Nathan in front of the writers’ mural at Emerald Lake Park with KSP, Vance and Nettie Palmer, and CJ Dennis
In January, my intermittent, non-chronological retracing of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s steps took me, my wife Nicole, and six-month old Thomas to Emerald. It’s on the outskirts of Melbourne in the Dandenongs. I wasn’t prepared for just how beautiful the Dandenongs are: the windy roads take you between villages through giant trees, rich soil, and idyllic creeks.
Katharine was there in 1918 for the whole year, writing Black Opal. I’m not up to 1918 in my biography yet, but I know enough to grasp what a turning point it was for her. She needed to retreat from the city after a frantic couple of years and two tragedies, her brother having died in the war a couple of months after her close friend died in childbirth. She was living in Rose Charman Cottage, taking over the lease from the writers Nettie and Vance Palmer. (Soon after, her mother bought it for her with the inheritance from Katharine’s dead brother.) The cottage still stands, 2km out of Emerald, which, according to John Larkins’ Book of the Dandenongs “in those days… had less than thirty houses, three churches, a few stores, a wine bar, a blacksmith, and a police station.” (137) The current owner, a writer herself, was kind enough to let us see the property. I was nervous, wanting to suck in as much of the atmosphere of the place as I could, determined not to waste the opportunity. Perhaps I was influenced by just how much Hugo Throssell’s biographer, John Hamilton, claimed to experience in his visit; he channelled the ghosts of that place better than I did. The house is so much bigger now, extended over the decades from a four-roomed cottage into two large houses. The owner after Katharine cultivated an extraordinary garden which now dominates the property. I should know that few places remain the same or hold the past firm. That gap between the past and present, the sense of the years covering over the traces is important to the biographer. And what’s more, there was still something uncanny about walking the same ground as Katharine and imagining that quiet year of her life as she read Karl Marx, wrote her novel, and decided Hugo Throssell was the man for her.
Emerald celebrates Katharine as one of its literary inhabitants in a mural at the Emerald Lake Park—she’s there along with the Palmers and CJ Dennis who wrote “The Sentimental Bloke” in nearby Kallista. I first heard of this mural when KSP Writers' Centre’s Guy Salvidge posted photos of it, and I was glad to see it in person. It’s rare for writers to be celebrated in Australia—there should be more of it.
More on Katharine at Nathan’s blog, Biographer in Perth