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Your KS #7: Katharine the Celebrity, Melbourne 1916

Exactly a hundred years ago, Katharine Susannah Prichard returned to Melbourne after five years abroad. Celebrity mattered even during the war, and having won the Hodder and Stoughton Novel £1000 Competition the previous year for her first published novel, The Pioneers, Katharine was a celebrity for a season. One newspaper reported that she “is the woman of the moment in Melbourne this week, and we are just tumbling over one another to say ‘we are proud of you, and welcome home,’ and to eagerly scan the appearance of the now famous one in search of any traces of the ‘glory’ disposed perhaps somewhere about her person. But, no! Outwardly and visibly it is the same bright, sweet face, with maybe an additional lustre and meaning in the dark eyes. Slim and willowy she is, with a certain ‘spring’ and vivacity of movement that betrays the alert mind and vividly ‘alive’ temperament…”[1]

On a Wednesday night in February 1916, two of Katharine’s journalist friends organised a dinner to honour her at Café Francais. “The tables were decorated with baskets of cactus dahlias, with boomerangs crossing them. The menu cards were works of art, the special one presented to Miss Prichard being bound loosely in tooled leather and painted by Miss Hope Campbell (“Boz”) with a scene from The Pioneers.”[2] That souvenir menu survives a century later in the archive boxes of the National Library, recording the dinner they ate that night: devilled oysters, fillet of whiting orly, cotelette d’Agneau a la Francais (French lamb chop), Chicken en Casserole, with Bombe Surprise and iced peaches for desert and a choice of hock, claret, ale, lager, and mineral waters to drink. (Although the cuisine was French, the head chef was a naturalised German, Harry Don; in April, he was dismissed after a “patriotic” campaign by a Melbourne newspaper.[3]) Among the guests in attendance was the painter Frederick McCubbin in the penultimate year of his life; his triptych The Pioneer had inspired Katharine’s novel.[4] Despite all the adulation, fifty years later when she wrote her autobiography Katharine was still stung that Nettie and Vance Palmer and Hilda and Louis Esson were missing. Ovker-sensitive, she assumed it was because they didn’t like The Pioneers.[5]

While Katharine would have enjoyed the season of fame after years of hard work, she may not have been too upset when the attention died down and she could focus on the challenge of her next novel, a task that would occupy the next three years, along with a tumultuous love life and heightening political conviction.

More on Katharine at Nathan’s blog, Biographer in Perth

[1] “The Ladies’ Letter,” Punch (Melb.), February 17, 1916, 32.

[2] “Ladies’ Letter,” Table Talk (Melb.), February 24, 1916, 28.

[3] “Francias Chef Not Yet Dismissed,” Graphic of Australia (Melb.), April 7, 1916, 3.

[4] “Personal,” Argus, February 17, 1916, 6.

[5] Prichard, Hurricane, 215.

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