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.