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Cover of book: The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard

Nathan Hobby
The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard

Katharine Susannah Prichard published her first short story in 1899 and her final novel in 1967. At last we have a definitive biography, a book tracing her life and the formation of the Australian literary culture she helped to create.

Nathan Hobby reminds us that Prichard became a cultural celebrity early on, winning Hodder & Stoughton’s novel competition for “colonial and Indian authors” in 1915 and then marrying the dashing Lieutenant Hugo “Jim” Throssell, a Gallipoli veteran who was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Like Vance and Nettie Palmer, Hilda Bull, Louis Esson, Lesbia Harford, Christian Jollie Smith and others from Melbourne’s artistic intelligentsia, she was spurred by the Great War to engage with feminism, pacifism and socialism. Prichard persuaded her husband – the son of a conservative premier – to tell the dignitaries at Peace Day in rural Western Australia that “we never shall be free of wars under a system of production for profit”, a sentiment that went down about as well as you might expect.

But though she joined the newly formed Communist Party, Prichard spent the ’20s writing as much as agitating. That was the era of her two best novels, Working Bullocks and Coonardoo.

In 1933 she visited the Soviet Union and declared her approval of the Stalinist purges. Before she returned to Australia, her husband – traumatised by his wartime experiences and the failure of his business – took his life. A shattered Prichard threw herself into the Communist Party, often serving as its public face: either “Comrade Mrs Hugo Throssell: world famous revolutionary authoress” (in the Workers Star) or “The Red Witch”, as a local journalist put it, depending on your political proclivities.

Hobby disputes claims that Prichard passed classified information to the Soviet Union during World War II. Nevertheless, for most of her life she remained under surveillance and ASIO ran a disgraceful campaign to ruin the diplomatic career of her son, Ric Throssell. A very readable narrative, The Red Witch also contains significant new research, with Hobby establishing the identity of the mysterious lover Prichard described only as her “Preux Chevalier”.

By and large, the canon forged by the Old Left has not aged well – does anyone read Vance Palmer? Certainly, the modernist-inflected novels of Prichard’s early years stand up far better than the dreary social realism that she and the Communist Party later espoused.

But Hobby’s book reveals the genuine dilemmas facing Prichard’s generation, in what he calls “an illustrative journey through responses to the upheavals of the first seven decades of the 20th century”. Even if we don’t agree with choices Prichard made about politics and art, the social and aesthetic problems she confronted remain just as acute today. 

MUP, 464pp, $49.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, Nathan Hobby".

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Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and award-winning critic.

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