Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2019

The Pioneers, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Bill is hosting AWW Gen 2 over at The Australian Legend, and The Pioneers is the book I promised to read for this important literary week in the Australian Literary calendar. Bill defines this second generation of Australian writing as the period between 1890 and 1918.  To my surprise I didn’t have a single book by a woman writer for that period, so I decided to chase up Katharine Susannah Prichard’s output for these years and found her debut novel The Pioneers.  Bill distinguishes post WW1 Gen 3 writers from Gen 2 writers by their preoccupation with social realism in urban settings, and thus places Prichard in Gen 3, but as we shall see, The Pioneers belongs with Gen 2 writing because it features the myth of the Pioneers, men and women working together to carve out a space for themselves from [so-called] virgin country.

Katharine Susannah Prichard was born in 1883 and died 1969, and she wrote 13 novels.  In the Preface to The Pioneers, KSP tells us that:

Notes for The Pioneers were made about 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland.  But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story which had been simmering in my mind for so long.

The book’s blurb tells us that The Pioneers went on to win the Australian section of the £1000 Dominion Competition for fiction in 1915.   More properly known as the Hodder and Stoughton All Empire Literature Prize for Australasia, (see here) this prize launched KSP’s career as a creative writer.

This is the blurb:

Set in Gippsland, Victoria, this powerful story tells of early settlers and of their unwelcome neighbours – escaped convicts who crossed to the mainland from Van Diemen’s Land. Davey Cameron, son of a stern and narrow-minded Scots settler, becomes entangled with cattle-duffing convicts and an unscrupulous shanty-keeper. With the growth of his love for Deirdre, the daughter of a convict, the lives of the characters become more involved, and clouds of tragedy begin to form.
The book, a masterly study of human relations, conveys all the excitement, hard work and despair of pioneering days, and the story comes to life against a background of bushfires, scrub-clearing, home-building and the handling of cattle under semi-primitive conditions.

These days, marketers might promote The Pioneers as Rural Romance, which you might guess anyway from that excruciatingly bad cover art by D.L. Allnutt.  Poor Deirdre looks as if her arm is dislocated, like a doll with its arm screwed on back-to-front. Davey Cameron’s awkward grimace, and her pert expression hints at Difficulties in the Relationship, but the body language suggests that eventually all will be well.  Also, there are ‘secrets’, a trope so clichéd in contemporary commercial ‘women’s’ fiction that the mere mention of the word in a blurb is enough for me to decide that the book is not for me.

However, KSP being KSP, there’s a bit more to this novel than a rocky relationship and a secret withheld to the end of the story. Vernay, in A Brief Take of the Australian Novel features KSP in one of his ‘Panoramic Views’ and while noting that she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1932, points to three categories in her assorted publications:

  • Iconoclastic novels containing risky heretical topics: (lustful desire (Working Bullocks, 1926); desire for an Indigenous partner (Coonardoo, 1929); and female eroticism (Intimate Strangers, 1937);
  • Neo-nationalist novels in the romantic tradition and concerned with the wealth that the continent had to offer its settler and indigenous populations: The Pioneers (1915); Black Opal (1921, see my review) and Moon of Desire (1941);
  • Politically inspired novels [which] can be read as a diatribe against corrupt capitalism: her trilogy about the mining industry in WA: The Roaring Nineties (1946); Golden Miles (1948) and Winged Seeds (1950).

#OffTopic: Vernay also notes in passing that Haxby’s Circus (1930, see my review) might be an exception to a body of work emphasising many significant aspects of Australian life. Alas, he does not go on to explain how it is that the exploitation of women within family businesses (which are a staple in the Australian economy) is not a significant topic. But A Brief Take is only 200+ pages long, so I suppose he could not cover everything. Still, this irks me.  What’s more, Haxby’s Circus is revisiting a topic first raised in The Pioneers by the character Donald Cameron exploiting his son, making him work long hours with no pay and denying him any decision-making in the business.

Anyway, as we see, The Pioneers falls within the Neo-nationalist novels, which brings up (of course) the problem of ownership of the land on which the pioneers were pioneering.  We can’t read this book today without this awareness, and the depiction of an Aboriginal stockman—the only character who isn’t named in the novel—isn’t KSP at her best.  There isn’t any way around this: neo-nationalist novels are by their very nature triumphalist in tone, dismissive of prior ownership of the land, and lofty about Indigenous people, history and culture if they mention them at all.   But as KSP tells us in the Preface, this story is based on yarns and gossip [that she heard] at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville [now Tarraville] and the wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. And the era that KSP’s sources were yarning about was a time when The Convict Stain was a real secret, suppressed not just because of the social implications, but also because in some cases there were escapees with outstanding sentences living surreptitiously in remote communities.

KSP contrasts one of these unrecognised escapees as a good man, a man who becomes a well-loved school-teacher when the community wants a school, with a free man who has no redeeming features at all, and in league with a corrupt policeman to boot.  It is the schoolteacher’s daughter who falls in love with the son of the dour and rigid Scots settler, Donald Cameron who was the first to take up land in this area.  Donald and his wife Mary are acutely conscious that Port Albert—the supply port for Gippsland’s pioneers until the railway was built—is a destination for escapees coming across Bass Strait from Van Diemen’s Land, and although Mary has some sympathy for such escapees, their presence in a remote place is a constant fear.  However, as their little community grows, knowing the dubious history of some stockmen becomes a means of blackmail.  So while the story does feature the obligatory bushfire, clearing of the land, home-building and the planting of subsistence crops, plus a proud declaration that It’s all ours, this land about here, the focus of KSP’s theme is redemption and the creation of a new society in which there were second chances for people who had fallen foul of unjust laws.

Finally a #LittleKnownFact: Vernay includes The Pioneers in his ‘Literary Milestones’, a timeline of significant events in Australian publishing.  The Pioneers was the first Australian novel brought to the screen, in 1916, the year after it was published. A search with Google brought me to the SUP (Sydney University Press) edition (with a much nicer McCubbin artwork on the cover), which in its blurb tells me that in fact The Pioneers has been filmed twice, once in 1916 and once in 1926, and that a one-act dramatic version was first performed in 1923.  Alas, I didn’t find anything at Screen Australia.  Perhaps the films have been lost to time.  (Nathan Hobby who is writing a bio of KSP may be able to help us out with that?)

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed The Pioneers back in 2010.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: The Pioneers
Publisher: Rigby, 1963, 256 pages, first published 1915.
ISBN: none
Source: personal copy, purchased from M&A Simper Bookbinders, Warrnambool Vic, $20 plus $10 postage.

Availability: Goodreads seems to have all manner of reprints available, including a Kindle edition. Try Booko.com to see what you can find.


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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  2. It’s tricky reading these older novels now, particularly those from authors with social realist claims. I’m not comfortable, though, with criticising authors for not being aware of issues we care about now. We want, I know, our favourite authors to be aware of the gender, race, colonial, etc issues we care about now but even KSP was a product of her times. She had her own political battles to fight?

    BTW that’s a terrible cover. Mine was a very bland classics reissue cover that have no hint of rural romance.

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    • Oh, and the NFSA has fragments (only) of both 1916 and 1926 versions. Screen Australia is not a comprehensive site of Aus cinema. The NFSA is a better authority though searching there can be tricky I admit!!

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    • I think it depends what you mean by critique… I don’t think we can review this book now without pointing out the deficiencies which were a product of a different era and a different mindset about these things. I couldn’t help but think as I read this that an Indigenous reader might want to hurl it across the room because some of it is downright hurtful. But pointing these deficiencies out doesn’t mean dismissing the book or its author. I’d hesitate to recommend this book not because of them but because (as you point out in your review) of the melodramatic elements,
      But, it’s a first novel and we have to cut some slack because of that, and I think the treatment of the convict issue makes it worth reading.

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      • Haha, our posts crossed. Yes, what you say about critiquing is fair enough. Indigenous people would probably want to toss out most books written back then!

        I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book, though, because it’s KSP, it’s from a time from which we have few books and it reflects those times pretty well, and it has some lovely writing. But I would only recommend it to those readers who like to read with a view to wider historical and literary context?

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        • Yes, it’s a product of its time, stylewise, and that doesn’t suit everyone. It’s a beaut book for setting Australian writing in context, for someone who hasn’t read much from the period, but it takes a little effort to settle into the prose style.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear, I hope this didn’t sound critical… You make some good points. I’m still working out how best to approach these books from the past … How to marry the gaps we see with the times they were written, and yet recognise the validity of those gaps in the longer term. It’s a challenge isn’t it?

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    • Yes, it is tricky… Take Dickens and his portrayal of Fagin. I mean, it’s appalling. But he was a great social novelist whose works were a catalyst for all kinds of reform because he made middle-class people aware of poverty and its impact. So if I were writing a review, I think I’d have to point out the anti-Semitism because it would be IMO be wrong to gloss over it, and then to continue with writing about what’s great about the book and why people might want to read it.
      The hard part is the pointing out the problems in an appropriate way!

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      • Yes, it sure is – thanks for understanding!

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      • Oh, and the thing I wonder about is what things will come up in the future that people will find worth critiquing about now and the past that we don’t “see”? (Does that make sense?) It’s scary.

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        • Definitely. Especially in these days of identity politics!

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  4. Interesting! Virago have reprinted three of her novels but not this one. It’s very tricky with older books, and I’ve struggled recently with some issues – but I think sometimes we have to look at the bigger picture and what the novelist’s overall attitudes were.

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    • Yes, you’re right. And also to be mindful of our own journeys … I’ll be honest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the offence if I’d read this book forty years ago, in the same way that my antennae weren’t tuned to noticing sexism. Now, when I see Deirdre sent to live at the Camerons to learn the domestic arts so that she will make a fit wife, I inwardly groan, but I’ll bet most readers right up until the 1960s – including me – would let that pass by without noticing it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s the trilogy that I have on my shelf TBR as well, but I didn’t realize/notice that it’s about the mining industry. Now I’m doubly curious!

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  5. […] Bill is hosting AWW Gen 2 over at The Australian Legend, and The Pioneers is the book I promised to read for this important literary week in the Australian Literary calendar. Bill defines this second generation of Australian writing as the period between 1890 and 1918.  To my surprise I didn’t have a single book by a woman writer for that period, so I decided to chase up Katharine Susannah Prichard’s output for these years and found her debut novel The Pioneers. Read on … […]

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  6. Lisa, thanks for doing this for AWW Gen 2 Week. I like the way you’ve discussed the different ways this novel might be categorized. I think KSP was always thinking about discussing more than just the underlying ‘romance’.

    I agree with you entirely about reading these older works with C21st eyes. Racism, and implied racism, must be called out. I don’t think that KSP – or Arthur Upfield whom I have discussed recently – were deliberately racist, but we are reading their texts now, and we know more (hopefully!) as Indigenous people increasingly speak out, and our reviews must reflect that.

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    • You’re welcome, Bill. I do intend to chase up some of the other authors from this period, and I have scheduled reading the Baynton bio for the anniversary of her death.
      But you know me and reading plans! The best-laid plans of mice and (wo)men gang aft a-gley…

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  7. I am coming to appreciate early Australian female writers more and more. I’ve focused so long on modern authors of this country. I enjoyed hearing about this book and have also started following wadholloway. Between you, him and Gums I’m getting there with our great literary culture. 🤠🐧

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pam, feel free to call me Bill. Our great literary culture was cut in half – more than in half because the majority of pre-WWI writers were women – by gatekeepers like Colin Roderick, and it’s our job (our pleasure) to burst those gates open.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve only ever read Haxby’s Circus by KSP, but I did love it. Got a bit carried away in my review too! It was more like a mini-essay! I’ll include the link here in case it’s of interest.
    https://theresasmithwrites.com/2017/04/12/a-reflection-on-an-australian-classic-haxbys-circus-by-katherine-susannah-prichard/

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    • I think Haxby’s Circus travels better than The Pioneers these days: it’s one of those boks that really lingers in my mind.
      PS I’m going to link to your review from mine, thanks:)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great to have your thoughts on The Pioneers, Lisa – the first book I read as I began the KSP biography. Here’s a paragraph on the films from my biography:

    That same week [in March 1916], Katharine watched a special screening of the silent film adaptation of The Pioneers, directed by Franklyn Barrett, at Hoyts Olympia. Katharine was possibly the film’s ‘most dissatisfied critic’ according to one columnist. ‘One most annoying thing was the changing of the conclusion, for a good deal of the power of The Pioneers is lost in the film by its conventionally happy conclusion, and scenes that should properly have occurred in the wildest of backblock country are played in a setting of semi-civilised vegetation. Oh, the woes of an authoress!’ Only some stills and a few seconds of the film survive, a fragment showing Mary Cameron loading a rifle. A five-minute fragment is all that remains of a second adaptation by Raymond Longford in 1926. Good or not, it’s a melancholy thought to consider the loss of these films, their 35mm prints worked to death as they did the rounds of the suburban cinemas and were then sold on to itinerant exhibitors who toured the scratched copies around outback towns.

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    • Oh that is sad about the films. I suppose it’s not surprising, given that people at the time might have regarded such films as a passing fad, but still what a pity, and what a shame she didn’t like it when she saw it!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Hill of ANZ Litlovers has reviewed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first novel The Pioneers as part of Australian Women Writers […]

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