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Your KS #16: The novel Katharine Susannah regretted

Most aspiring writers would give anything to be published. But what if, sometimes, there’s a manuscript you just shouldn’t publish? One that should stay buried in the proverbial bottom drawer of your desk? Katharine Susannah Prichard would have said this about one of her novels—her second one, Windlestraws—published as a book in November 1916, one hundred years ago this month. There will be no centenary republication, no articles anywhere except here marking the anniversary. Katharine regarded it as her worst novel.

There’s only sixteen copies listed on the world library catalogue; another of them lives here at the KSP Writers' Centre. The novel is a light romance set in London, telling the tale of Gene (a young woman, despite the name) and Peter, who run into each other on the brink of despair after failing to make it in the great city. They decide on a ruse: they will pretend to be Prince and Princess Varof of Russia and convince a theatre producer, on the strength of their name, to stage Peter’s play with Gene as the lead dancer. The plan works, until Peter’s real identity as an actual prince is revealed, and at that point he stands up to his family and runs away with Gene. Overall, it’s not a memorable novel, written to a commercial formula and not excelling within the genre.

At the time she wrote it, living in London from 1911 to 1915, Katharine couldn’t find a publisher. But Katharine became a literary celebrity in 1915 when her novel The Pioneers won the Hodder & Stoughton novel competition and new doors were open to her. Melbourne’s Age serialised Windlestraws each Saturday from 25 March 1916 to 10 June 1916, twelve installments in all. (If you want to read it for yourself, the easiest way would be to search for it on the Trove website.) The book was not published by Hodder and Stoughton but the somewhat obscure firm of Holden & Hardingham. They spelled her name wrong throughout – “Pritchard” – which makes me suspect they did not take the greatest care with the book.

Katharine seemed to have later thought it would be better not to have published the novel. It did not help her literary reputation, and it risked pigeonholing her as a writer of commercial fiction when that was not what she wanted. The writing life is a difficult balancing act – usually we need to seize opportunities to publish when they come up; but it takes real courage and wisdom to know when to say “no” to an opportunity or to give up on a manuscript.

  • More on Katharine at Nathan’s blog,

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