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Your KS #51: Katharine Stays with Miles Franklin

- Pictures: page from “Item 40: Miles Franklin pocket diary, 1947”, and #174 from “Photographs of Miles Franklin, c. 1879-1954”, both available online from SLNSW.

The State Library of New South Wales has done a wonderful thing for literary history: they’ve digitised the letter, diaries, and other papers of the great Australian writer Miles Franklin (1879-1954). Miles was friends with Katharine Susannah Prichard; they started writing to each other in 1930 and kept up a correspondence until the end of Miles’ life. Jill Roe’s comprehensive biography of Miles pointed me to a glimpse of Katharine in August 1947 when Katharine came to stay with Miles in Sydney for two nights. Thanks to the digitisation, it now took me just five minutes—and no trip to Sydney—to find Miles’ account of it in her pocket diary.

The visit came at a time when Katharine was living in Canberra with her son, Ric, after his first wife’s sudden death. Katharine was just starting the third book of her goldfields trilogy, Winged Seeds, and wanted to do some research at the state library in Sydney. I have the impression Miles felt put out. ‘Was all set to go to town … but KSP telephoned at 8am that she wd be with me after dinner.’ Miles had to put aside her work on her novel Cockatoos to spend a ‘frantic day… fitting 2 rooms’. She brought Katharine breakfast in bed each morning and she wrote that on 23 August, ‘K & I had [a] nice fire & got [to] bed by midnight’.

I confess I’m disappointed that this account she left is quite mundane. As a biographer, I want telling details, colour, personal drama, literary or political significance. What did they talk about? How did Katharine seem in health and spirit? I’d even settle for what she brought Katharine for breakfast, or a snide remark about Katharine’s discarded cigarette butts. None of these, not even from a writer like Miles Franklin in the safe space of her diary! Admittedly a pocket diary like this did not have room for more than a bare summary of events. And biographers are long reconciled to working with whatever has washed up on the shore from the distant land of the past. I wouldn’t have even known about Katharine’s trip if Miles hadn’t written about it in her diary, and I take delight in the picture of these two characterful writers under the same roof.

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