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

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.

Katharine Susannah Prichard, Christmas tree (#Review)

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, by May Moore (Presumed Public Domain, State Library of NSW)

Commenting on my recent post on Katharine Susannah Prichard’s short story “The bridge”, Prichard biographer Nathan Hobby, pointed us to an online version in Trove of her short story, “Christmas Tree”, which he describes as the best of her early work. It’s about farmers, droughts and banks. Seemed very appropriate (to us in Australia right now, anyhow) so of course I checked it out. (And I corrected the OCR-introduced errors while doing so – hope I caught them all.)

So, “Christmas tree”. Published in The Australasian in 1919, it was, according to writer Glen Phillips, the first of Prichard’s stories to be translated – into Chinese in the 1920s! Fascinating eh? It would be interesting to know who read it and what they made of it.

“Christmas tree” tells the story of Western Australian wheatbelt famers Jinny and George Gillard, and is told third person, primarily through the eyes of Jinny who, at the start, is standing at her back door, reminiscing about their thirty years on the farm. The story starts:

Against the dim blue of the summer sky the Christmas trees had thrown their blossoming crests; they lay along the horizon like a drift of clouds, fluted and curled, pure gold.

The trees stood irregularly in the dry, scrubby land of the plain beyond Gillard’s fences to the north of Laughing Lakes homestead. Their trunks were not visible from the backdoor of the house to where Jinny Gillard stood, her eyes on that distant line of yellow blossom. But she was not thinking of the dark, heavy trees which put on an appearance of such opulent beauty at Christmas time. Her thoughts glanced from them and wandered listlessly, ravelling and unravellin, fretted, anxious, thoughts, old hopes, despairs, bitter, weary, and faint, sweet memories.

This year’s crops were, in fact, better than they had been for years, but it’s all too late – it is not they who will be benefiting from this year’s wheat but the bank.

It’s a sad story, but realistic rather than melodramatic. It’s about hard work and bad luck. Jinny knows they are not the only ones who have struggled. Some have had better luck than George who had sown “lightly when a good season happened along, or heavily when the rain kept off, and so had lost both ways” but some are also in George and Jinny’s predicament. The second part of the story concerns a Christmas party underwritten by one Christopher Tregear, who was chairman of the Great Western’s board of directors and “supposed to be one of the wealthiest men in the State”. Many farmers did business with Great Western, “thinking Tregear’s position in it would guarantee them from harsh treatment. But it had not.” Not for George, not for many others, and yet, here they all are, sees Jinny, dancing and singing with him, though “he was not a good friend of theirs.” Of course, we don’t get Tregear’s point of view, but there’s a sense that with the good season coming, compromises could have been reached.

This story is enjoyable on several fronts. Its realism means it conveys the facts without the histrionics that can sometimes distance readers. The realism also makes more effective the underlying theme that with more loyalty and less greed from the men with money, more farmers could survive the bad seasons. But it’s also enjoyable because of the tight, focused writing – from the sly irony behind the parasitic Christmas trees, and the names of the Gillards’ properties, Laughing Lakes and Everlasting, through the evocative descriptive writing, to the pointed repetition of the Gillards’ mantra “Crack hardy … I’m crackin'”.

“Christmas tree” is a story that hasn’t dated. It’s as relevant now as it was 100 years ago when it was first published – stoicism and dignity never go out of date, and we are still challenged by the role capitalist structures play in people’s lives and livelihoods. Another good read from Prichard – but that’s not surprising.

AWW Badge 2018Katharine Susannah Prichard
“Christmas tree”
First published: The Australasian, 20 December 1919
Also published in Potch and colour, Angus & Robertson, 1944
Available: Online at Trove

Apology: I posted this an hour or so ago with the wrong short story title, so have deleted that post, and republished with the right title, otherwise we’ll all get confused (including Google!)

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The bridge (#Review)

Time for another post on a short story available online, but not, this time, from the Library of America. Indeed, it’s not even American, but one of our own – Katharine Susannah Prichard’s (KSP) “The bridge”. As far as I can tell it has been published at least three times: in 1917 in the Weekly Times Annual; in 1940 in The ABC Weekly, which is where I found it; and in 1944 in a collection titled Potch and colour, about which Prichard biographer Nathan Hobby has posted.

Writing about Potch and colour, Hobby says that

Katharine wrote some incredible short stories. I would go as far as to say that I think the form suited her better than the novel, even if she is not as remembered for it. This collection mainly includes stories originally published in journals after her first collection, Kiss On the Lips (1932), but the first appearance of some of them still needs to be established. One story, at least, is quite early – “The Bridge”; I found a newspaper copy of it on Trove from 1917 (unfortunately, it’s not one of her “incredible” stories…).

Hobby then identifies three short stories from the collection as particularly worth commenting on. The first is titled “The siren on Sandy’s Gap” and Hobby says it “manages to be both humorous and an astute critique of marriage.” It’s about Susan – the siren – and her refusal to do “what they [men] say.” The second, “Flight”, is about the forced removal of mixed-race Aboriginal children from their homes, and the third, “The Christmas tree”, is about banks failing wheatfarmers during the Depression.

Now, before I get to “The bridge” a little from KSP herself. In 1967, Angus and Robertson published Happiness: Selected short stories by Katharine Susannah Prichard. It includes two of Hobby’s favourite stories from Potch and colour, but not “The bridge”. Most interesting, though, is Prichard’s Foreword. She talks of her various inspirations, including Thomas Carlyle, and says that Guy de Maupassant’s “Contes Normands” gave her “the short story technique, which, more or less unconsciously” influenced her story telling.

Defending herself against a criticism of her “loose and slipshod English”, she says that she purposefully used “the living speech of our people … making the context of a sentence give the meaning of an unusual word or phrase.” She quotes a Professor Holme who praises her style as responding to the need of her characters, and Nettie Palmer’s statement that her writing “made us remember that there was nothing so well worth writing about as the loves, conflicts, and sufferings of our own people”. Including all this in her short Foreword suggests that she felt the need to defend herself. Anyhow, she concludes with:

All the stories were inspired by an intimate sympathy with men and women in the comedy and tragedy of their lives.

So, “The bridge.” It’s not, perhaps, “incredible”, but it is moving – and reminds me, a little, of some stories by Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. It’s a brief story about the building of a bridge in southeast Victoria by a young man called Bryant and his off-sider Charley. The main action concerns the opening of the bridge, and the wedding that takes place immediately afterwards.

The story commences with Bryant and Charley reminiscing about some of the challenges they faced in building the bridge. It had taken a year to build, and without any loss of life:

“They’ve got a notion in some parts of the world, a life’s got to go into a bridge if she’s to going to wear,” he [Bryant] mused. “I’m mighty glad no one’s been killed or hurt on our bridge, Charley … and she’s a good bridge … as good a little wooden bridge as there is in the country.”

However, a flood crisis had threatened the bridge. To save it, Bryant needed horses but local farmer Joe Gaines would not help out – until Bryant tried a bit of psychology involving a pretty young woman working in Gaines’ kitchen. He got his horses, but at a great cost to that young woman, unbeknownst to him but discovered by Charley later at the wedding.

It’s a tight little story – about single-minded ambition and sexual jealousy set against female generosity and sacrifice – with a sting in the tail that ironically comments on Bryant’s belief about his bridge. I can see the influence of Guy de Maupassant here – and Prichard’s interest in the lives of women. You can read it at the link below.

AWW Badge 2018Katharine Susannah Prichard
“The bridge”
First published: Weekly Times Annual, 3 November 1917
Also published in The ABC Weekly, 24 August 1940, and in the collection,
Potch and colour, Angus & Robertson, 1944
Available: Online at Trove

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The pioneers


Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, 1927/8, by May Moore (Courtesy: State Library of NSW, via Wikimedia Commons)

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
The pioneers
Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2010 [first ed. 1915]
ISBN: 9789810848804

NOTE: An ebook version of the novel is available at Project Gutenberg.