Shelfie: Katharine Susannah Prichard

Katharine Susannah Prichard/ nee Throssell (1883 –1969) was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia and a key figure in Australian literary history although Lawrence was not aware of the three novels she’d had published when they corresponded on 3 July 1922. Lawrence was living in self imposed exile after he and his German wife experienced harassment in Cornwall during WWI – all of which provided material for the Nightmare chapter of his Australian novel, Kangaroo. Prichard would also experience persecution due to her political beliefs, with official surveillance files opened in 1919 and not closed until her death in 1969.

Prichard’s debut novel The Pioneers (1915) won the Hodder & Stoughton ‘All Empire Literature Prize’ for Australasia and is now part of the canon of Australian literature. It’s a 19th-century family saga following the lives, loves and losses of one pioneering family and two escaped convicts as they take possession of some land in Victoria, Australia. Like Lawrence’s earlier novels, its value is as a form of social history. In the forward to the 1963 edition, Pritchard writes: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story. It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.”

Pritchard provided Lawrence with a set of novels, poems and plays during his brief sojourn in Australia which included the likes of Louis Esson (1879 – 1943) and Furnley Maurice (1881 – 1942) but Lawrence was unimpressed, complaining ‘they all make me feel desperately miserable’. But he was happy to accept a copy of The Black Opal which accompanied him on the Tahiti which set sail on 10 August 1922.

The Black Opal – the first of Prichard’s mining novels – is set in Fallen Star Ridge, a fictitious location in New South Wales and features the trials and tribulations of a mining community whose fortunes are dictated by how much opal they uncover. The promise of financial reward can lead to obsessive behaviour which has varying negative effects on individuals, and by implication, the community, all of which would have resonated with Lawrence given his Eastwood roots.

“Ridge miners find happiness in the sense of being free men. They are satisfied in their own minds that it is not good for a man to work all day at any mechanical toil; to use himself, or allow anyone else to use him, like a working bullock. A man must have to time to think, leisure to enjoy being alive, they say.” 

The novel begins and ends with a funeral and features two main protagonists, Sophie Rouminof and Michael Brady.  

“It was natural enough that Michael should have taken charge of Sophie Rouminof, and that he should have made all the arrangements for Mrs Rouminof’s funeral. If it had been left to Paul to bury his wife, people agreed, she would not have been buried at all; or, at least, not until the community insisted. And Michael would have done as much for any shiftless man. He was next-of-kin to all lonely and helpless men and women on the Ridge, Michael Brady.”

Michael Brady is an elder who is respected for his knowledge and ethics. Sophie Rouminof is a teenager who flees to America after being disappointed in love. Lawrence was on his way to America when he read the book, though he was not fleeing love. He was fleeing, among other things, his own race whose idea of progress had led to consumerism, industrialism and war: ‘I do hope I shall get from your Indians something that this wearily external white world can’t give’ he wrote to Mabel Dodge Sterne on 3 June 1922.  

Related Reading

Locating Lawrence: July 1922

He’s got no money, Ulysses is getting rave reviews, and Australia makes him feel like he’s fallen out of a picture and found himself on the floor staring back at the gods and men left behind in the picture. Welcome to Locating Lawrence, a monthly video based on Lawrence’s letters 100 years ago.

Katharine Susannah Prichard (nee Throssell) was a key figure in Australian literary history although Lawrence was not aware of the three novels she’d written when they corresponded on 3rd of July. She was also a founding member of the Communist Party in Australia, created in 1920, earning her the disparaging nickname of ‘The Red Witch’. Married to Hugo Throssell, a war hero awarded the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli, she proudly shared a newspaper clipping detailing the birth of their son, Ric. Lawrence observed ‘you are up and about wearing your little V.C like a medal at your breast’[i] Ric would also grow to become a writer as well as a diplomat, but his life would be marred by an unproven allegation that he was a Russian spy.

Lawrence confides to Prichard that there’s plenty to love about Australia and the fact he’s stayed for ‘three months in one place isn’t so bad’[ii]. But it’s a place he can never truly grasp as ‘I feel I slither on the edge of a gulf, reaching to grasp its atmosphere and spirit. It eludes me, and always would’.[iii] Once more he compares it to a Puvis de Chavannes painting, specifically ‘Winter’. But of most interest is Prichard’s rural life in Greenmount: ‘What do you grow on your land? My wife wants a little farm more than anything else, she says. But how should I sit still so long?’[iv]

He uses painting as a metaphor to S.S. Koteliansky to describe the peculiar impact Australia has had on him: ‘It is rather like falling out of a picture and finding oneself on the floor, with all the gods and men left behind in the picture’.[v]

Robert Mountsier is reminded twice in one paragraph that ‘I am now expecting your cable with the money’ as he is only able to get the Tahiti ‘if your cable money arrives’[vi] and that when he arrives in America ‘we will really sit still and spend nothing’[vii]. But he is aware of ‘the depressing accounts of sales’ with Sea and Sardinia selling 685 copies[viii] and Aaron’s Rod 3,000 copies[ix] – though he is keen to emphasise that this has nothing to do with Thomas Seltzer who ‘may be dodgy’ but ‘I believe he does his best.’[x]

Seltzer was Lawrence’s literary agent and helped bring him to an American audience, publishing his work between 1920 to 1923. Fighting censorship in the courts would eventually see his publishing company go bankrupt in 1923.

Lawrence reassures Mountsier that he only has two chapters left to complete Kangaroo and already his mind is focussing on the next location for inspiration (‘I should like, if I could, to write a New Mexico novel with Indians in it’[xi]). No wonder he is so averse to sitting still – his novels are born of perpetual momentum. It’s for this reason he must never get too settled. Thus, he confesses to Koteliansky, ‘If I stayed here for six months I should have to stay here forever.’[xii]

Mabel Dodge Sterne is updated with his desired living requests: ‘I wish we could settle down at – or near – Taos – and have a little place of our own, and a horse to ride. I do wish it might be like that.’[xiii]

Reading Lawrence’s letters, you can’t help but admire his incredible attention to detail. He is constantly wheeling, dealing and instructing. Robert Mountsier is informed that Kangaroo will be sent via the Makura on the 20th July and that he should have it typed up ready for him when he arrives in America so that he can go through it again.[xiv]  

In a letter to Mountsier on 17 July he enquires about a train strike in the USA (he is referring to the Great Railroad Strike that ran from 2 July to 14 September) and predicts ‘you will have bad Labour troubles in the next few years, amounting almost to revolution’. Seems not much has changed in 100 years. But Lawrence isn’t one for democratic solidarity, not when the unrest helps articulate his own frustrations with the public who have committed the cardinal sin of not buying enough of his books. ‘The ‘public’ that now is would never like me any more than I like it. And I hate it – the public – the monster with a million worm-like heads. No, gradually I shall call together a choice minority, more fierce and aristocratic in spirit.’[xv] Oh dear. 

He strikes a calmer tone with the Brewsters, his Buddhist friends. Achsah is informed that the name of their property in Thirroul – Wyewurk – ‘was as Australian humourism Why Work?’[xvi] and that Frieda has finished a Buddha embroidery and has now moved onto a vase of flowers. It sounds like domestic bliss. But these were difficult times. He was aware that he would arrive in Taos penniless and that this was all too familiar. But this would not stop him embracing a new experience and adding another language to his repertoire: ‘I am now going to start learning Spanish, ready for the Mexicans.’[xvii]

When he arrives in America, he will have time to read ‘this famous Ulysses’.[xviii] James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece had been published in Paris in February 1922 by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company and was receiving rave reviews. But Lawrence suspects his own novel, Kangaroo, will not receive the same adulation. If anything, ‘even the Ulysseans will spit at it’.[xix]

References


[i] Letter to Katherine Throssell, 3 July 1922

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] Letter to S.S. Koteliansky, 9 July 1922

[vi] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 7 July 1922

[vii] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 17 July 1922

[viii] ibid

[ix] Letter to Thomas Seltzer, 18 July 1922

[x] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 17 July 1922

[xi] ibid

[xii] Letter to S.S. Koteliansky, 9 July 1922

[xiii] Letter to Mabel Dodge Sterne, 17 July 1922

[xiv] Letter to Robert Mountsier, 17 July 1922

[xv] ibid

[xvi] Letter to Achsah Brewster, 24 July 1922

[xvii] ibid

[xviii] Letter to S.S. Koteliansky, 9 July 1922

[xix] ibid