For several months now, it’s been 1905 for me. In May of that year, at the age of twenty-one, Katharine Susannah Prichard set out to work for six months as a governess for the Quin family at the Tarella Station in far-western New South Wales. It was a critical season in Katharine’s life. She fell in love for the first time with a man she calls “Red Beard,” real name Alfred Quin. Although she makes only a veiled reference to it, she would have spent time with his sister, Tarella Quin, who was just emerging as a children’s author. It was also the longest she ever spent in the back-country which would inspire so much of her work. The station bordered an opal field, the setting for her third novel, Black Opal (1921); station life might also have provided the first spark for the novel which would become Coonardoo (1929).
Even before these two novels, Katharine wrote about her time at Tarella in a serial called “A City Girl in Central Australia,” which ran for six episodes in The New Idea in 1906 (not the same publication as the women’s magazine still published today). “City Girl” is a curious blend of autobiography and fiction. A spirited young woman named “Kit” (one of Katharine’s nicknames) writes letters home to “Ma-Mie,” detailing her observations of station life and her misbegotten romance with Billy Northwest. Billy starts as the coach driver protecting Kit from a “brute” of a fellow passenger; later he works on the station and is sacked as the socialist leader of a shearing strike. When Kit happens to be visiting the opal field, she finds him on his deathbed after he was pushed down a mineshaft and the two profess their love for each other before he dies.
At the time of its magazine publication, “City Girl” was popular and Katharine hoped it would be published as a standalone book. Retitling it “Letters from the Back O’Beyond,” she pasted the episodes into a scrapbook and wrote a preface. However, her hopes were not realised and the scrapbook sits among her papers at the National Library, “City Girl” almost forgotten. Rejection was something Katharine, like most great writers, knew a lot about. In retrospect, it’s probably fortunate that it was not republished as her first novel; it’s a fascinating work, but it’s also inconsistent and immature.
More on Katharine at Nathan’s blog, https://biographerinperth.wordpress.com