Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

Last week, I attended the online launch of Nathan Hobby’s biography, The red witch: A biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. It was beautifully emceed by Lisa Hill, of ANZLitLovers, and involved three speakers, Karen Throssell, award-winning poet and the only grandchild of Prichard; Nathan Hollier, the publisher; and, of course, the author himself, Nathan Hobby.

A brief intro

Katharine Susannah Prichard
KSP, 1927/8 (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) has to be among Australia’s most interesting and significant writers. I first read her in my teens when, keen on civil rights and concerned about racial discrimination, I read her novel Coonardoo. I loved it, though I’m sure my response was naive and typical of those earnest times. However, I never forgot Prichard.

She wrote thirteen novels, a memoir, plays, reportage, poetry and short stories. She won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition with The Pioneers (1915) (my review), and in 1929, Coonardoo shared the Bulletin’s Novel prize with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, which brought her notoriety that dogged her through life.

So much is known about her, and yet so little, because, although we have her son’s Ric’s 1975 biography, Wild weeds and wind flowers, there has not been a comprehensive biography – until now.

The launch

Before I share the highlights of the launch, I’ll reiterate a comment I made on my post on contemporary responses to Coonardoo, because it speaks to the challenges faced by KSP researchers. I wrote:

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.

It is truly astonishing how often her name was – and still is – got wrong.

So now, the launch …

After the usual introductory comments and acknowledgement of country, Lisa introduced the three speakers, and then were were off, starting with Karen Throssell who had the honours of formally launching the book.

Karen referred to the title, suggesting the word “witch” connotes independent women who defy convention, which accurately captures her grandmother. (An aside, I remember when Nathan asked us bloggers to vote on the titles he was considering for his planned biography, long before he had a publisher. None of them was The red witch, but what an inspired title it is.)

Anyhow, Karen went on to read her poem “My fairy godmother” about her doting gran, the “wild Bohemian”, KSP. She mentioned the challenge over the years of protecting her family’s reputation, referencing her recently published book about her father, The crime of not knowing your crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO.

Karen then turned to Nathan’s biography. She initially feared he was focused on some of the personal secrets in Prichard’s life, but was pleased that his biography does, in fact, focus on KSP’s intellectual and political ideas more than her “private peccadillos”. What she likes most about the biography is Nathan’s detailing the “journey of the individual books” including KSP’s travel to the places in which her books were set. She also likes his coverage of the various books’ reception, particularly of Coonardoo, which she described as an “act of literary empathy”.

She declared the book launched and the floor (or screen) was handed over to Melbourne University Press’s publisher, Nathan Hollier. He spoke briefly, noting that early reviews had praised Nathan’s “capacity to write and tell a story … with felicity … without overt authorial intrusion”. Books, he said, are not ephemeral, and he believes this one will stand test of time as a resource for literature, culture, history, and Australians generally.

Then it was Nathan Hobby’s turn. After introductory acknowledgements, he got onto talking about the process and challenges of writing the biography. Given the reputational issues that have dogged KSP’s family, he said he had been apprehensive because he was aware of the pain that had been caused to the family by scholars and others.

He was grateful that the publisher let him go to 150,000 words. (As we bloggers who followed the project on Nathan’s blog for several years know, this was still a challenge, because he was initially keen on a three-volume biography. But, I suspect it’s a good decision, and maybe Nathan can now write a bunch of articles using all those treasures he had to cut!)

He talked about the value of the Internet for modern research, praising, in particular, Trove. It was especially useful for him as a Western Australian, and even more when the pandemic and travel restrictions hit. It would be utopia, he said, to have all of Australia’s archives digitised. Yes!

Nathan talked a little about the art of writing biography, and referred to some other biographers, but I didn’t catch the names. He talked about the challenge of resolving contradictions in your subject, and quoted one writer – if I’ve got this right – as describing biography as the “art of human betrayal in words”. In terms of writing his own, he said he had to juggle the constant tension between the chronological and the thematic. He also talked about the style of biography which involves the “biographer on a quest”. He suggested this works well when there is not much material, such as Brian Matthews’ Louisa, on Louisa Lawson, but this was not a problem he faced with KSP! He said that his aim was to show “a lived life”.

Oh, and he thanked all his supporters for their encouragement and camaraderie.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’m just sharing some:

  • On deciding what to cut and what to keep in the editing: his criteria were how the material related to the bigger picture, its literary and political significance, and whether it explained who she was and/or her work
  • His favourite KSP work: perhaps Coonardoo, but he also has a soft spot for the Wild oats of Han. KSP saw The roaring nineties as her most important work.
  • On what KSP would make of Russia today: Russia is not really a Communist nation today; he can’t see she’d like Russia or Putin.
  • Most exciting moment: many Eureka moments, often little things like finding a grocery receipt from their honeymoon in Hugo Throssell’s papers.
  • Most challenging moment: different types of challenges, such as technical ones in accessing material, and writing ones like determining a structure.
  • Difference in public reception of KSP and Jean Devanny (from academic Carole Ferrier): Devanny would probably answer in terms of class. Ferrier commented on the rivalry between the two: Devanny felt KSP had been “taken up” by the Community Party. KSP’s image was “respectable” whilst Devanny’s was “disreputable”. Ferrier said the women encompass some of the issues faced by women as revolutionaries.

A big thanks to all for a smoothly-run and engaging launch. Now to read the book …

Further reading

41 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The Red Witch

  1. Thanks for this, Sue. I had so wanted to attend this launch only to discover I had the day wrong! I was a day late. I have a good excuse for the brain fog though because it turns out I was coming down with covid (tested positive on Friday and now in isolation). I had never heard of KSP until I repatriated and I recently read Coonardoo and loved it (with caveats). I have since tracked down some of her other novels and plan on reading them soonish.

    • What a shame kimbofo – for missing the launch and getting COVID. I hope you aren’t too sick.

      I need (want) to read more KSP too. Anyhow, I hope your isolating is going ok. What a change in our lives this disease has wrought.

    • Oh no! As you know, I was always going to fly over for the launch, but Nathan warned me off. He said Covid was everywhere… and #wail now it’s got one of my friends and I’m too far away to be part of Team Kim looking after you. Take care!

        • I’m hibernating until after the winter wave….
          Which is a shame, because Perth is a lovely place to be in Winter. When The Offspring was working there, I would fly over to see him in Winter, and he didn’t even need a heater in his flat. #FondMemories of outdoor café coffees and books…

        • It’s a great place for winter. Actually, weather wise it would be my preferred place to live in Australia … it’s just so darned far from family and friends.

      • Thanks, Lisa, Nathan was wise to warn you off. I have been so exceedingly careful for two years… have had no social life and spent a lot of time in my flat staying safe and keeping myself occupied. At work I had my own office so I could control who I came into contact with. But then I got a new job in an open plan office and even though I kept wearing my mask indoors when they removed the mandate I still got sick. I am the last one in my team of 7 to get it… it’s basically been one after the other since I started in mid-April. The only good thing is that I should be fully recovered when my sister arrives for a long weekend in June.

        • Wow kimbofo … I’m not quite sure how we’ve avoided as we have been going out and about, and not always wearing masks, but I guess we are not at workplaces or out and about at crowded times. I figure it’s a matter of time before most people get it.

          I’m glad the timing will work out for your sister. That would have been a bummer if you were isolating when your sister arrived. I hope you have a great visit.

  2. Thanks for taking part, Sue! You’ve been a companion on the journey since early on. I had forgotten some of these aspects, so it’s great to have this post. The Leon Edel quote was ‘portrayal’ rather than ‘betrayal’, but the latter makes it move interesting!

    • Haha Nathan … that’s why Google couldn’t find it. Usually I can find quotes from my notes on enemy’s like these! I did think “betrayal” was a bit weird though not completely bizarre!

      I really enjoyed those early years of blogging and following your journey. I see I have a mention in your Acknowledgments. That’s lovely of you.

      Anyhow I will fix the quote but leave my mishearing there as well!

  3. What a joy it was! Not sure if you saw me Sue … but I saw you (and great to see Lisa again too). I even dragged hubby in. We found some red scarves and sipped a sherry. Nathan was extremely interesting to listen to and I have just today managed to get the book on Kindle. Of course, ‘in person’ events are always fun but, I must say, but Lisa did a great job of hosting and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

    • No, I didn’t see you Karenlee but I saw your question pop up so I knew you were there. I forgot the red and sherry suggestion, because I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend. I saw it as I was writing up this post and was checking Lisa’s announcement. I have some lovely sherry glasses too!

  4. I absolutely love e-events like these, though if I ignore my cat too long because I’m sitting at my computer, she bravely chooses to poke me in the armpit. How fun that you’ve all been following Nathan for so long. This post almost makes me think of the birth of a baby that everyone anticipated.

  5. Thanks for the lovely wrap up post Sue. It was lovely to see you and Lisa sitting inside the little rectangular box on my screen and how wonderful for Nathan to finally see his ‘baby’ moving out into the world. Luckily my copy turned up that day at work, so I was able to browse through it as everyone spoke. It’s a glorious publilcation. Miegunyah Press have done a magnificent job – it’s a real keepsake edition. And I also noted Nathan’s lovely acknowledgement of you, Lisa, Bill, Karenlee and Michelle. How marvellous that 2 of the 6 now have published bio’s!

    • Thanks Brona … I knew you were there but you weren’t on my screen. You are right that Miegunyah/MUP have done a great job. But don’t look took me to raise the ante from two to three!

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