Pictured left: Katharine's novel, The Black Opal
I’ve been researching Katharine Susannah Prichard’s trip to the opal fields at Lightning Ridge in northern New South Wales in August and September 1916. She was at a key point in her writing career, deciding how she would follow up on the success of The Pioneers.
She made a crucial decision: she would write about rural Australia rather than attempting to write about cities. Her only attempt at a city novel, Windlestraws, had been serialised earlier in 1916 and was due to be published in Britain, but she knew it would not bring her acclaim or literary fulfilment. Her successes with The Pioneers and the earlier magazine serial A City Girl in Central Australia (1906) may have made her feel that she was at her best writing as an observer of rural communities.
Lightning Ridge is an isolated inland town. It was full of colourful characters and stories in 1916—as it probably is today, too—and Katharine filled her notebook with everything she saw and heard.
In Black Opal she weaves these together with her developing political convictions—the miners’ way of life is threatened by a wealthy American capitalist who wants to buy up all the mines—and a character with some similarities to herself named Sophie, the beautiful daughter of one of the miners.
It would be a hard road to publication for Black Opal. As she worked on it, her lover, Guido Baracchi, betrayed her, her brother died in the war, and her close friend Sumner Locke died in childbirth. Yet she persisted and wrote her most significant work so far, finishing it in 1918 before she became engaged to Hugo Throssell. Another blow came as her publisher demanded extensive changes she disagreed with. She found a new publisher and Black Opal was finally released in 1921.
It reminds us, if we needed it, that literary success rarely comes easily, even to writers who seem to have made it.