean order and a clever writer of book reviews”: 

‘If that is the class of story that is going to win the big Australian prizes I think it’s a darn bad advertisement for Australia, and Australians generally, and I’ll be frank, give me the failures rather than another “Coonardoo.” I would hesitate to think all Aussies were like the hero, or treated the natives so, and from comments heard from moving about amongst people, it does not appeal. It opens strongly but its end is woeful, almost disgusting.”

The aforementioned “Austral” picks up this theme too:

Australian life is not the dreary, hopeless affair outsiders are given to understand it to be, nor are our outback people the cheerless, despondent creatures such as some of our writers seem to delight in depicting. It is a pity that this type of literature should be given to the world as typical of the life and people of our glorious country, and I for one, being Australian born, of Australian parents, feel exceedingly resentful of the slurs which are cast upon both our country and our people.

“Austral” goes on to criticise Australian writers who ignore “the beauty and wonders of our great continent, the courage, cheerful optimism, and achievement of its outback people” to focus on “the gloomy, the sordid, and the depressing”.

It appears that there was some excited discussion among the B.P.s about Prichard’s depiction of “half-castes”, with various columnists weighing in with (unsupported) “facts”. One in The Capricornian (19 September 1929) argued that

One man of this class is often responsible for the existence of perhaps, a dozen or more half-castes, so why write a book that may lead strangers to believe the practice is common? Further, the book is devoid of humour and a book to be really entertaining must have, at least, a little humour. Mrs. Gunn’s “We of the Never Never” is absolutely true to life. It also has a vein of humour and there is not even the most delicate hint of such a being as the half-caste. 

Who said a book has to be “entertaining” (however we define that overused word)?

Again, not everyone agreed. The Ladies Realm writer (Adelaide’s Chronicle, 1 August 1929) claims that “the story is a truthful reflection of the lot of the pastoralist when seasons are against him”. Similarly, HH Ryall, in Sydney’s Evening News (12 October 1929), says

Brutal, lecherous individuals exist in every country where white men live among black, brown, or yellow. But then, so do others, who understand them, and play fair. […]

Australians should be proud of Mrs. Prichard’s effort to interpret for the outside world this outback phase of their country’s development. “We of the Never Never” left a fragrant memory. “Coonardoo” is not a pleasant sequel, but it is a story that demanded to be written.

On the “natives”

This brings me to commentary on Prichard’s treatment of Indigenous Australians in her book, but first it’s worth mentioning that Prichard’s research primarily comprised observation of station life, and information from white men. She is quoted:

‘About two years ago, […] I spent some time on an isolated cattle station in the NorthWest, and took the opportunity of gaining material for my book by studying the natives at close quarters. I wished to be as accurate as possible, and obtained very valuable help from Mr. Ernest Mitchell, inspector of aborigines for the whole of this State. Mr. Mitchell has been closely associated with the blacks for 30 years or more and is a recognised authority on the subject.’

She also says in this article that she “benefited by the long experience of Mr. James Withnell, a well known squatter, who had helped her with particulars of native songs and folk-lore. Through his aid she had been able to obtain the actual words of aboriginal songs, always a difficult task, and had incorporated such songs in her story.”

An “inspector of aborigines” and a “squatter”. This would not, of course, be acceptable now.

Some of the commentary is shocking, such as:

  • the previously cited SA Rosa who suggested that “it may be that it is easier to plumb the depth of the character of a member of a primitive race than of a race more complex”.
  • the previously cited Ladies Realm article which comments that “the lot of Coonardoo is sad reading at the last, but her young days reflect the childishly happy mind of the contented aboriginal”.
  • “Bush-Woman” who wrote in a letter to the editor in Adelaide’s Register (27 December 1928) that “at present there is far too much rash, sentimental sympathy for the blacks. Taken en masse, they are talking animals with a fair sprinkling of the types depicted in Coonardoo, which it takes a couple of generations of careful handling and working to produce. 

Not everyone thought like this, however. The West Australian (10 May 1930) quotes from a review in The New York Times, including this:

Nevertheless, ‘Coonardoo’ stands as a forceful piece of social documentation and bids fair to do for Australia what ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ did for America, and Mrs. Millin is doing for South Africa— to make the white race face the facts of its treatment and study of the black descendants of the aborigines, through an authentic piece of national literature which raises a parochial problem to the level of the universal.

Finally, there’s our own Nettie Palmer who, in an extended essay on the state of Australian literature, included a paragraph on Coonardoo, commenting that in all the books she discussed, there was “hardly … a glance at the aboriginal life of Australia. It remained,” she writes, “for Katharine Prichard, in her Coonardoo, to experiment with this theme”.

This is a superficial response to Lisa, but that’s ok, because Nathan Hobby is coming! We just have to be patient a little longer. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed this little taste of what the popular media, at least, was saying.

A belated contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 3 Week.

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary responses to Coonardoo

  1. I like HH Ryall “a story that demanded to be written”. I’m pleased too about the comparisons with We of the Never Never. We tend to forget what a popular and influential book that was, its saccharine treatment giving cover to ongoing dispossession and murder. And thank you NYT for a global perspective.

    I said after Lisa’s post that I’d be interested to know Ion Idriess’s dates. Coonardoo (1929) is first. Idriess’s are Drums of Mer (1933), Nermarluk (1941), Outlaws of the Leopolds (1952), and The Red Chief (1953).

    Not very belated – I relaxed after work and won’t write my Gen 3 Week summary till the morning (Tues, Aust time) – and very germane. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Bill. Just about to turn the light out – glad it’s not too late (the post I mean, not my bedtime!)

      I could have written another thousand words on this, following various tangents, but let’s see what Nathan says in his book. There were for example a few refs to Gunn’s book, and a couple to Uncle Tom’s cabin, plus Canadian and South African books.

      Still going with Harrower. So delicious but so little time to read (particularly if I try to also do MMs like this,

      Anyhow, I look forward to your summation. Hull be interesting …

    • I expect he will, Lisa! There were some more positive ones, but comparatively they were few.

      I nearly concluded with one from 1933 which said it had its place in 20th century literature, but I didn’t have time to explore the mid 1930s to see if that was representative of a change.

  2. This is a brilliant post – all that historical commentary and wounded pride for the national reputation. And how clever to start on the spelling of her name – Katharine and Prichard! Nowadays we know so much about Mr A.O.Neville (Chief Protector of Aborigines in WA) and the removal of all children from their mothers – the children clearly of mixed (and paternal) heritage (the word usually used – now we’d directly suggest DNA). Philip Noyce and the story by Doris PIlkington Garimara of their 1931 vast travel on foot following the fence line to get back home to Jigalong (over 1500 kms – from the Moore River Native Settlement) in the film “Rabbit Proof Fence”! Hideous times – still not properly over, either… Archie Roach still needed for his terrible song “Took the Children Away”…

    • Thanks Jim. So glad you liked the post. I really enjoyed doing it, and could have gone on a lot more!! I wish there were more by-lines for them – and more by-lines I could decipher (A.T.C.). I expect Nathan might have deciphered more as I suspect it’s possible with more digging.

  3. Gosh, ST – not much to be enjoyed in “this little taste of what the popular media, at least, was saying”, eh ?! But as so much emanates from Perth, my home town, I’m not surprised ..

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  5. It is always interesting to go back and look at initial impressions of famous books

    The comments about seriousness and literature are fascinating in themselves. I think that all kinds of literature works including the serious and grim.

  6. Fascinating. Trove really is a treasure trove. Long may funding flow to it.

    I read the Billabong books and the Never Never book aged about 11 and Coonardoo in my teens. I must pull out my copies and see how I feel about them now.
    I shall look out for the new biography. Thank you for flagging it, whispering gums.

    • Thanks Gay, it truly is, isn’t it. And besides the content, I get a kick out of seeing how our language has changed – vocabulary, spelling etc – over just a few decades.

      Yep, I read the Billabong books in those late primary years, and Coonardoo in my teens. Can’t recollect exactly when I read We of the Never Never. I feel I should read (some of) them again too.

  7. Hi Sue, it is interesting to note the difference in opinions from then, in between and to now. In my book An Outline of Australian Literature – H M Green, 1930 edition. It says: “Coonardoo seems to be under-rated, perhaps because it did not show at the best in serial form and was not thoroughly understood. Besides, there are people who will judge a book according as it gives or no (know) what they consider an attractive view of Australia. Whereas, in my book Australian Literature – Cecil Hadgraft, 1960 Edition says “.. The best novel she has written… where the theme has not permitted her to preach her political creed….Passages remain in the memory after the book is closed……It is a sort of legend. Coonardoo, the heroine, not really a picture of a person, of a black woman, is simply black woman: and the the novel has a power to give atmosphere vaguely defined, indefinitely felt.

    • Thanks very much for sharing these two assessments Meg. I guess this sort of disparity is particularly likely with books whose subject matter is (or was at the time they were written) controversial. I like Hadgraft’s liking it because it doesn’t “preach her political creed”.

  8. I noticed the Katharine/Katherine discrepancy too while I was researching Han…certainly makes you wonder.

    Trove is such a treasure for providing you with the means of putting together such an interesting time capsule of Aust thinking.

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