The Red Witch by Nathan Hobby

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

A biography of the Australian novelist, short story writer, and poet Katharine Susannah Prichard has been written by Nathan Hobby and released by Melbourne University Press. Long regarded as a notorious woman on the fringes marked by her literary powers and her left-wing politics, Prichard’s tortuous life has not been untangled until the advent of the present volume. Now Hobby supplies answers where once there were only questions.

Katharine Susannah Prichard (KSP) lived from the end of Australia’s colonial period to the middle of the Vietnam war and her evolving world view – first, a doubting Christian then, as the years unfolded, a progressive patriot, idealistic radical and, finally, stubborn communist – reflects responses to the upheavals of the 20th century. She was an alert, thinking member of her society whose keen intelligence led her to places she would never admit she should not have been. Hobby’s book “adds nuance and detail to the contours of Katharine’s life, setting out to show what her life was like in its different phases and in the course of that, the biographical background to her literary works” (xi).

The Red Witch is a pleasure to read. Hobby has developed a writing style that maintains the interest of his readers no matter how convoluted a patch of writing may necessarily have to be. As a nine-year-old child, Prichard recalls the writing of The Wild Oats of Han, an amalgam of childhood experiences that became an autobiography shaped into fiction and which taught the child how to understand and take responsibility. She recalls the impact of writing competitions on her literary career as, – “Mother and Father were too absorbed in each other, and in their struggle to provide food and clothing for us all, to be interested in my scribbling” (19).

Hobby adopts a chronological approach to his narrative. He tells of her early childhood in Fiji, moves the story to Victoria, and then with advancing age, places his subject in the position of governess. Her decision to take this position is made on rational grounds – that her writing could only be improved if she knew more about bushfires, love, and the country beyond the ranges. Moreover, living in an isolated spot was a chance to escape family pressure to conform. (27)

KSP’s oeuvre is substantial. South Gippsland inspired two major works: a 10 000 word short story ‘Diana of the Inlet’ (1912) and her first published novel The Pioneers (1915). Her time as governess on Tarella Station in 1905 led to a six-part serial to be published in New Idea “A City Girl in Central Australia.” It took the form of letters, whose basis lay in reality but which exaggerates many elements. Furthermore, she treated the local people as specimens. It was in later life that her best work appears: Working Bullocks (1926), Coonardoo (1928) and Haxby’s Circus (1930). There is breadth and vitality in this writing, although Hobby reports that the reviewer for the Mercury “largely agreed with [the positive criticism Working Bullocks received], calling it ‘one of the finest novels which Australia has produced’ even though ‘her sympathies for what one imagines she would call the “down-trodden working classes” has led her into misrepresentation, which, one might expect, perhaps, from a hired Labor pamphleteer” (187).

Her greatest novel is Coonardoo which remains controversial even to present day readers. It reflects racist assumptions of its time and fails to understand the white violence which formed the backdrop to aboriginal lives. However, it is a cracking read and demonstrates the continuing scholarly interest in all her writing. Moreover, it affirms Hobby’s view that KSP gave Australia the idea of itself that it wanted to read. Her biography reads as a series of anecdotes about men she had beguiled, a ‘lived life’ as Hobby calls it.

There is much in the biography that tells of KSP’s interactions with men. I found this material largely uninteresting and, since parts of the book become a revelation of who was sleeping with whom, and since keeping track of who was whom, I saw those parts as gossip, and I ignored them. However, KSP’s identification with the Union of Soviet Writers and, more generally, with socialist realism i.e.  what faithful communist writing should look like (260), was of some interest.

Hobby’s book is decades overdue. I have merely scraped the surface of a gem that needs to be better known. Through it, readers will come to know one of our greatest novelists. As journalist Norman Bartlett having interviewed KSP for the West Australian asks, “how many people in Western Australia realise what a truly remarkable woman lives in th[at] rambling wooden house” (262)?

The Red Witch

(2022)

by Nathan Hobby

The Miegunyah Press/MUP

ISBN: 978 052287 738 0

$49.99; 480 pp

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