Pictures: Katharine in the Western Mail 26 September 1929 and the Newcastle Herald 28 October 1941.
It’s the end of the 2010s. On Twitter, people have been putting up comparison photos of themselves at the beginning and end of the decade; these two are as close as I could get for Katharine in the 1930s. She didn’t talk much about decades, but the turning of the decades often happened to be hinge points of her life.
One hundred years ago, late in 1919, she wrote to her old friend Nettie Palmer to say how well life had worked out for her. In the aftermath of the Great War, she had married Hugo Throssell, moved states to settle with him in Greenmount and was already one of the leading figures among political radicals in Perth. Her marriage had been happy so far and her outlook was positive.
Yet Katharine finished the 1920s—her most productive decade creatively—exhausted of ideas and with her marriage under strain. The stock market had recently crashed and Hugo was in trouble as the Depression began, having borrowed heavily to buy property. It was at this point that a new organiser came to Perth to reinvigorate the Communist Party and Katharine recommitted to political involvement.
Ten years later, at the end of 1939, World War Two had broken out and the widowed Katharine faced another decision point: whether or not to stay loyal to Joseph Stalin. Through the 1930s, Australian communists had been warning about the rise of fascism around the world. Now they were shocked by the Soviet Union’s agreement not to fight Nazi Germany. There was also news of thousands of Russians imprisoned or executed in the Great Terror. In Australia, one of Katharine’s old friends criticised Stalin and was expelled from the party. In another defining moment, Katharine decided the Soviet Union was still the hope for the world, and hardened her heart against any dissent.
Even if we don’t actually live our lives in decades, they matter to biographers—they’re a measuring stick and can give a sense of structure to a person’s story. As our own new decade begins, I’m moving on to the 1940s in Katharine’s life and trying to understand the woman she was at that time, after the crucial decision point at the end of 1939.
Check out Nathan’s creative non-fiction piece in the new Westerly 64.2: “‘As my great day approaches’: Katharine Susannah Prichard in 1969”.