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Your KS #10: Katharine Susannah appears in three new books

Sometimes it feels like Katharine Susannah Prichard has been forgotten. It’s disheartening the number of people who tell me they haven’t heard of her when I say I’m writing her biography. (Sometimes I wish they’d wear their ignorance a little less proudly.) But already in 2016 Katharine has appeared in three new books, showing us—if we needed any proof—that she’s far from forgotten.

Sylvia Martin’s Ink in Her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer (UWAP) is a great biography of a promising poet and activist who spent the last forty years of her life in and out of mental institutions. Aileen (1915-1988) was the daughter of an old friend of Katharine’s, Nettie Palmer, and when she was two-months-old Nettie took her across London to visit Katharine’s flat. Katharine was a mentor to Aileen for the next fifty-four years. They would come to share a commitment to the Communist Party, something Katharine did not have in common with her son or Aileen with her parents. Katharine paid for the printing of a collection of Aileen’s poems (p. 265) and Ric Throssell believes Aileen was one of the models for the peace activist, Sharn, in Katharine’s final novel Subtle Flame (1967). (Wild Weeds and Windflowers, note 123) Ink in Her Veins is well worth reading for its portrait of a troubled soul living in the same milieu as Katharine.

Lekkie Hopkins’ biography of Australia’s first Labor woman elected to parliament, The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman (Fremantle Press), credits Katharine’s activism as an inspiration to May Holman (1893-1939) in the conservative Perth of the 1920s. She thinks it must be more than a co-incidence that May’s Timber Industry Regulation Bill, dedicated to improving safety for WA’s timber workers, appeared in 1926, the same year as Katharine’s novel Working Bullocks fictionalised the dangers and conditions they faced. Although there is no evidence of their meeting at this time, Hopkins imagines a scene where they discuss politics in a West Perth tea-house.

Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling (UQP) discusses Katharine’s depiction of Aboriginal women in the novel Coonardoo (1928), arguing that it is “a story of white sorrow, not black empowerment” and that even sympathetic novels like this continue to perpetuate stereotypes in the present day. It is a critique that is important to hear, even if it’s impossible for a novel written over eighty years ago to reflect today’s understandings. Coonardoo may find itself even more in the spotlight over the next few years—a new critical edition is being prepared as well as the possibility of a film adaptation.

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