The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard
by Nathan Hobby
MUP/The Miegunyah Press
Published May 2022
In 1922, when Katharine Susannah Prichard’s son, Ric, was born, she had him placed in what she called his Bolshevik gown, ‘the little gown I had embroidered with wheat ears and a hammer and sickle.’ It’s a cute story, but also a prescient gesture towards Prichard’s decades-long, unwavering loyalty to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Prichard’s writing, Nathan Hobby’s biography reveals, was matched in intensity by her political activities. With these two pillars of interests set alongside each other in detailed accounts of her literary habits (in her early career she was a frequent submitter to writing prizes), and later her political organising (setting up CPA branches, travelling the country to give rousing speeches about the fight for communism in Australia), we see the broader picture emerge of a woman who was intensely engaged with her world, and with a seemingly unstoppable energy to pour back into it. Her prolific writing practice only seemed to be interrupted when her party duties took over. Even towards the end of her life, she reignited a writing habit: two hours per day. Prichard remained active in her political party until late into life and, even towards the end, living as an elderly eccentric, she managed to hold court, frequently hosting friends and visitors. There is a felt sense, in this biography, of her boundless energy.
In the preface to her monograph of the Scandinavian antifascist tapestry artist Hannah Ryggen, Marit Paasche describes the recent international trend to recuperate ‘lost’ women artists. She writes that ‘in lifting female artists out of obscurity and focusing attention on their greatness, we almost automatically assume that they were marginalized or overlooked in their own time.’ In Ryggen, Paasche discovers an artist who was acclaimed in her own time, the 1930s, but forgotten in recent decades. Comparatively, Prichard enjoyed peaks and troughs of literary success during her lifetime, winning prizes at certain points, being forgotten in favour of writers like Patrick White and Randolph Stow at others. Her novels were assigned to school curricula in the 1980s. But as a prominent founding member of the CPA who remained quite active in the party for decades, she was sometimes censored. ASIO in 1958 directed Good Neighbour magazine to remove her profile from a list of Australian writers recommended to newly arrived Australians on the basis of her communism. While this was nowhere near the level of censorship and erasure someone like singer Paul Robeson faced (whom Katharine herself met and hosted an event for when he visited Australia in 1960), thinking about Prichard alongside Ryggen, one starts to wonder whether we can explain away these erasures and troughs through gender only. How much of today’s diminished tradition of Leftism within art and literature can be explained by the ideological suppression by state and culture in the twentieth century? The Red Witch is less concerned with these big questions. There is meant to be something portentous about the arrival of a full-length account of Prichard’s life, but being recognised as ‘literary giant’ by a publisher is not the same, I think, as being recuperated.
For several reasons, many of which include the material conditions of her life, there are rich archival troves pertaining to Katharine Susannah Prichard. Ultimately, it means that a skilled researcher and attentive biographer can amass a great deal of materials from which to reconstruct a life, and there are not so many gaps to be filled. Nathan Hobby clearly marks out these infrequent gaps when he tells us what the author was probably thinking or doing at a certain point. Prichard’s fiction writing, as Hobby shows, revealed traces of her own experiences and her fastidious research. With so much material available for an author who remains a notable figure in Australian literature, what is the task of a biography of Prichard today? Hobby’s own preface lays bare the task he sets himself: ‘the more I looked at Katharine Susannah Prichard’s life, the more it seemed her many biographical mysteries and controversies hadn’t been untangled and her story had not yet been fully told.’ It’s the promise of a biographer working as a detective. As I made my way through Prichard’s rich and textured life, accounts of her tenacity, her naivety and her convictions, I found myself wondering what exactly was being untangled or fully told, given how closely Hobby’s account follows his meticulous research – if a synthesis is there it is essentially invisible. The purpose The Red Witch seems to be to bring Prichard’s life to light, untangled as promised, as opposed to forming any new knowledge or uncovering the unknowns.
Katharine Susannah Prichard lived within the band of the middle classes, hovering at the lower end at certain points in her life, and was prolific in several genres of writing, from creative works to correspondences with family, friends and lovers. In 1951 she was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is someone the small but determined Australian literary scenes in the early to mid twentieth century paid attention to, and wrote about. She may have wavered in and out of popularity but today remains part of the national literary canon, even if she is more of a household name in Western Australia than the eastern states – her home in Greenmount became the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the 1980s. For readers who are looking for a clean and readable overview of the life of the author, The Red Witch serves its purpose well. The untangling is in the presentation of the facts. But for those interested in what Prichard’s life might reveal about the worlds she inhabited, it seems to stop short of a position on the space in the cultural imagination that she holds today, or the trajectory of the Left in Australia and about the relationship between place and nation-building in settler literature. Or even, perhaps, a contribution to the question that has persisted in politically Left groups interested in culture since the Industrial Revolution: how does one make art and do politics? This last question was especially of interest to Prichard, and Hobby recounts not only her own relationship to her fiction as she turns to a more overt political message, but also the mixed critical reception these novels received. Her play The Burglar (1910), performed in Melbourne, is an attempt to bring socialist ideas and debates to a public audience. We learn that it was received by one critic as ‘cleverly constructed, and the sentiments uttered excellent’, but also that it was ‘too unnatural; the burglar horribly loquacious and given to excessive moralising.’ (Interestingly The Age gives the positive review while The Worker is more critical.) These more overtly communist literary works are precisely the kind Raymond Williams would take aim at as vulgar or determinist, a style of socialist realism that emerged in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and in the absence of a fully formed theory of culture put forth by Marx himself, but this context is not offered to us in the book at hand.
To its strength, The Red Witch is a tight and lucid biography that stays close to its subject while making room for the facts of Prichard’s life to emerge unadorned, and to reveal her contradictions and her successes without over-editorialising. It is structured in five parts that periodise the writer’s life from her birth in 1883 to Tom and Edith in Fiji, Tom’s colonial posting, until her death as an infamous knobbly ‘red witch’ living on the outskirts of Perth in 1969. The book generally follows a chronological order, and chapters are marked by geography and time, though there is the odd overlap of years, unavoidable redux and some foreshadowing of certain events. Her novel Intimate Strangers, a work that in part fictionalises Prichard’s marriage, is mentioned more than once in the context of her husband’s response to it (not entirely favourable) and how closely it might have been based on the couple. And there are unavoidable time jumps that occur from the chronology of Prichard’s writing record: novels that were written decades before they were published, or turned to periodically to highlight her not-always-accurate representations of her own life.
Hobby is present in the preface and the afterword. Everywhere else, he lets the sources to do the speaking. The accounts of Prichard’s literary works are removed from any real textual analysis, mostly confining themselves to accounting for real-life events that may have inspired characters or storylines, and critical reception to her novels. This is not necessarily a shortcoming of the book. As Hobby clarifies from the outset, ‘it is not a work of cultural history or a work of literary criticism.’ Besides, a biography that takes too much liberty with editorialising risks running up against issues of verisimilitude and anachronistic interpretations of historical contexts. But all of that said, there felt like some lost opportunities to not merely untangle her life but also try to hold up the results of the untangling a little more clearly. For example, there may have been something more to say on the strange and sad fact that Prichard’s father, husband and son all suicided, and whether this informed her political sensibilities or shaped her approach to life in any way. Her son died thirty years after her, but it is clear her life was marked by tragedy from a young age. Her brother Alan was wounded in combat in the First World War and later died. Her husband, Victoria Cross recipient Hugo Throssell, bore the traumas of war in his health for many years. She experienced financial struggle as a child when her father, Tom, faced unemployment on several occasions, and later as an adult when she returned from a long overseas trip to find her husband had racked up large amounts of debt in an attempt to turn their homestead in Perth into a rodeo. But our understanding of the impact of these events on her life is limited or not dwelled upon.
Similarly, episodic treatment is given to her various friendships and political circles. She maintains a lifelong close friendship with the writer and critic Nettie Palmer and later, Miles Franklin. After narrowly missing D.H. Lawrence during his visit to Darlington in 1922, Prichard strikes up an epistolary friendship with the author. (Henry Handel Richardson ‘fear[s] for her, if she cannot shake herself free of the apeing of D.H. Lawrence’.) An early former lover is Guido Baracchi, the scholar and Marxist political activist, and fellow founding member of the CPA; she meets poet and activist Lesbia Harford too, another lover of Baracchi’s, and there is something of a political rivalry there:
Guido wrote of Lesbia “speaking against conscription night after night at street corners” until she was sent to hospital with heart problems, only for her to sneak out of the ward and “break her silence the very next night from a soapbox”. In activist circles there can be an implicit competitiveness over who is the most radical; Lesbia would have been difficult to beat.
We see Prichard’s relationship to each of these figures in her orbit, but we never get a firm sense of her place in the broader sense of the Left movement in Australia, or the broad strokes of that Left movement itself.
I’m cautious of imposing my own, possibly selfish, reasons for finding something wanting in this text, because I was struck by the curious and sometimes fantastical details of Prichard’s life – the worldly travels and encounters that fed her writing. The somewhat severe personality that is revealed in her personal correspondence. Her tenacity and her strong affection for her son, and interest in his life even in his adulthood. These details raise a persistent question: how do we make sense of the material conditions of Prichard’s life, and the literary career she built, against the politics she came to adopt and become largely defined by? Her communism was peculiar, or perhaps it’s better to call it more orthodox (though again, I am wary of labelling or applying any puritanism to what communists should look and behave like, especially in early-twentieth-century Australia). Having originally voted for conscription in the first referendum, by the time the second referendum takes place, Prichard had come around to agitating against it, mobilising a nationalist argument in calling it ‘anti-Australian’. The account given of her activities, while remaining quite surface-level in many ways, do reveal a dedicated activist who did not seem to get caught up in factional disagreements.
In establishing the Perth branch of the Australian Communist Party Prichard formed and co-ran the Labor Study Circle, which ‘carried into the trade unions, unemployment camps, and ALP branches’. She was friends with radicals and trade unionists and was a fervent party member in its organisational dealings, but also maintained literary friendships across political lines, and in many ways lived a typically middle-class existence. That said, there remained something conservative, almost, in her communism, notably her commitment to Australian nationalism. This sits oddly against what I have always understood to be an internationalism at the heart of these historical communist movements. Of course it made strategic sense for Australian communists to invoke national spirit to counter conservatives’ claims that communism was harmful to the nation, and in the context of the period, national pride was not automatically something to be completely suspicious of. But it’s a context that is important to flesh out if we want to understand Prichard’s politics. Further, Hobby makes note of her ‘somewhat unlikely literary friendship’ with the conservative writer Henrietta Drake-Brockman, whom Prichard described as ‘a lover of Australia, our life and people’, which speaks to her ability to maintain some kind of separation between ‘real life’ and politics, revealing once more her sympathy towards national pride. And while it would be ham-fisted to interpret her literary works as explicitly, intentionally nation-building, her attention to detail in the landscape and the particulars of Australian’s lives are absolutely contributions to the settler mythscape, to borrow Jeanine Leane’s term, even as this works to counter the more frontier-focused literature of settlers, mostly men. The Red Witch shows us key themes in Prichard’s literature and plots them against the events of her life. We are even given the opportunity to notice, via Hobby’s selected inclusions, Prichard’s particular fondness for a certain type of bearded, outdoorsy man and the male characters and rural focus of several of her works, though again, not much apart from observation is made of this, despite the libidinal tensions it might reveal within her settler-colonial position.
We might take a brief moment now to observe Prichard’s political beliefs (which I see as related to but separate from her political activities). Hobby presents an almost religious fervour, a ‘fundamentalist faith’, to her convictions. He contextualises her support for Stalin at various points in history as frequently naïve:
It’s true that her loyalty to Stalin is a dark part of her legacy which needs to be reckoned with. In tracing her political journey in this biography, I found that she was guilty not of intentionally deceiving others nor of any evil intent but of deceiving herself.
I wonder, though, whether her critics actually thought her evil, and who exactly this defence is aimed at. Aside from her ‘disturbing’ views, there are some fascinating contradictions to this writer who, before her red awakening, was voting for conscription in the first referendum. Hobby is unflinching in this part of the account. He quotes Prichard directly when she writes about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, ‘And [I] have no patience with this “open door” policy for the sabotage of socialism as established in Czechoslovakia & the USSR.’ And he cites her letter of protest to the Tribune when the CPA publicly condemns the Soviet invasion. This is a woman whose self-admitted ‘hard-liner’ attitude sees her increasingly alienated from the political shifts in her party.
Hobby reserves a more spirited defence of his subject when dealing with contemporary criticisms from Aboriginal writers regarding Prichard’s position as a voice for Aboriginal stories. Prichard is one of those settler Australian writers who reminds us of how this nation was built, for better or for worse. That she was prominently of the Left during periods of great social and political turmoil offers a slight alternative to the literary works with which her novels share ‘nation-building’ status. In his account of the canonical treatment of Prichard’s acclaimed and troubling novel, Coonardoo, Hobby cites Wiradjuri academic Jeanine Leane, who points out the damage caused by the book in the school and wider culture contexts. Eualeyai/Kamillaroi academic Larissa Behrendt is also quoted criticising the work for its lack of imagination regarding Black empowerment. Hobby frames this characterisation of Prichard’s work as a failure ironic, ‘given Katharine’s politics.’ This is endnoted with two sources of text but no in-text capitulation of Prichard’s position. He goes on to show the way the novel briefly but ‘in a significant passage’ describes the massacres that were taking place during the mid 1920s, around the time she wrote the novel. Not incorrectly, Hobby presents to us a Prichard who did not quite hit the mark, but whose acknowledgement of the atrocities being committed towards Indigenous Australians was rare during its time. He presents ultimately a sympathetic read of Prichard’s treatment of Aboriginal characters and themes in her work, laid against her politics. It might have been more convincing if we had seen even some of what Prichard had written elsewhere. In a 1944 foreword to New Deal for the Aborigines by T.S. Wright, not cited in this biography, Prichard admonishes the pioneer settlers and government for the atrocities committed against the Aboriginal population, calling the treatment ‘a stain on the record of Australia as a self-governing State’. It is earnest and a little paternalistic, but gives a clearer sense of how Prichard’s political views developed over time, especially in relation to her literary works. She maintained her typically thorough research methods, living for months on a homestead, meeting and speaking with local Aboriginal workers and essentially stealing their stories for her fiction. The generous reading of this is that she was one of the early settler writers to attempt to give Aboriginal characters a presence and interiority in Australian fiction.
It’s true, too, that she didn’t limit this method of research to Aboriginal people she encountered. She drew on several figures from her life and pulled them into fiction, and Hobby takes care to lay these out in his descriptions of her literary writing. Hugo is remembered by son Ric as responding angrily to the novel Intimate Strangers, seeing the similarities clearly, despite the characters supposedly being based on an entirely different couple. But she also relied on racist sources such as The Australian Aboriginal by Herbert Basedow. Hobby points out Prichard ‘quotes approvingly a particularly offensive claim’ from the anthropologist, and appeals to Ernest Mitchell, Inspector of Aborigines, ‘to read the manuscript for accuracy’, which she can do because of a personal connection, but also because she deems him to have the widest knowledge and ‘more sympathetic understanding’ of the groups she writes about. A more direct engagement by Hobby with Prichard’s later interests in these affairs might have brought a little more light to the approach she took to Coonardoo, which he acknowledges comes at the beginning of her interest in Aboriginal rights. Aboriginal activists in Australia have (in my view, rightly) been suspicious of left-wing movements that claimed to care but ultimately could not completely undo the settler logic of their politics. Prichard’s involvement in this issue reveals enthusiasm writ large, with all its problematic missteps. There is also a real possibility for reflection and unlearning on the part of the Left in Australia to consider how its project of solidarity and class struggle can be of service to Aboriginal rights struggles today. What The Red Witch offers is a kind account of the earnest but sometimes misguided steps Prichard took to correcting the wrongs as she saw them.
It can seem unfair to judge a well-intentioned white writer of the early twentieth century by today’s standards when it comes to writing about race. Coonardoo was controversial from its publication, albeit for different reasons, and Hobby himself does not look away from these criticisms. But he also suggests, filling in a gap, that ‘Katharine would have been disturbed by the knowledge that the canonical status of Coonardoo has perpetuated stereotypes about Aboriginal people.’ As I’ve mentioned above, a little more evidence of Prichard’s position over time might make this assertion more convincing. Aside from that, the problem, as Behrendt and Leane made clear, is not merely about perpetuating stereotypes. It is also the adoption of the work as an Aboriginal voice in literature, the centring of the white perspective and, I would argue, a problem of Prichard directly taking the stories and lives of her subjects and writing about them without any perceivable sense of permission. I can imagine a response to this too: that it’s unfair to judge the work’s political limits by today’s more ‘enlightened’ standards. I would argue that in order to understand today’s increasingly unhinged discourse and reactionary positions around stolen stories and appropriation, it’s helpful to look to the ‘nation-building’ literary works that have become foundational settler texts, and understand why and how they made such contributions. To be able to look headfirst at these original shortcomings in a text like Coonardoo is to strengthen, rather than detract, from the formation and ongoing evolution of whatever it is we want to say is ‘Australian identity’ and ‘Australian literature’. Writers like Prichard are secure in the canon regardless of our contemporary critiques of their racial politics.
One delightful presentation of Prichard that emerges in The Red Witch alongside the literary and political is that of a sexually liberated woman. Hobby shows us her slightly contemporary approach to marriage as a partnership that would last as long as both parties are interested, and that it could and should end if one does lose their fondness. She also distinguishes her more relaxed attitude towards physical affairs (as opposed to the perhaps more traitorous ‘emotional’ affair), though this does not stop her from long flirtations during her married life, with detailed letters recounting one with the poet Hugh McCrae. Later in life, her house is raided by ASIO (she was on surveillance lists for decades), and one of the investigators is horrified to discover a sex toy in her possession. In her old age she refers to her male friends as ‘boyfriends’, and it’s flirtatious even if they seem to be platonic. These seemingly modern attitudes towards romance and sex never seem to fully integrate with her politics, which tended to focus on peace movements as she got older, as well as staunch commitment to the Soviet Union. Hobby makes it clear that her political convictions and personal lifestyle were not wholly unified – she did not agitate for sexual liberation in her lifetime. The feminist struggles for the Left were focused on the rights of working women. Interestingly, at the same time Prichard was becoming a communist, in Russia, Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai was attempting to create space for sexual and romantic liberation under communism. If the Bolsheviks’ dismissive response of what they considered bourgeois concerns is anything to go by, it’s entirely possible that Prichard would not have been interested in Kollontai’s project. In any case, Kollontai wouldn’t reach Australians’ attention until the 1970s, after Prichard’s death, when she would be featured in an issue of CPA journal Australian Left Review, in an article by Mavis Robertson.
The Red Witch deftly handles its thorough research to produce an account of Katharine Susannah Prichard that is authoritative but light in tone, and brings to life the character of its main subject and those closest to her. The author’s clear affection and care for his subject produces both the strength and weakness of this biography: an ability to draw out the most charming and interesting aspects of Prichard’s life and character, but a surface-level engagement with the complicated elements of her politics. The close attention to Prichard as an individual, again, brings out wonderful details and archival treasures, but in doing so fails to meaningfully place her into the context of the many decades of change in Australia – its intellectual currents and the history of Left struggle – which may have illuminated her life and writing further. It is a context that might have allowed us as readers to see Prichard’s life as one that holds meaning and potential answers about the shape of the twentieth century in Australia. To take one of the few communist writers of Australia who has remained for the most part in the literary canon and focus her biography into a closely individualised account is an unambiguous turn away from her communism and a missed opportunity for the literature and history of the Left in Australia.
Delys Bird (ed.), Katharine Susannah Prichard, Stories, Journalism and Essays, UQP, Brisbane, 2000, 58.
Jeanine Leane, ‘Living on Stolen Land: Deconstructing the settler mythscape’, Sydney Review of Books, 2020.
Marit Paasche, Hannah Ryggen, Thames & Hudson, London, 2019, 11.
Raymond Williams, Culture & Society 1780-1950, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1961, 283.