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Your KS #53: Katharine Susannah on living through hard times

Picture:, Sunday Times, 27 July 1919, 1

There’s only a handful of Australians alive today who have any memory of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920. It’s the only comparable event to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Spanish flu broke out in Australia in January 1919 and lasted till August, killing about fifteen thousand Australians in all—half of them aged in their twenties and thirties—and millions around the world. Katharine and Hugo were married on the day Victoria was declared infected. All theatres and schools in Melbourne were closed. Despite Katharine living through this frightening time straight after the Great War, I’ve not found anything about her reaction to it. There’s no surviving letters from these months and when she came to remember this period, she didn’t mention it. Her silence on it is understandable; no-one close to her died in it, it was overshadowed by the war, and it didn’t have as strong a political element other major events had.

Katharine lived through so many difficult times—two world wars, the Great Depression, and personal tragedies. Can we learn anything from her about surviving? Biographical lessons are never simple and often inapplicable. A steady stream of cigarettes helped keep Katharine through some of these times, but let’s not take up that habit. And during the Spanish flu pandemic she attended a horrendous number of political meetings and rallies. Again, a very bad example when physical distancing is our best weapon. And then there’s her great consolation over the second half of her life: her determination to ‘work for the great ideas of communism and world peace’. World peace, at least, is something we could all wish for.

But there are other things about Katharine’s responses which I do find useful today. Firstly, she was more resilient because she expected hardships and tragedies; they didn’t surprise her. When she was unusually happy in her early marriage to Hugo Throssell she wrote to Nettie Palmer that she was waiting for something bad to happen. Secondly, she didn’t wait for life to become easy before she wrote; she rewrote Roaring Nineties, for example, during the early months of 1944 when her health was bad and in the midst of the disruption and anxiety of World War Two. Thirdly, she found pleasure and solace in simple things—flowers, the bush, poetry, a glass of sherry on the verandah. Finally, there is the example of Katharine as letter-writer. Like many of her generation, she wrote many letters and it was an important connection to the wider world. Especially in her later years, she lived an isolated life in her Greenmount house; many of us are tasting something similar during the pandemic. She would write of everyday life and its frustrations, of the books she was reading, and the news of the day, to correspondents around the world, including her son in Canberra, her literary pen-pals in Moscow, and friends she had made over the years like a teacher from Boulder, Doon Stone, and Miles Franklin, her writer friend in Sydney. We shouldn’t neglect the power of correspondence in these days.

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