Joan Beaumont reviews Nathan Hobby’s The Red Witch: A biography of Katherine Susannah Prichard, Melbourne University Publishing, 2022, 451 pp. ISBN 9780522877380
By any measure Katherine Susannah Prichard (KSP) was a remarkable woman, full of contradictions. Most notably, she was a renowned and prolific author. After starting her career as a journalist in Melbourne, London, Paris and North America, she won celebrity in 1915 when her account of life in Victoria’s Gippsland, The Pioneers (1915), won the Australian section of Hodder & Stoughton’s All-Empire novel competition. Her aim, in this and her many later works, was to capture what she called the ‘characteristic of our country, life and people’. Her methodology was to record her observations of people and places in detailed notebooks and then translate them into fiction.
Nathan Hobby’s biography provides a highly readable and impressively researched account of Prichard’s life journey and writing career. Her publications are too numerous to cite here but among the most important were: first, Working Bullocks (1926), a lyrical celebration of the lives of a small community of timber getters in the Western Australian karri forests. This was later seen as a landmark in Australian literature. The second especially accomplished novel from a literary perspective was Coonardoo (1929), a study of inter-racial sexual relations in Western Australia’s far north-west. Based on Prichard’s observations while staying at a cattle station, Turee, it remains controversial because, while it critiqued the abuse of Aboriginal people, it assumed that the station owners’ responsibility was to show benevolence rather than liberate Aboriginal people from the slave-like conditions on land stolen from them. Coonardoo was ahead of its time in certain ways, but it was also very much of its time.
Prichard’s writings were infused with a deep attachment to Australia, for which she said she had ‘an intense and deep sympathy’. But her literary nationalism was in tension with her commitment to internationalism in the form of communism. Her political views were shaped by her early exposure to poverty in London and her concern to find solutions to the poverty and injustices suffered by innocent people. World War I radicalised her further with the death of her brother Alan, the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and the growth of important friendships with Bill Earsman, Guido Barrachi and Christian Jolie Smith, soon to be founders of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
Moving to Western Australia (from Melbourne) after her marriage to the Victoria Cross winner, Hugo Throssell, in 1919, Prichard helped found the WA branch of the CPA and established a local labour study circle there. Her political activism took something of a backseat in the 1920s as she focused on married life at the Throssell’s country home at Greenmount and their only child, Ric. But in the 1930s Prichard emerged as an unremitting worker for the Communist Party, the peace movement, and the Writers’ League, an Australia section of the Comintern’s International Union of Revolutionary Writers. After 1945, she intensified her commitment to communism, nuclear disarmament and the peace movement, cementing her reputation as ‘The Red Witch’.
Prichard’s communism consistently embraced an appallingly uncritical Stalinism. When she visited the Soviet Union in 1933, she seemed oblivious to the huge loss of life in the Ukraine during the famine and enforced collectivisation. She admired the country’s economic development, advances in education and health, the well-funded arts and its veneer of egalitarianism. As Hobby says charitably, (p. 237) ‘The signs of the betrayal of communism were there for visitors to notice if they looked critically. Yet for those like Katharine who wanted to believe, there were things to admire … If she had misgivings, she suppressed them’.
This unswerving loyalty to Russia meant Katharine discounted reports of the show trials and purges later in the 1930s, and blamed the British and French governments for Stalin’s signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact in August 1939. Her hardline position progressively estranged her from many of her Australian comrades, especially when she refused to condemn the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
A further contradiction in Prichard’s life was between her political activism and her personal relationships. One of her lovers, Guido Barrachi, was a communist, but in her earlier life she had a long obsessive relationship with an older married man whom she called the Preux Chevalier (or gallant knight). Hobby concludes, on the basis of considerable detective work, that this figure was probably Lieutenant-Colonel William Thomas Reay, a newspaper editor, politician and military officer with the Victorian Mounted Rifles.
This relationship predated Prichard’s conversion to communism, but her marriage coincided with it. It remains something of a mystery why she fell into the arms of a seemingly apolitical war hero, but Prichard loved virile Australian men with skills in horsemanship (Hugo had served with the Light Horse in Gallipoli and Palestine). Before they married, Prichard extracted from Hugo a promise that he would support her politics. Indeed, he shocked his audience at the 1919 Peace Day rally by declaring that the war had made him a socialist. Hobby concludes that this probably did not affect his later professional life as negatively as has sometimes been claimed. Hugo never joined the CPA. Rather he became obsessed in the 1920s with making money from real estate. The Throssell marriage was clearly under strain by the time of the Great Depression when Hugo’s financial chaos and his unresolved wartime physical and mental injuries led him to commit suicide. Prichard, in London at the time, read about his death in the press.
All of these struggles are skilfully traced by Hobby. His strength lies particularly in finding the interconnections between Prichard’s life and her fictional works. As a biographer, he is fortunate in having so much personal correspondence to draw upon, including communications with son Ric and prominent writers of the day such as Vance and Nettie Palmer.
Hobby’s reliance on the world as Prichard and her friends saw it at times has limitations. The most obvious is when Hobby deals with the vexed question as to whether Katharine and Ric were Communist spies. Taking issue with David Horner and Des Ball’s 1998 Breaking the Codes, Hobby tends to discount the importance, at least within Australian intelligence circles, of the Venona intercepts: that is, the United States counterintelligence program that broke the KGB’s cabled and coded exchanges between Moscow and Canberra.
According to Horner, whose 2015 official history of ASIO, The Spy Catchers is not cited, these intercepts, to which ASIO attached a high credibility, suggested that Prichard had passed onto the Soviets information she had received from Ric. ASIO came to no definite conclusion that Ric himself had passed information on to Moscow, but it strongly suspected that he had. It recommended that External (later Foreign) Affairs deny a security clearance to Ric. Despite many internal reviews, including by the Whitlam government, that policy remained in place. When in doubt, ASIO’s approach was to resolve doubts in the Commonwealth’s favour.
Whatever one concludes on this matter, the final contradiction is that Prichard’s consuming commitment to communism compromised the other two passions in her life after Hugo’s death: namely, her writing, which often had didactic and homiletic strains, and the career of her son, whom she adored in an almost worshipful manner until her death in 1969.