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Your KS #25: The early life of Katharine Susannah Prichard in three minutes

Last month, the English and Cultural Studies discipline at UWA held a three-minute thesis session. Like other participants, I had to sum up my research in three minutes. It was a good exercise in working out what to highlight and the many things to leave out. For this month’s column, here’s a three-minute version of the biography I’m writing for my PhD thesis.

Katharine Susannah Prichard is a major Australian novelist of the inter-war period. People usually know her for three things. Firstly as author of Coonardoo. Secondly as an infamous communist. Thirdly, for her marriage to a war hero, Hugo Throssell, who committed suicide during the Depression.

My thesis is a biography of her early life from birth in 1883 to marriage in 1919—the story of Katharine before she was any of these things. I recover her as a Melbourne writer, the place she spent most of her early years before moving to WA. I amplify, correct, and give context to her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane (1963), which covers this same period.

In her autobiography, Katharine passed over her early writing, including a spirited serial called “A City Girl in Central Australia” (1906), based on six months spent in outback New South Wales working as a governess. I find new significance in these writings and their various mixes of romance, autobiography, and political intent. I give the full story of her literary development and the writing of her breakthrough 1915 novel, The Pioneers.

Understandably, Katharine told the story of falling in love with Hugo during the war in a rather air-brushed way. She left out her long romance with a playboy student radical named Guido Baracchi. This relationship and a long affair with a newspaper editor she called the Preux Chevalier shaped her significantly. One of my discoveries is the real name of the Preux Chevalier and just how enmeshed he was with her early adult life.

Katharine wrote that in 1917 she was crossing the Princes Bridge when she saw posters proclaiming the Russian Revolution. The sun broke through a cloud at that moment and she took it as an omen, leading her to study Marx and commit to communism. Yet her political journey was more complicated than this. She and other radicals were still influenced by an alternative theory, syndicalism, right up to the formation of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920.

Precocious child, governess, journalist, and finally celebrated author, my thesis is the full story of the formation of Katharine Susannah Prichard.

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