Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 6, 2022

The Roaring Nineties (The Goldfields Trilogy #1) , by Katharine Susannah Prichard

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s tenth novel The Roaring Nineties is my first book for 2022, and what an interesting novel it turned out to be!  My first edition ex-Library copy has an interesting history of its own.  Mr and Mrs GJ Pearce of Maitland immortalised their ownership in careful copperplate on the flyleaf but there is also a Maitland Institute Library stamp, accession no. A5012 and a pencil note that it cost 11 shillings and sixpence.  This took me down an intriguing research rabbit-hole where I learned that The Maitland Institute, established in 1859, was one of hundreds of Mechanics Institutes set up to offer adult education to working-class men in Australia.

KSP (1893-1969) with her socialist leanings would have been pleased to know that this, her most important novel, was being read in such a milieu.  However, as I learned from a paper published by the Maitland Historical Society (with photos), by mid-20th century the public library movement had gained enough momentum for new public library legislation to be passed in all Australian states.  The NSW Public Library Act was passed in 1944 and in the ensuing decade, institute collections were taken over by the new public libraries.  If only Mr and Mrs GJ Pearce had noted their date of acquisition we could know whether KSP’s masterpiece survived the initial weeding process and the tensions of the Cold War, or was culled later.

Nathan Hobby, whose bio The Red Witch is due for release soon from Miegunyah Press, tells us that KSP …

… spent a decade on the trilogy, regarding it as her finest achievement, and was deeply hurt by the mixed reception she received from critics (especially for the third volume, Winged Seeds). (See Gold Fever: Katharine Susannah Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties at Nathan Hobby, a Biographer in Perth.)

But — much as I liked the novel — I am not surprised by that mixed reception, for two reasons:

Firstly. a reminder from Jean François Vernay, who, in A Brief Take of the Australian Novel, notes that KSP was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1932, and then groups her work into three categories:

  • Iconoclastic novels containing risky heretical topics: (lustful desire (Working Bullocks, 1926); desire for an Indigenous partner (Coonardoo, 1929, see my review); 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, see my review); 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).

I don’t agree that The Roaring Nineties is a ‘diatribe‘.  It is forceful, but it’s neither bitter nor abusive, and it’s neither ironic nor satirical. It’s Australian realism, and it’s deeply humane. Acknowledging the disastrous impact of European settlement on the Indigenous people of the Goldfields, the novel shows the strengths and the weaknesses of individuals pioneering not just chaotic economic development but also an informal system of governance that was doomed to fail.  Because even in the 1890s, parts of any economy were global and the market for minerals in particular depended on foreign capital. Even so, I can see that some readers, especially those who don’t like any kind of politics in their reading, might have been turned off by KSP’s agenda.

I would have found it boring too, except for KSP’s gift for characterisation.

Which brings me to a possible second cause of the ‘mixed reception’: the novel is framed around KSP’s research which included listening to the reminiscences of two old-timers who in the novel KSP calls Dinny Quin and Sally Gough.  This is what gives the tale its authenticity, but it also means that the reader has to press on past a lot of Dinny’s yarning about the early days of the WA Goldfields.  Seven chapters of this starts to wear a bit thin before the story livens up with the arrival of three women on the goldfields.  And then it’s really interesting and had me captivated to the end, but I can see that some readers might abandon it prematurely.

The three arrivals are the attractive but shallow young bride Laura, who is the long term love of successful prospector Alf Brierly’s life.  She enjoys a rise in social status when Alf becomes a mine manager, and becomes a petty snob who never understands how precarious Alf’s position becomes when qualified engineers from overseas begin to replace experienced men who learned on the job. She reminded me of Rosamund Vincy in George Eliot’s Middlemarchanother vain and shallow woman who thwarted her husband’s efforts to rise in society while retaining the values of his origins.

Marie is the French wife of Jean Robillard and goes to work like a man beside him.  Marie does not aspire to bourgeois respectability, and there is a wonderful scene where, entranced by the song of a French prostitute and overcome with emotion at hearing her native language, she leads her friends into a bawdy house to listen to it.  She explains that the French have a different view of prostitution, which she says, keeps the family together. But *chuckle* the women do not tell their husbands where they’ve been, and there are some droll scenes when this ‘discretion’ is almost exposed.

Then there is the central protagonist Sally Gough, the Australian-born wife of the Hon Morris Fitz-Morris Gough who came out from England to make his fortune, and didn’t.  A perennial failure as a husband, father and provider, he comes from a titled family and the relationship between Sally and Morry is about class and its expectations. Despite roughing it on the fields, he still retains ideas about what his wife should do.  He objected to her supporting him with her boarding-house when he lost all their money in a failed mine investment, and — having abandoned her for two years while he went prospecting — objects again when she finally turns up in Coolgardie and when he’s not there to meet her, earns herself a job with Mrs Fogarty who runs the pub.

Women — too often absent from The Grand Pioneer Australian Narrative — are shown in The Roaring Nineties to have initiative, courage, a readiness to adapt and a determination to achieve economic independence, especially Sally.  She recognises Morry’s flaws and that the great romance and elopement is fading, and she is going to get by on her own, with or without him.  Her efforts are compromised by pregnancies that result from sporadic reunions with her husband, and she succumbs to the filthy conditions with a bout of typhoid fever, but the role she has played in feeding and occasionally nursing single male prospectors means that the diggers’ code of honour protects her and enables her to get back on her feet.  I’ve been to Kalgoorlie where on an historical tour I learned a lot about the number of brothels, but I never heard a word about the women who cooked and fed the miners with nourishing meals that improved the health of the township and provided an alternative to pub meals which led to alcohol abuse.

Sam Mullet and Eli thought the dining-room was a good scheme.  They promised to round up the boys to have meals at Mrs Gough’s, and offered to help getting the bough-shed ready for customers.  They fixed up a trestle and forms, put a sheet of corrugated iron round the open fireplace, and built a table from butter boxes, on which Sally could prepare and serve meals.  (p.205)

It is in this rudimentary Café de Bush that Sally — outdoors in all extremes of weather — cooks and does the washing up in kerosene tins, for 20-30 men, breakfast and dinner, every day.

The other feature of a contemporary visit to Kalgoorlie is that en route to Perth, the traveller sees the the longest fresh-water pipeline in the world running along beside the road all the way.  It’s 566 kilometres long, and it’s the source of a water supply that did not exist at the time of KSP’s novel.  The Roaring Nineties is prefaced by a grotesque incident in which prospectors force a Wongi woman to reveal a water source by tying her up and feeding her salty meat. Her desperation for water breaks her determination to protect the water source for the rest of the Wangkatha people, and it symbolises the way that their survival was at risk from the moment that gold was found. Through the character of Kalgoorla, KSP shows how the Wangkatha came into town because they were starving, and Sally acknowledges to herself that Kalgoorla only helps in the kitchen because it is a way to get help for her people.  And while wealthy Laura retreats to Perth for the birth of her first child, Sally has her first baby with the help of ‘rough diamond’ Mrs Molloy and Kalgoorla, who also enables Sally’s return to work by caring for the infant.

But KSP also shows the impact of the desperate shortage of water on the intruders.  Uncontrolled numbers of people venturing into uncharted desert territory often had fatal results, and Morris almost dies of it.  There were also frequent outbreaks of typhoid fever due to the unhygienic conditions under which people lived and worked.

Wild Cassia (WA Dept of Primary Industries)

KSP’s conversations with those old-timers show in the numerous small details that grace this novel.  Teenager Paddy Cavan brings Sally a bunch of wild Cassia with tiny flowers, like golden boronia, which you could smell for miles along the dry creek beds where it grew.  And after a cyclone destroys Sally’s Café de Bush, Dinny finances Morris to set up a new boarding house and helps dig the foundations for it, binding the posts with galvanized iron bandages to protect them from the ravages of white ants.  

KSP’s grasp of the big picture changes in the economy and society is impressive. The signs of permanence in the town emerge: a school is built and the railway comes, bringing social division with it as selective invitations are issued to the well-to-do, in contrast to previous celebrations where everyone was welcome.  Alf Brierly builds a proper house for Laura not only in contrast with Sally’s primitive accommodation but also to show the way gold-fever made people abandon long-held social values such as concern for their families.  Sally concludes ruefully that the motivation for Morry’s always-fruitless search for gold is that he wants to restore his social position in England and that’s what makes him abandon his values.

As the economy transitions towards foreign investment in reef-mining, there is a stoush over the rights of the diggers to mine the alluvial gold, there are strikes for better pay and there is wild-cat speculation too. The law of the self-governing goldfields which operated through ‘roll-ups’ where the diggers gathered to adjudicate disputes, comes into conflict with new legislation in faraway Perth…

The fact of the matter was, miners and prospectors were a law unto themselves then: the law that mattered most in the scattered camps cut off from the rest of the world, the unwritten law of the fields.  And wealthy strangers, wandering aristocrats and mining magnates, who depended on the goodwill of the working miners and prospectors knew it.  They were glad to fraternise with these men who could make their way through the grey seas of scrub flowing beyond the horizon in every direction: men who could discover gold in the great red bluffs and stark ridges, hundreds of miles away. (p.285)

Radical ideas from William Morris and Frederick Engels emerge in pub talk, and even the Kalgoorlie Miner recognises the principle at stake if the diggers lose their right to alluvial gold.

‘It has been a principle on the goldfields of all the colonies that the alluvial gold, the easily obtained gold, is the property of the nomadic population who will get it out quickly and distribute it, while the reef or lode gold, entailing heavy expense and machinery, could be leased to the mining companies.  (p.294-5)

Mining seems to beget political issues to this day.  In our own time we saw the mega-rich frustrate reforms to the Mining Tax which would have seen the Australian people recompensed for mining that takes place on land that belongs to all of us.

The Roaring Nineties is a lively introduction to the trilogy which is followed by Golden Miles (1948) and Winged Seeds (1950), both on my TBR and I hope to read them before the biography of KSP finds its way to me!

References:

Image credit:

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: The Roaring Nineties (The Goldfields Trilogy #1)
Publisher: The Australasian Publishing Co by arrangement with Jonathan Cape London, 1946.
ISBN: none, hbk first edition, 411 pages,
Source: personal copy, purchased via Abebooks


Responses

  1. My ex-wife’s family were from Kalgoorlie and I’ve spent a lot of time visiting and working there. Her great grandmother ran an accommodation house for men in one of the neighbouring/satellite towns in the time KSP is writing about. I haven’t read the trilogy yet, but I hope to later this year.

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  2. That would have been incredibly arduous. When Sally in this book ran a boarding house it meant all that cooking and cleaning, but it also meant laundry when they had precious little water to spare.

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  3. Balmain had a working men’s institute, which I imagine was a similar thing. It was housed in a beautiful building throughout the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s. It now houses restaurants and wine bars.

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    • Yes, just a little wander round the image pages of a Google search shows how beautiful many of those buildings were, and luckily many of the ones in country towns have been repurposed rather than torn down.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So fascinating tracing old libraries like the Maitland Institution, I’m glad you included that! And what a great review. I agree with you that it’s the characters which make this novel shine, and it held my interest through the sequels to follow their paths. KSP beginning the trilogy with that acknowledgement of the dispossession and violence toward Aboriginal people seems to me a major step forward from her depiction in Coonardoo.

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    • I’m glad to hear that the sequels follow through with their lives.
      And yes, it’s a significant step forward for KSP after Coonardoo, and I wonder whether it’s an example that was followed in other books of that era.

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  5. Hi Lisa

    Happy New Reading Year.

    I am glad that you found The Roaring Nineties worth while, as I have long admired it, along with most of the writings of KSP. When I first arrived in Oz, nearly 50 years ago now, I asked a friend at Monash who was an Aust. Lit. expert for some reading advice, and she suggested Patrick White and KSP as two different but equally vital and important starting points. ( I must add that my friend was from WA, which may have influenced her choice of KSP.)

    So the “Goldfields Trilogy,” Coonardoo, Working Bullocks and Black Pearl were among the first Australian books that I have seriously undertaken, and since then, I have read almost all of KSP who I have found to be endlessly rewarding. Starting with a very limited knowledge of Australian cultural history, I found her books to be invaluable in providing me with a basic understanding of the foundations of writing about Australia.

    When you compare KSP with most of her contemporaries, she seems to me to have have such a range of sophisticated insights into her notion of Australia that one can more easily cope with some of the more didactic and historiographic detours which she seemed to be fond of (like the opening section of The Roaring Nineties.)

    Please do persevere with the trilogy, as I think you will find Winged Seeds, the third book, a particularly worthwhile read. When I clear my current backlog of Christmas present books ( just finished the final Le Carre which was a melancholy sort of pleasure), I think I will have to reread some KSP.

    Cheers
    Chris

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    • Hello Chris, and thank you:)
      I shall certainly persevere with KSP, I think her novels individually and collectively as far as I’ve read them (six so far) paint a vivid picture of early Australian life matched only by Henry Handel Richardson. (Whose Australia Felix trilogy I would have added to your initial To Be Read pile.

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  6. […] From the parched and dusty 19th century goldfields of WA, to a shepherd’s hut in the badlands of 21st century Afghanistan — my reading takes me to all kinds of interesting places! […]

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  7. Testing my ability to comment on this post, Lisa. You can remove if you see it!

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  8. How great that you have a first edition. I love the little provenance you provide at the beginning. I have written about Mechanics Institutes on my blog – more than once I think – because they were such important aspects of 19th century Australia, and if you love road trips like I do, you see many of them in country Victoria and NSW. NSW had both Mechanics Institutes and Schools of Art/s, but they formed the same function:

    “During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, about 140 schools of arts or mechanics’ institutes were established in Sydney, sometimes also known as literary, railway or workingmen’s institutes. In many inner-city and interwar suburbs the buildings remain, prominently located on the main street or near the train station. Most have now been taken over by local councils, or the properties sold to private interests. But they were originally established by volunteers as independent community organisations, assisted by a small government subsidy, and they thrived as centres of local community life. Today, their legacy in Sydney is more than just the surviving buildings. Out of these humble voluntary operations developed the local public library, the modern community or neighbourhood centre, and formal systems of adult and technical education seemed to have Schools of Art which performed very similar function” (from Dictionary of Sydney)

    There’s one in Healesville that has been converted into travel accommodation. It’s beautiful and a block from a lovely bookshop!

    Anyhow, I must get to this trilogy one day!

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    • The Mechanics Institutes are often the most beautiful buildings in a town that’s not big enough to have a grandiose town hall.
      There’s one not far from us on the Nepean Hwy. It used to be a gym, and now it’s a Covid testing station!

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      • Thanks for getting that comment in for me!

        Yes, they are – I often photograph them. It’s so good these old buildings are repurposed.

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        • Voila! And your comment worked all by itself this time!

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  9. Oh, my, I just love that kind of edition. And I have scurried down many little rabbit burrows myself, searching out details about various institutions over the years. Love it! This is on my reading list for 2022 too. Hopefully a Canadian can wade through the depths of it all.

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    • I never write my name in my books, but I love it when I find the previous owner in a second-hand book.

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