‘The Red Witch’ by Nathan Hobby

2022, 385 p & notes

Near the end of her life, the author Katharine Susannah Prichard was sorting through her papers and correspondence, threatening to burn “while there’s still time”. Her friend Catherine Duncan wrote back to her

I can understand that you should want to put a time limit on giving students access to personal papers, but in fifty years, dearest Kattie, the KSP you are now will have become someone else- she will have escaped you…Perhaps in the end it’s better to surrender the truth to posterity rather than allow one’s self to be deformed by supposition.

p.378

Well, fifty years have passed and here is Nathan Hobby’s biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. I wonder what KSP would think of it? She was, after all, very conscious of posterity and it was the attempt of early biographer Cyril Cook to apply a Freudian lens to her biography that led her to write her own autobiography Child of the Hurricane. Time and politics have not been kind to some aspects of her legacy: for example, Coonardoo needs to be read within the time it was written and would never appear on school reading lists today, and her staunchly pro-Stalinist political views, controversial then, would appeal to an even smaller group of adherents now. But I think that she would embrace the roundedness of Hobby’s biography, which combines beautifully the personal, the literary and most importantly, the political in presenting her life.

What a complex thing it is, constructing a person’s personal life from the outside and at fifty years’ remove! What she herself said about her relationships with men, and what her son, who was her literary executor, might have written are not necessarily what an outsider decades later might have said. What we think or write ourselves about our relationships (retrospectively in a memoir, or contemporaneously in correspondence) is refracted by our need to have an emotional coherence to the story we tell ourselves and others about our choices and actions. A biographer looks for coherence too, but is more tolerant of ambiguity and inconsistency. And so, Prichard’s relationship with the older married man William Reay reads now as a compromised, rather questionable entanglement, the relationship with Guido Barracci is tinged with betrayal and her dalliance with Hugh McCrae seems opaque and puzzling. Reading from the outside, her marriage with Hugh Throssell seems an enigma. To the end of her life, in her letters to her son and friends, she declared her love for him and mourned his ongoing absence in her life. Yet they seemed to share little of her literary life (although it did sustain them financially), they spent quite a bit of time apart, the family suffered on account of his financial ineptness and I suspect that Hugh was never as politically active as she wanted him to be. Did the circumstances of his death colour the story she told herself about her marriage? And then there are her other friendships. What was it like to be her friend? There are obvious falling-outs with many friends, despite the effusiveness and overtly literary tenor of her correspondence.

To be honest, I was completely unaware that she had written so much. Certainly, this was her working job, and, especially during the Depression years and later, she needed the money from her novels, short stories and newspaper stories. But this is a lifelong job, and the to-and-fro with publishers and editors continued throughout. Competitions play a bigger part in her writing life than I would have imagined, although I guess awards (a ‘competition’ under another name?) play a similar role in our literary scene. She received a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant in 1941, but I am not at all surprised that the security service recommended in future that the names of applicants for fellowships be submitted to them “for comment” to prevent any other writers with Katharine’s political leanings from being considered. A literary biography needs to accommodate both readers familiar with the subject’s works, and those who have not read them at all. I felt that Hobby did well, giving enough of the flavour of her work for those unfamiliar with it, drawing together his own evaluations with those of readers at the time, but not labouring the work either. That said, the only one of Prichard’s works that I am tempted to read after reading this biography is the goldfields saga (The Roaring Nineties; Golden Miles and Winged Seeds). Her frequent trips to the places in which she set her novels reflects her emphasis on authenticity (within limits, of course), although the outback seems to held more allure than urban settings.

The strongest part of this biography, as reflected in the title The Red Witch, is Hobby’s examination of her politics, which enriched but complicated her life enormously. It seems to me that she projected her political commitments onto her husband Hugh, who showed only fitful involvement in politics. She both gained and lost friends through differences of political opinions. Her politics could have cruelled her career (her receipt of a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant probably stymied the chances of Communist writers who followed her) and certainly many readers and reviewers felt that the vehemence of her politics straitened her novels. Her unshakeable admiration of Stalin, when so many other colleagues dropped away, can be variously read as loyal, steadfast, inflexible or willfully blind. But her politics were so interwoven with her friendships and her writings that it is impossible to cut them out and make a judgement of her life and writings without them.

The book is arranged in five chronological parts: Kattie 1883-1907; Freewoman 1907-1919; Mrs Throssell 1919-1933; Comrade 1934-1949; Katya 1950-1969. Within each part there are multiple chapters- possibly a few too many, when some were as little as seven pages in length. The preface plays the part of the literature review, and is probably the most evident sign of the PhD thesis that preceded this book. I really enjoyed the Afterword, set in Prichard’s former home in Greenmount W.A. in 2019 when the author comes on stage properly. Nathan Hobby has been present in the book throughout, especially in his appraisals of Katharine’s writing, but it has always been behind the scenes, which is the way I prefer it. But I was glad that he stepped forward at the end.

He has been well-served by Miegunyah Press, which has given him expansive footnotes, an excellent index and a bibliography as well- something that is much appreciated instead of having to hunt through footnotes for the first reference to a source. The footnotes reveal the rich archive of correspondence that underpins Hobby’s work, and the variety of newspaper sources from which has drawn.

It is probably true that, as Catherine Duncan predicted, some fifty years after her death, ‘KSP’ has become someone else but I think that she would recognize herself in this book. The KSP of the future may have escaped her, but I don’t think that she escaped Nathan Hobby. He has presented her to us in all her aspects – as lover, mother, wife, comrade, writer, companion and public figure – with diligence, empathy and tempered admiration. No subject could ask more of her biographer.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: review copy Melbourne University Press

One response to “‘The Red Witch’ by Nathan Hobby

  1. I love your summing up at the end of this review, Janine.
    But can I not persuade you to read some of her other novels? I think the trilogy is brilliant, but I enjoyed reading Haxby’s Circus, or Black Opal more.

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