There’s a small but significant subgenre of novels called “biographical quests,” most notably A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990). In these novels, the biographer-hero unearths hidden letters or diaries which reveal the full picture of their subject’s life. As a biographer in the real world, I’ve found that most discoveries are modest and tend to occur either in the anonymous archive boxes already held in the library or on the internet in digitised newspapers or records. I’ve contacted a number of descendants of people who knew Katharine Susannah Prichard, hoping there might be some previously unknown letters. Until last month, none had turned up.
Then Jocelyn Cook came to Shannon at KSP Writers' Centre with the papers of her late father, Cyril Cook. Cyril had written a Master’s thesis, “A Critical Study of Katharine Susannah Prichard as a Novelist” in the early 1950s. Jocelyn generously donated his papers and collection of Katharine’s books to the centre. I couldn’t believe it—I’d been hoping that somewhere Cyril’s papers might still exist, and here they were.
Cyril was the first to write a thesis on Katharine; it was based on a number of face-to-face interviews with her, as well as including an extract from her notebooks and family photographs.
The other reason his thesis is significant is because of the controversy surrounding it, documented in the first biography of Katharine, Wild Weeds and Windflowers, written by her son, Ric Throssell. In the original 1950 draft of Cyril’s thesis—which is not among his papers—he apparently attempted to analyse Katharine’s politics and life in Freudian terms. She objected and Cyril rewrote this section. However, Katharine wrote to Ric saying that “this attempt at giving biographical details, so out of tune with the facts, has made me realize that I ought to write my own biography, in order to prevent such queer versions being concocted.” Katharine did indeed begin writing her autobiography soon after, which she had previously been thinking about doing, but had not got around to starting. I am very glad that Katharine wrote her autobiography, but Ric saw it as unfortunate, as it took more than a decade and kept her from other projects. Although Katharine had continued working on friendly terms with Cyril after he removed the Freudian speculations, she was very unhappy when, in June 1951, she read the final version of his thesis and felt he’d focused only on the critics who’d reacted negatively to her work.
The Cyril Cook papers include three invaluable letters from Katharine to Cyril. Importantly, they reveal more about her shift in attitude toward the thesis. They also show some of the complexity of her character—her deeply caring side (offering comfort and advice) as well as the hurt tone she could adopt when on the defensive.
I’d half thought that after reading the papers I’d come away with everything clarified. Instead, I found that the story of Cyril Cook and Katharine Susannah Prichard had become more complex and a little richer. I should have realised I wasn’t living in a biographical quest novel.