Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 22, 2022

The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, by Nathan Hobby

Having come to the end of Nathan Hobby’s superb new biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), I’ve come to the conclusion that I would have liked her very much — but I’m not sure that she would have liked me! Despite all the circumstances against her, she was brave in contesting the prevailing political climate, tenacious in pursuing her craft as an author and generous to a fault. But she fell out with longstanding friends who didn’t share her political views and I probably would have been one of those.

But I would still have bought KSP’s books.  Indeed, I still am.  Reading the bio prompted me to buy two more, so that in addition to those I’ve already reviewed, now I’ve added her last novel Subtle Flame (1967) and her second short story collection Potch and Colour (1944) to my existing Prichard TBR i.e. Working Bullocks (1926), and Intimate Strangers (1939).

The biography hasn’t convinced me that I should track down Windlestraws (1916) or Moon of Desire (1941).  Windlestraws, KSP’s first novel, was published in the wake of The Pioneers (1915) after it won a major prize but if the publishers were hoping to cash in on her success, they were disappointed because it was soon forgotten.  Moon of Desire was a potboiler, written when Prichard was short of money and hoping for a Hollywood option.  Though the biography recognises some ‘Prichardian’ elements in it and it had some favourable reviews, she herself thought it was tedious.  This is notable because she was not generally hard on her own work.  From 1940 onwards she was more likely to ascribe her setbacks to politics.  She had confidence in her own writing despite the criticism that came her way.

I mention my purchases here because, for an ordinary reader, the test of any literary biography is: is it good to read even if you’re not familiar with the author who’s the subject of the bio? And, while it’s always a pleasure to see a biographer’s coverage of books we know, does the bio work just as well when discussing the ones we haven’t read?  Does it inspire us to want to read more of the author’s work?

Nathan Hobby’s masterful biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard does all of that and more.  It’s in the same league of exceptional literary biographies as Jill Roe’s bio of Miles Franklin (2008) David Marr’s of Patrick White (1991), Hazel Rowley’s of Christina Stead (1993, revised 2007),  Karen Lamb’s of Thea Astley (2015) and Brenda Niall’s of The Boyds (2002). The Red Witch is a fine addition to the cultural capital of the nation, and Melbourne University Press has recognised that by publishing it in its prestige imprint, Miegunyah Press. As it says on their website:

The Miegunyah Press* is a special imprint of Melbourne University Publishing that publishes prestigious books of the highest printing and design quality at affordable prices. Miegunyah Press books are absorbingly original, visually grand and eminently collectable.

The Red Witch is a chronological biography, which begins by contesting some of KSP’s childhood memories fictionalised in The Wild Oats of Han (1928) and in her autobiography Child of the Hurricane (1964).  It was interesting to read later in the bio that both KSP and her son Ric Throssell lamented the time she spent on that autobiography… she felt compelled to write it in response to a PhD thesis about her work by Cyril Cook.  She’d been supportive (and flattered) by Cook’s project, dissuading him from his initial Freudian analysis of her oeuvre, and she was not expecting it to be as critical as it was.  Child of the Hurricane took ten years of her declining years and although readers liked it, it had only lukewarm reviews.  It probably wouldn’t have been published at all if not for Beatrice Davis at Angus & Robertson, who was strongly supportive of KSP’s writing and arranged reprints of her books when she knew that KSP was short of money.

Despite her status as a prominent Australian writer, KSP was always short of money. She didn’t come from wealth, and after her father’s suicide money was tight.  Her marriage to the WW1 VC hero Hugh Throssell was cut short by his suicide in 1933, and though he was the love of her life, his well-intentioned recklessness with money left her in debt.  She was reluctant to accept any pension that ascribed his suicide to the stress of wanting to provide for her, but she was dependant on a War Widow’s pension for most of her life.  And when she did have money from her writing, she gave away quite large sums.

I had a sharp intake of breath when I read that ASIO Cold War busybodies would have liked to intervene to prevent her receiving a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship to write her masterpiece The Goldfields Trilogy.  Fortunately they didn’t know about the fellowship till it was too late because it funded the research trips which give her work such authenticity… but it makes me wonder, which other progressive writers had their work nobbled by ASIO? (There’s little doubt that ASIO nobbled the diplomatic career of KSP’s son Ric Throssell.)

As we’d expect it to, this prodigiously researched biography interrogates not only KSP’s life, working methods, political opinions, and flaws, it also analyses her work in the light of contemporary literary concerns.  It explores her representation of Indigenous Australians, drawing attention not only to her pioneering works about the Stolen Generations, frontier violence and dispossession, but also acknowledging appropriation issues and misrepresentation of the reality of Aboriginal lives at that time.  The bio analyses the tension between KSP the novelist and KSP the Soviet propagandist, recognising KSP’s intransigent loyalty to Stalin which persisted long after his denunciation by Khrushchev.

But most importantly, this biography cements KSP’s place in Australian literature, and should lead to a revival of interest in her work.

Highly recommended.


Don’t forget: I will be hosting the online launch of The Red Witch, details below.  It’s free, you don’t need to book in, and you don’t need to download anything.  Just click the link below when the meeting starts.

Online launch – The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Tuesday, 17 May 8:00pm AEST (6:00pm AWST)
Video call link: https://meet.google.com/sjt-nvhb-axc

Please join Nathan Hobby to celebrate the publication of
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (Miegunyah Press).
If possible, wear something red!
You may wish to drink a glass of dry sherry (Katharine’s favourite drink) or whatever else takes your fancy.

The book will be launched by Karen Throssell, poet, memoirist and granddaughter of Katharine Susannah Prichard.
Host: Lisa Hill, ambassador for Australian literature and ANZ Litlovers blogger
Speaker: Dr Nathan Hollier, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing
Finishing with questions and discussion.


Author: Nathan Hobby
Title: The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
Publisher: Miegunyah Press (an imprint of Melbourne University Press) 2022
Cover design by Pfisterer + Freeman
ISBN: 9780522877380, hbk, 480 pages including Afterword, Notes, List of works by KSP, Bibliography, Acknowledgements and an Index, plus B&W Photos insert
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from MUP.

*The Miegunyah Fund was established by bequests under the wills of philanthropists Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade, and its name comes from the house in which they lived.  (Some readers may remember that I have previously reviewed Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection, edited by Alisa Bunbury.)


Responses

  1. Thanks for the great review Lisa
    I look forward to buying a copy of The Red Witch and learning more about KSP who I certainly admire as a writer. It is interesting to speculate how much both the adversity of her personal life and the general disapproval of her political views at the time gave her writing that particular edgy feel that still comes through today.

    Cheers
    Chris

    Like

    • You are going to love this, Chris…
      Nathan has the gift of bringing her to life and I really felt bereft when I got to the end of it, I felt as if I’d lost her.
      I’ve bought Ric Throssell’s book too, because I was fascinated by him as well. (It’s available Print on Demand from A&R’s House of Books).

      Like

  2. High praise indeed Lisa – it sounds remarkably good!

    Like

  3. I will read in more detail and reply properly when I’ve read my copy. So glad you liked it though.

    Like

  4. Reblogged this on Nathan Hobby, a biographer in Perth and commented:
    This is a review I will always treasure!

    Like

  5. Interesting review — am really looking forward to the online launch and to reading Nathan’s bio!

    BTW, Hugo Throssell killed himself in 1933, not 1931 as you state in your review.

    Denise Faithfull

    Like

    • It will be lovely to see you there, Denise:)
      PS Thanks for pointing out my error, I’ve fixed it now.

      Like

  6. I have laboured mightily over my own review of The Red WItch (out Weds) and agree with your praise. Nathan has written a detailed and well-argued work.

    Like

    • I love LitBios as you know, but not all of them are great to read. I started, for example, a bio of Henry Handel Richardson, and ended up putting it aside. I really like HHR’s novels and would like to know more about her, but that bio is a bit of a plod. Whereas Nathan’s is a pleasure to read whether you know anything about KSP’s novels or not.

      Like


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