Hobby, Nathan. The Red Witch: a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2022. RRP: $49.99, 451pp, ISBN: 9780522877380.
Readers are advised that the following review contains mention of suicide.
Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883–1969) stands out as a quintessentially Australian author. Her literary oeuvre, published between 1899–1969 and which depicts bush, outback, mining and goldfield settings, broke ground for generations of settler-colonial novelists whose immersive locations become a character unto themselves: that of Australiana. Biographer and librarian Nathan Hobby, who completed his PhD on the early life of Prichard at the University of Western Australia, is well-suited to the enterprise of chronicling the exploits of such a venerable and controversial historical figure, whose National Library of Australia records occupy twenty-four archival boxes spanning 3.6 metres. Archival research often involves ‘detective work and/or jigsaw puzzling’ (Carlin & Rendle-Short 12): both activities are evident in this work, which is ambitious in scope and rigorous in citational practice. Hobby describes weaving Prichard’s biography from an ‘archival trail’ that also includes records from a previous biographer’s abandoned attempt, letters to and from Prichard, ‘notebooks, clippings, ASIO files, government documents, and photographs’ (xi). Hobby’s respect and admiration for his subject is evidenced by the exactness of his research, which is not so reverential as to conceal half-truths or missteps, and this biography has been awarded the 2023 WA Premier Book of the Year.
The Red Witch is a broad survey of the life, loves, literature and politics of Katharine Susannah Prichard. Hobby places the events of her life alongside global sociohistorical events to contextualise her more radical convictions against the backdrop of Nazism, suffrage, war and conscription. In 1906 Prichard met Austrian socialist and academic Rudolf Broda, who exposed her to leftist politics for the first time. Hobby notes Prichard’s Stalinism as a ‘dark part of her legacy’ which arose not out of malice but due to self-deception stemming from her ‘fundamentalist faith in the Soviet Union’ (ix).
In Prichard’s early life she desperately sought the approval of her hard-line conservative father, Tom, who wanted her to be an angel of domesticity. Her ambitious literary goals, sense of adventure and extremist politics might be interpreted as a rebellion against the gendered role he prescribed for her. Still, when her father struggled with depression, Prichard ‘bargained with God, promising to believe in his existence if Tom recovered’ (45). Tom’s suicide in 1907 closed the door on religion for Prichard.
Around this time, Lieutenant-Colonel William Thomas Reay, politician and editor of the Herald in Melbourne, began a decade of oppressive influence upon Prichard, who referred to him as her Preux Chevalier—her valiant knight—in her autobiography Child of the Hurricane (1963). This was despite Reay having a wife and family.
Reay clandestinely, patiently and obsessively courted Prichard, never mind their twenty-five-year age gap, until her attachment grew. Hobby marks Reay as Prichard’s first lover and the likely inspiration for her erotic poem ‘Lips of My Love’ (1914). Urging her to reject her father’s conservatism, Reay co-opted the role of father figure. I imagine their relationship, with its unequal power dynamics, to have been financially advantageous for Prichard, whose family struggled ‘in genteel poverty’ (18): Reay was Prichard’s boss at the Herald across 1909 and 1910, and their globe-crossing movements (to London then New York and back) coincided in the years before Prichard achieved material success. While Prichard’s attitudes toward sex, marriage and birth control were a century before her time, she was just as vulnerable to coercive control as women throughout history, and Reay preyed upon Prichard’s tragic past, caging her with his threat ‘to kill himself if she ever married anyone else’ (54). The threat of death blanketed her life like a fog; she lived with gusto in spite of her grief.
Prichard’s works are revered for their lush depictions of countryside, wherein she flexes an encyclopaedic knowledge of flora, as well as her on-the-ground scenes where she captures the essence of human relations with a journalist’s eye. The Red Witch is at its most delightful where the sedimenting of meticulously recorded facts gives way to words parsed from Prichard’s private journals. Only four of her notebooks from 1916–1979 survived Prichard’s ‘purge of her papers before her death’ (109). We get a sense of the magic she wove with words, where she notes her ‘connection to nature’ as ‘balm for the pain of love’ (110). In the first of these journals, inscribed at Black Rock, she reminisces on a previous sojourn with Reay while simultaneously pining for her younger lover, Guido Baracchi, whom she met en voyage from Ceylon to Melbourne in December 1915. By June 1916, Prichard and Victoria Cross recipient Hugo Throssell, whom she would later marry, had begun a ravenous few days of love-making. Hobby notes that Prichard was still involved with Baracchi until at least November 1917, and that Reay was awaiting her return in London. Her heart was pulled ‘in three directions’ (113).
Prichard married Throssell in 1919, giving birth to baby Ric in 1922. Prichard and Throssell remained together, although often separated by her research trips or political engagements, until his suicide in 1933, following a series of failed speculative investments and business ventures. History repeated itself many years later when Ric suicided after the death of his beloved.
Having found success with The Pioneers (1915), Prichard began work on Black Opal (1921), immersing herself in the mining fields at Lightning Ridge. Research trips were Prichard’s ‘signature method’ (115): she stayed at Turee Station for Coonardoo (1929), toured with Wirth’s Circus for Haxby’s Circus (1930) and her assignments as governess served as early de facto research. Prichard was oblivious to ‘the dispossession and enslavement of Aboriginal people’ (192) during her stay at Turee in 1926, although her novel The Roaring Nineties (1946) was ‘haunted by the presence of displaced and mistreated Aboriginal people’ (33). Her play Brumby Innes (1940) focused on the sexual exploitation of an Aboriginal child by a station owner, inspired by events at Prairie Downs in 1925. Hobby suggests that the cultural appropriation at work in Prichard’s ‘The Cooboo’ and ‘Happiness’ might have been considered ‘act[s] of literary empathy’ at the time (195).
Jeanine Leane reminds us that settler-colonial representation of Aboriginal people in canonical texts such as Prichard’s Coonardoo (1920), which is the story of a repressed interracial relationship between a station owner and an Aboriginal woman, ‘becomes the authoritative narrative of settler colonialism’, othering and erasing Aboriginal voices (np). Although Hobby responds thoughtfully to discourse such as Leane’s which has emerged over problematic representations in Prichard’s novels, when summarising the contents of each of Prichard’s works he overlooks other portrayals which have aged less well. For example, in Haxby’s Circus (1930), Prichard paints Bruiser the strongman in blackface (75), and her protagonist Gina repeatedly ruminates on how grotesque and deformed Rocca the dwarf is. It is difficult to know what to do with historical literature that perpetuates outdated modes of depiction. In the translators’ introduction to the reissue of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Wild Thought, a reader is reminded that the book is temporally located in 1962, a time when sexist and ‘ethnocentric (“primitive”) language […] were standard’ (xviii), and I think such a forewarning is a helpful starting place for a reprint. However, where Philippe Lejeune defines an author ‘as simultaneously a socially responsible real person and the producer of a discourse’ (11), I am guided to believe that the ‘referential pact’ of the biographer depends upon the telling of the whole truth (22). One book, however, cannot contain the sum of a lifetime.
The connective tissue that Hobby has woven between archival fragments will serve as invaluable resource for future literary scholars and historians interested in the influence that the Communist Party had in Australia in the early to mid–twentieth century, ensuring that the brave and adventurous spirit of Katharine Susannah Prichard, the influence of her literary legacy and the lessons to be gleaned from her misguided politics will endure for posterity.
Carlin, David and Francesca Rendle-Short. ‘Nonfiction Now: a (non)introduction’. TEXT 18 (2013). Sourced at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue18/Carlin&RendleShort.pdf.
Leane, Jeanine. ‘Other Peoples’ Stories’. Overland 225 (2016). Sourced at: https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-225/feature-jeanine-leane/.
Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Translated by Katherine Leary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Wild Thought: a new translation of ‘La Pensée Sauvage’. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman and John Leavitt. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2021.
Prichard, Katharine Susannah. Haxby’s Circus. North Ryde, NSW: Sirius, 1988.
Jenny Hedley’s writing appears in Overland, Archer Magazine, Cordite Poetry Review, Diagram, Mascara Literary Review, Verity La, Admissions: Voices within Mental Health and elsewhere. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Website: jennyhedley.github.io/