Picture: Katharine Susannah Prichard and Ric Throssell, ca. 1926. National Library of Australia, MS6201/1/14.
In the middle of winter, days at the beach are a distant memory. But re-reading Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Intimate Strangers, I’ve been transported to a long summer at the beach in 1929, where the first half is set. It’s a novel drenched in seawater and sand, lovingly evoking Perth beaches in the fictional place of Calatta, based on Rockingham. Greg and Elodie, the main characters spend four weeks on holiday there and return several times, including for the resolution. All the characters seem to live to swim or sunbake or walk along the beach or fish.
Katharine began it while on holiday in Rockingham in January 1929 before the Depression and finished the first draft at the height of it. The shift in the real world is mirrored in the novel— in the first half, Greg and Elodie’s problem is their boredom with marriage and middle class life; this is compounded in the second half by the threat of unemployment and financial ruin.
Even though Katharine didn’t want to pin it down, her fictional place, ‘Calatta’, is full of descriptions of Rockingham. In the archives I recently found a letter she wrote from Penguin Island off the coast of Rockingham, describing the fishermen she’s visited in their shacks near Point Peron. Many of their details are used in the novel, right down to the name of one of them, Prospero. Intimate Strangers preserves a fascinating picture of what it was like to spend summer days at Rockingham, when it was a holiday town and not a suburb, such as in this passage:
Already all the shacks and bungalows, wooden boxes of houses along the cliff, were beginning to disgorge brilliant crowds of sea urchins, sea lovers. The white road bearing down on the sun-blasted dunes, from thick scrub beyond, bore a moving train of cars, motor cycles and buses. A motley of vehicles parked along the road near the jetty where a crop of new small shops, tobacconists, stores and restaurants sprouted in tawdry disarray. Picnickers were flowing in every direction, along the road and the jetty over the beaches. (1990 edition, p.36)