Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 9, 2022

Golden Miles (1948), by Katharine Susannah Prichard (Goldfields trilogy #2)

With Nathan Hobby’s forthcoming The Red Witch, his biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969),  I’m hoping that there will be renewed interest in her work because Golden Miles, second in KSP’s Goldfield’s Trilogy, deserves a wider readership.  This trilogy traces the development of the mining industry in WA, from the discovery of alluvial gold, the gold rushes, and small scale mining to the capitalist era of international mining companies and how that impacted working conditions for the miners.  In the course of these novels, Prichard’s characters experience World Wars 1 & 2, with the Depression in between, and also the impact of the Russian Revolution and the political fallout of communism in Australia.  Although the first book in the trilogy, The Roaring Nineties is said to be the best, (see my review), taken as a whole, the trilogy is a remarkable social history, much of it written contemporaneously with the events it portrays.

Golden Miles continues the story of Sally Gough and her family in Kalgoorlie WA.  When the book opens in 1914, Morris is still running a funeral service, and though there are many deaths due to conditions in the mines, his clientele is the poor, and the business is just scraping by.  So Sally is still running her boarding house, offering bed and board to miners, one of whom is the troublesome Paddy Cavan.  She knows he is involved in stealing gold, and because his activities bring the risk of a visit from detectives, she kicks him out.  Paddy Cavan, who rises to a position of wealth and influence, continues to cause serious trouble for her family throughout the novel.

Sally and Morris have four sons, two of whom are working in the mines.  By 1914 alluvial mining and prospecting had given way to capital intensive industry, and the miners work for wages or contracts. The struggle for improved wages and conditions takes place in the context of the rise of unionism, and a growing public recognition that underground working conditions are causing premature death and injury.  Concerned about all her children but unable to afford a pathway out of the mines for the four of them, Sally is only able to send Dick to university to study engineering.  But despite the sacrifices made for him, Dick wastes his opportunities in Sydney, and abandons his studies to work for the disreputable Frisco, whose attraction to Sally in The Roaring Nineties had caused trouble before.

Drusilla Modjeska, in the Introduction, notes that the characterisation of Sally is more complex and authentic in this second book of Prichard’s trilogy.

Written by a woman in her sixties, [Golden Miles] looks back to a period in history by which she was deeply touched.  It covers the period of her own initiation into politics, the early period of her marriage, the birth of her son.  It is a novel that contains the passion of her own remembering.  It is also the novel in which she finally gives Sally Gough her head and allows her the emotional adventures she doggedly refused her in The Roaring Nineties. She goes back to explore these issues of politics and love which she had dropped in 1933 when her husband died.  In Golden Miles we see Sally the mother of grown-up sons, watching them go, reassessing her own life and the conflicting pressures of duty, love and politics. Katharine Prichard wrote without pretence or coyness about women’s sexual and emotional needs. (p.ix)

Sometimes overdoing it a bit, Prichard uses dialogue to evoke Sally’s political initiation.  Although not naïve or stupid, she has been a devoted mother whose ventures into the independent role of breadwinner were motivated by the needs of those she loves.  Now that her sons are grown, kitchen-table talk is about the politics of labour and capital and unionism; about war and the Conscription campaigns; and about the Russian Revolution and the socialist movement in Australia.

Sally is not a communist but her solidarity with the working class is strong.  She listens to the political debates of the men, and she understands where their arguments impinge on her life as a woman and on the community she loves.  (p.ix)

But Sally doesn’t just listen.  She interrupts with questions that steer Prichard’s communist ideology towards a progressive agenda, and she not only takes an independent standpoint, she also changes her mind when circumstances warrant it.  Like her husband Morris she was pro conscription in the first referendum, for example, but their reasons were different.  Morris is pro Empire because of his aristocratic British birth, but she wanted military reinforcements to protect her son Dick and the sons of others who were serving in the forces.  By the time of the second referendum she has come round to share the opinion of her second son Tom, who is an ardent unionist and very active in the campaign for the No Vote.  However, she still tends to view situations through ‘a mother’s prism’, for example when it comes to the suffering of the women and children during a major strike,  whereas her son Tom and his activist wife Eily see the bigger picture and are willing not only to suffer themselves but also expect others to endure in order to achieve industrial aims.  These situations are complicated because the growing unemployment rate means many will work for less, and many of these were returned servicemen.   (The RSL has been associated with conservative politics for a long time, but I hadn’t realised just how early in the century they were involved in sabotaging progressive causes.)

These are not the only developments in Sally’s character. She finds herself resenting wartime censorship:

She had read a book, exposing manipulation of the war loans in the interests of financial combines, the Nation, and other illegal publications which Eily and Tom were distributing. Why were those papers and books illegal, Sally asked. She resented being told she must not read something of vital interest to her.  If information was false and unreliable, it could be disproved: if not, people were entitled to it.  Women like herself felt the lives of their sons and husbands were at stake: the future of their children.  It was outrageous that any government should tell grown men and women they must not read criticism of the way the war was being conducted, or hear what anybody had to say about the causes of the war.  (p.249)

Sally’s family does not escape unscathed from WW1 nor from the appalling conditions in the mines.  The sensitivity with which Prichard renders the grief that engulfed so many is a reminder of the grief she suffered herself when her husband committed suicide. She writes of time moving slowly, not caring about the passage of the seasons, and eating, working, sleeping mechanically because her loved one was nowhere in the world.  

Never again would his mere presence fill her with inexplicable joy: their eyes meet and laugh together in mutual understanding: his voice sound like a song in her ears with its gay, tender greeting. (p.323)

She was ill, her faculties were numb, her mind a blank.  For a long time Sally’s face looked hard and stiff: she did not smile.  Voices were a meaningless clatter in her brain.  

These passages in Golden Miles remind us that the WW1 casualty rate in our small population meant that across every city, town and village, there were thousands and thousands of bereaved people struggling to cope and unable to offer much support to others as well.  I finished reading this novel as the catastrophic floods have engulfed our eastern states, and while mercifully deaths have been few, each one is a tragedy for their loved ones.  And with so many people losing their homes and all their possessions, we are seeing so many struggle with the grief of having their lives upended.  The enormity of the destruction around them is reminiscent of the impact on communities of the catastrophic bushfires before the pandemic.  It has been a tough few years for many people, and it’s not over yet, so if you can, donate to a reputable organisation like the Red Cross Flood Appeal or for ongoing support, make a regular monthly donation to the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund.

Author: Katharine Susannah Prichard
Title: Golden Miles (Goldfields Trilogy #2)
Artwork: ‘The 1913 Mine Disaster II’ (1970) by Lawrence Daws.
Introduction by Drusilla Modjeska
Publisher: Virago modern Classics, 1984, first published 1948
ISBN: 0860684164, pbk., 386 pages
Source: Personal library


  1. Hi Lisa

    Like you, I hope more people get to read KSP as she is an author worthy of great attention today for her particular political stance and her account of the impact of all of these momentous happenings on a relatively small WA mining town. When I first read Golden Miles, some 45 years ago, I thought the communist perspective was a distraction from the complex situations that KSP was writing about, and took away from her fine ability to give an empathetic account of how these events beyond the control of ordinary women and men caused such profound affects on their lives. On rereading the trilogy two or three years ago, I think I have changed my view to one more in sympathy with the position that the author takes.

    All of which goes to underscore what a fine writer she was, and how relevant she still is for at least most thinking Australians today.

    Thanks for yet another excellent review.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Chris.
      Your comment makes me think, I don’t know of any contemporary writers who tackle the big picture of the prevailing economic system in quite the same way. Elliot Perlman in Three Dollars depicted the precariousness of the emerging employment situation back in 1998, and there are plenty of writers portraying the impact of the gig economy but I can’t think of any novelists writing engaging stories that explain why we’ve got the horrible system that we have which is predicated on insecure badly paid work and levels of obscene wealth. It wasn’t like that when I was young, and I don’t see why we can’t go back to what we had which was better for nearly everybody except the obscenely rich.


  2. I’ve not read this author before, but this sounds an excellent read. I know very little about mining history outside of the UK. I’m always on the hunt for VMCs, I’ll look out for her.


    • I think it was first published in the UK so there may still be some of the original edition around?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I found my first UK edition of Golden Miles complete with a somewhat tatty dust jacket in a Melbourne second hand bookshop in 2018, for less money than a new paperback edition (and I think that Text Publishing reprinted the trilogy fairly recently), so there are probably more out there to be found. The find was what enticed me to reread the trilogy!


  3. I’ll be reading this trilogy with Buried in Print later in the year, which is just cover of course for having nothing to add to your review. Though the communism of those inter war writers added something – an understanding of the causes of inequality maybe – largely missing today.


  4. FWIW my theory is that the so-called welfare state arose because governments were afraid that the revolution would spread. By giving people some of what people had in the USSR (public housing, free hospital and education, pensions etc), it took the heat out of demands for a soviet style government. Once the USSR was discredited, the welfare reforms began winding back. And now we are where we are.


  5. I’ve dipped and dabbled to avoid too much content but I’m really intrigued by your mention of the mining industry here. It’s a fascination of mine, and I wonder how central it is to the story, in scenic terms: do we see the mines, or do we only see the effects of the industry on the men (and families) who work in them? The Alistair MacLeod stories I’m reading do include some glimpses of the actual work, but mostly it’s a contained and faraway place, this underground, and I’m not sure which is more interesting in fiction. Both have their appeal.


    • Ah, from what I’ve seen, some readers would find that there’s too much about how the mines work and what it’s like underground. For the first book of the trilogy, Prichard relied heavily on the stories of old timers who had been prospectors for alluvial gold but for this novel in the early C20th she went to these gold-mining towns and could see for herself. (I don’t know whether she actually went down in a mine, we’ll have to wait for Nathan’s bio for that).
      FWIW there’s a chilling depiction of the mining industry in Zola’s Germinal… I wonder if KSP read that?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, that’s very helpful. And I think I have heard of the Zola connection but it didn’t stick. Another classic that doesn’t get into it quite as much as I’d thought was D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, still of interest to me though. Yes, I’ve heard about that bio! Hehe


        • How Green was My Valley is a Welsh mining story, though I don’t remember now if it included scenes underground.


          • Cotter’s England (Stead) has a section in a mining town, but again I don’t think they go down the pit.
            Quite a few Australian C19th gold mining stories involve actual mining, Madame Midas springs to mind.


            • I’m guessing that the dearth of actual mining scenes is because safety rules prevented visitors…


      • She visited some mines – not sure she went underground!


        • I can’t imagine anyone letting her go down there. Neither the bosses who would have been afraid of what she might write about the conditions, nor the workers because they had that old-fashioned protective attitude towards women in workplaces such as mines.


  6. Thanks for this perceptive review, Lisa. You reminded me that the sweep of history lived out through a family and their town is a real achievement and so evident in this middle volume.


    • Winged Seeds is next, but I may not get it read in time for the bio which is just about the hit the shelves at last!


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