Nathan in front of the unassuming Mechanics’ Institute in Yarram, built in 1885,
where KSP played the lead role in Sweet Lavender.
In January, after visiting Emerald where Katharine Susannah Prichard lived in 1918, I moved further back in time, driving on with Nicole and baby Thomas to Yarram, the South Gippsland town where Katharine worked as a governess in 1904. Two-hundred and twenty kilometres south-east of Melbourne and off the main routes, even today it’s an isolated place. She was twenty years old and “it was an adventure into life, away from books.” (Child of the Hurricane, 70).
We were there two nights, staying in a renovated 1890s presbytery on the edge of town. Next door was the Mechanics’ Institute, where Katharine played the character Lavender in the Yarram Dramatic Society’s production of the sentimental melodrama, Sweet Lavender.
It’s the Yarram area which inspired Katharine’s first novel, The Pioneers, and visiting it I gained a sense of the land, the hills in the distance, the farm paddocks denuded of trees, the quaintness of the town and its nearby settlements, including old Port Albert. Katharine spent Easter there at “an old hotel” with the family she was working for. That timber hotel had been built in 1841 and was Victoria’s oldest continuously operating hotel when it was deliberately burnt down in 2014. We overheard the locals still talking about it in the temporary pub. Katharine remembered the seafood vividly from that holiday; the fish and chips we had were as amazing as she remembered.
On a hot day, just before we had to leave, we found the house she might have lived in. It was a wooden house with wide verandahs, dilapidated as if it hadn’t been repaired since 1904. It gave a stronger sense of the past than if it’d been neatly restored. The owner was standing on the verandah, and I called out to him. He was a man dazed with grief, his young son dying in a car accident the year before, and it made me feel how unimportant my quest was by comparison. He talked about the dark side of the town, saying that the park across the road was built on the old cemetery and when they dug out the pond they put up screens because of the bones they were unearthing.
Just in those two nights we got a sense of a town full of stories. That was Katharine’s experience of it too. When she came to write The Pioneers in London in 1913, she drew on all the notes she’d taken and memories she’d stored up. “Miss Prichard knows well the country of which she writes. Her material was gathered in talks with old people about the early days and the early settlers in the country. Some were survivors of the pioneering days. It is to a certain extent folk history.” (Examiner, March 30, 1915, 4.)
More on Katharine at Nathan’s blog, https://biographerinperth.wordpress.com.