Breaking the myths of a famous Australian writer and Red Witch
The critical scholar in me bristles at it because it’s a practice full of potential errors. It is fair enough to assume a general truth that the author observed or participated in the worlds depicted in his novels. Indeed, Prichard has embraced a journalistic commitment to researching his settings, whether it be the NSW opal fields for black opalthe Kauri forests of work oxen or station life in the heart of coonardoo. Seeing the author‘s psychological motivation in a character’s actions or dialogue is another matter.
Hobby produced a vague and impressionistic biography. And while that may sound like a review, it’s not. We are not left with a clear picture. But we see a solid outline that is rightly laden with contradictory content: middle-class communist Caulfield; the talented romantic novelist who forbade socialist realist dialogue in her work or sometimes wrote pots for money; the rhetorically hard-line Stalinist who stayed out of power even after helping to form the Communist Party of Australia; the Australian nationalist who loved the Soviet Union more; the home builder who always needed to travel; sexually active feminist and moralistic self-censorship.
None of these contradictions are clear cut, and this seems to be Hobby’s ploy. His language is rarely direct or declarative; “seems”, “appears”, “maybe”, “maybe” are used more than expected. After initially being irritated by their use, I’ve come to see their suggestive purpose. Hobby has written an attached biography which allows readers to fill in the missing parts as they wish.
As well as painting a complex picture of Prichard, the book also illuminates a century of Australian history. Scholars of war and communism will appreciate much of its detail. Even the recent past, which the book hardly deals with, turns out to be a time of great social and cultural change by virtue of the fact that the society of the 1960s, Prichard’s last decade, bears almost no resemblance to the Australia of ‘today.
Readers might wonder: how did a society dotted with intense literary cliques, and which seemed to elevate the literary arts and women authors, especially in regards to politics, all but vanish?
The same question could be asked about the reputation and aura of Prichard itself. In the end, Hobby goes back to an era and to values with which we lose touch. It presents a terrific story of a ‘Red Witch’ whose ‘pagan’ magic seems to have little bearing on Australia today, forcing us to ask ‘Why? »
The Scarlet Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard by Nathan Hobby is published by Miegunyah press, $49.99.
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