Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2017

The Black Opal, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Black Opal, by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), has been on my radar since I read Haxby’s Circus (see my review), so I was pleased to stumble on it at my local library.  Prichard’s third novel, Black Opal was written shortly after she had spent some time at Lightning Ridge in outback New South Wales, the black opal capital of the world, (or so they say).   The library copy was not the 1921 1946 hardback copy with its striking dustjacket, (see Nathan’s comment below) it was the 2012 A&U (Allen & Unwin) House of Books edition, which apart from having a boring cover and an unnecessary tweak to the title, also had a number of irritating uncorrected typos, but still, all credit to A&U for reissuing it because copies of the first edition are as rare as the black opals that feature in the story.

Bookended by two poignant funerals, Black Opal tells the story of a mining community at ‘Fallen Star Ridge’.  While the novel revolves around Sophie Rouminof and the men who love her, it also celebrates the communal life of the miners and how they support one another through the good times and the bad.  When the novel opens, Sophie’s mother has just died, and – since her father Paul is a wastrel, it is Michael Brady who takes on the care of both of them:

It was natural enough that Michael should have taken charge of Sophie and Rouminof, and that he should have made all the arrangements for Mrs Rouminof’s funeral.  If it had been left to Paul to bury his wife, people agreed, she would not have been buried at all; or, at least, not until the community insisted.  And Michael would have done as much for any shiftless man.  He was next-of-kin to all lonely and helpless men and women on the Ridge, Michael Brady.

Michael is a kind of moral barometer for the town, so he has a crisis of conscience when he takes possession of Paul’s opals from a thief, because he has reason not to return them to their rightful owner straight away.  This action has repercussions when the time comes for Michael to exercise moral authority on behalf of the town.

On Fallen Star Ridge everyone trusts everyone else, and security for these valuable gems is lax.

The unwritten law of the Ridge was that mates pooled all the opal they found and shared equally, so that all Jun held was Rouminof’s, and all that he held was Jun’s.  Ordinarily one man kept the lot; and as Jun was the better dealer and master spirit, it was natural enough that he should hold the stones, or, at any rate, the best of them.

The men of the Ridge, however, feel that it’s necessary to remind Jun about the rules of a fair go because they’re not confident that he’s going to treat Paul fairly.  He’s a newcomer to the community, which is why he’s been fool enough to work with an idler like Paul.  In the bar, the men insist that Paul be given some of the good stones, and with hundreds of pounds worth of opal in his pocket, he goes off home making plans to take Sophie to Sydney where she can start her singing career.

But Michael had promised Sophie’s dying mother that he’d see to it that Sophie stayed at the Ridge under his care, until she was old enough to take care of herself.  Uneasy about proceedings at the bar, he follows Paul home to his hut to remonstrate with him, and arrives in time to see Charley Heathfield steal the opals from a drunken Paul.  Michael knows that without his opals Paul can’t take Sophie anywhere, but he is so outraged by Charley’s breach of trust that he waits until Charley is asleep and then retrieves the stolen opals.  Michael then has to wrestle with his conscience as to when the opals should be returned to their rightful owner.

Sophie, meanwhile, is becoming attracted to one of the young men of the town, and when he treats her badly, she takes advantage of an American opal buyer’s offer to take her overseas to start her career as a singer.  She leaves three broken hearts behind her: Arthur Henty who regrets letting class consciousness rule his heart; ‘Potch’ Heathfield who hasn’t dared declare himself because of his father’s treachery; and Michael, who has failed to protect Sophie from harm.

All this comes to a head when the mines seem to be failing, and the American opal buyer returns with a plan to buy up the mines and employ the previously self-employed miners.  Prichard was a committed communist, so there is some spirited debate about the pros and cons of such a proposal, and the men look to Michael to help them decide.

The novel is captivating reading, rich in authentic detail and dialogue.

A year or two ago, a score or so or bark and bag huts were ranged on either side of the wide, unmade road space overgrown with herbage; and a smithy, a weatherboard hotel with roof of corrugated iron, a billiard parlour, and a couple of stores, comprised the New Town.  A wild cherry tree, gnarled and ancient, which had been left in the middle of the road near the hotel, bore the news of the district and public notices, nailed to it on sheets of paper.  A little below the hotel, on the same side, Chassy Robb’s store served as post-office, and the nearest approach to a medicine store in the township.  Opposite was the Afghan’s emporium.  And behind the stores and the miners’ huts, everywhere, were the dumps thrown up from mines and old rushes. (p.57)

Reading Black Opal now, almost a century after its first publication, brings the reader into a different world where mateship, community, and pride in independence were paramount.

There was no police station nearer than fifty miles, and although telegraph now links the New Town with Budda, the railway town, communication with it for a long time was only by coach once or twice a week; and even now, all the fetching and carrying is done by a four or six-horse coach and bullock wagons. The community to all intents and purposes governs itself according to popular custom and opinion: the seat of government being Newton’s big, earthen-floored bar, or the brushwood shelters near the mines where the men sit at midday to eat their lunches and noodle – go over, snip, and examine – the opal they have taken out of the mines during the morning.

They hold their blocks of land by miner’s right, and their houses are their own.  They formally recognise that they are citizens of the Commonwealth and of the State of New South Wales, by voting in elections and by accepting the Federal postal service.  Some few of them, as well as Newton and the storekeepers, pay income tax as compensation for those privileges, but beyond that the Ridge lives its own life, and the enactments of authority are respected, or disregarded, as best pleases it. (p.57-8)

The characterisation of the miners is excellent.  Michael and Sophie are a bit idealised, but the blokes who work in the mines seem real, just like bush blokes are, while the women who gather together to dress Sophie for her first ball – lending her their gloves, jewellery and a fan – are like good-hearted country women everywhere.  As a slice of Australian life at the turn of the century, this novel is very satisfying reading.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: (The) Black Opal
Publisher Allen &b Unwin (A&U House of Books series), 2012
ISBN: 9781743313145
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Black Opal


Responses

  1. So glad to see a review of Black Opal! In one sense, it’s strange that Allen and Unwin have reprinted it when they’ve not reprinted Working Bullocks, her second best novel after Coonardoo. Black Opal is a little clunky and still a romance in certain respects, but I’m rather fond of it. It is the bridge from her first published novel The Pioneers to her familiar, mature works.
    The image you’ve used is from the revised 1946 edition. I like the cover too but the book wasn’t printed well – cheap wartime paper, and the tiniest font to make it fit less pages. I managed to pick up the beautiful first edition (sans non-pictorial dustjacket) on ebay last year for a good price, one of my prize KSP books.
    Although not published until 1921, Katharine wrote it in 1917-1918, and from my research it seems that while she was radicalising, she wasn’t yet a communist in the familiar sense. (No-one could be – there was quite a bit of confusion about what was actually happening in Russia.) She was still drawn to syndicalism, which probably influences the novel as much as communism. I discuss in my biography how for the later reprints she felt the need to explain why the system of opal mining (without communist state control) would not work for other industries. It’s interesting to have this novel as evidence of an earlier stage in her political development.
    There’s also several unexpected autobiographical elements, including the ship Sophie sails on to North America bearing the same name as the ship Katharine impulsively and mysteriously caught to North America in 1910.
    As you can see, I could go on forever, but I’ll leave it there. Thanks for the perceptive and sympathetic review.

    • I was hoping you’d drop by and share some of your inside knowledge!
      What is also interesting is that there’s not a word about The War, and I was expecting that, given that it was published in 1921 (though I didn’t know it was written four years earlier than that).

      • Yes! She needed a lot of distance until she’d write about the war. Fallen Star Ridge is almost like a safe place in her fiction where the struggles are much more self-contained.

        • Which are the novels where she wrote about the war?

          • Intimate Strangers has a main character with “shell-shock” but she wrote properly about it in Golden Miles, second book of the goldfields trilogy.

  2. I downloaded this for the kindle courtesy of Project Gutenberg

    • I think I might have done the same thing… when I went to Goodreads to enter the title, it was already in ‘my books’, tagged ‘Kindle’. But it was much better reading it as a book so I’m glad I found it in the library instead.

      • I have another title on my TBR list if I like The Black Opal.

  3. In reading the post I was thinking that there wasn’t a lot of sympathy between communists and the self employed and I see Nathan refers to syndicalism (my own stream of politics) which was strong around then – see Ian Turner’s Sydney’s Burning for instance.
    As for typos, I get the impression publishers knock out quick copies of out of copyright books using OCR and are pretty slack about editing out errors.

    • Yup, agreed about OCR, not the first time I’ve come across this.
      I have a copy of Sydney’s Burning, I must read it!

  4. I’ve noticed the A&U Classics a few times, and always resist buying them because of the cover – I look for a different version if at all possible. So shallow of me, but they just don’t compare with the gorgeous Text Classics covers do they.

    And then that “The” issue. Why? Carelessness? Or an active decision to rename the book.

    I wondered about the typos in classics, but Bill’s reasoning is plausible. Irritating, but!!

    • I guess it’s all about price, and to be fair, (I’m pretty sure) A&U were doing this House of Books collection before Text started their Text Classics series, and they may have wanted to keep the price as low as possible while they established whether or not they were going to sell well.

      • Yes, I’m sure you’re right about price, and I think you’re right about timing too. I certainly don’t want to take away from their contribution to keeping our heritage in front of us.

  5. Great to read about our esteemed K.S.P. She has to be one of our best Australian writers whose work is a treasure house of social history. To live through such major events as revolutions and wars as a young woman restricted by gender and class expectations along with major personal tragedies made her one of our best writers. The unique country of Australia was her enduring passion and the people she loved the ordianary men and women of her time. She was undoubtedly a Communist who never quavered from her commitment to a fair and decent society based on the end of wars. Ah the gift of good fiction from the mind of a committed writer. She deserves much more attention both in academia and the community at large.

    • I think the difference between KSP and most of today’s authors of Grim Australia is that she didn’t just tell a story, she was searching for societal and economic solutions and (whether we think it was flawed or not) she had an intellectual basis for the kind of society she yearned for.


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