A life of endurance and principle: Dylan Hyde reviews ‘The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard’ by Nathan Hobby

The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard by Nathan Hobby, Miegunyah Press, May 2022.

Nathan Hobby has written an engaging and eloquent biography of a significant figure of Australian literature and politics about whom we have, until now, no more than a cursory knowledge.

Once considered amongst the giants of Australian literature, Katharine Susannah Prichard moved in a broad and fascinating social circle, friends with many of the literary and political greats in this country, Alfred Deakin, John Curtin, H.V. (Doc) Evatt, Miles Franklin, Vance and Nettie Palmer amongst them. Prichard, a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1921, was a writer of fiction, poetry and memoir, and lesser known as a playwright.

The title, The Red Witch, is the sobriquet by which Prichard, living alone in the hills above Perth, was known in her later years. Hers became a life of political and literary servitude and sacrifice.

This is the first published biography of Prichard. It is perhaps little surprise that previous attempts have fallen short given Prichard was so resistant to the idea. The challenge in writing her story was made all the more difficult because she insisted that all her letters and unpublished manuscripts be destroyed upon her death. “I do not like to be seen in déshabillé even in manuscript,” she wrote. Her son Ric Throssell somewhat reluctantly carried out her wish, though thankfully some material survived, and her letters can be found in the archives of other Australian literary and political figures.

Hobby has done a wonderful job in locating and utilising the available material, and skilfully dovetailing chapters around chronological and thematic segments.

My life narrowly intersected that of Prichard. I was brought up in Perth and as a child was vaguely aware of her presence as a figure of some significance to the city. One of my earliest memories is attending an extraordinary performance in 1968 of the Great Moscow Circus under their Big Top on the Perth Esplanade, a site at which Prichard and other political figures had once proselytized from the soap box. The circus performance took place about a year before Prichard’s death and she certainly also attended, likely hosting the performers at her home outside Perth. ‘She loved to have visitors from the Soviet Union; they revered her and she revered their country’, Hobby writes of her final years.

The circus tour took place only months before Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia inflicting yet another crisis of conscience on Communist Party members around the globe twelve years after Kruschev’s revelations and denunciation of the crimes of Stalin; “the disenchantment of the Communists – storming heaven, to find death camps – was something without precedent in scope and horror,” wrote Prichard’s friend Bill Irwin who, like many of his cadres, abandoned the Party. The Communist Party of Australia subsequently broke with the Soviet Union. Prichard unashamedly did not.

A formidable woman of passion, great steel, and intellect, she remained unapologetically devoted to the Communist Party, at sometimes great personal cost, refusing to distance herself as reports of Soviet crimes in its name mounted.

Hers was a life of endurance and principle. A stirring personal and sometimes harrowing tale of love, intellectual rigour, personal tragedy and human frailty, and Hobby’s expressive prose renders her engaging life into something akin to an operatic libretto.

Hobby has been criticised in some quarters for revealing the likely identity of a much older romantic figure in Prichard’s life, referred to cryptically by Prichard as her ‘Preux Chevalier’ (‘gallant knight’). Hobby succeeds in persuading the reader that this ‘Preux Chevalier’ cast a conspicuous shadow and stain on Prichard’s life by deftly weaving notable events in Prichard’s life around her relationship with this man.

Herein lies a dilemma for biographers tasked with recording the delicate details of their subject’s life. How candid should one be at the possible expense of others’ feelings? My aunt, Veronica Brady, navigated this predicament when writing her biography of the Australian poet, Judith Wright, by removing details of a long-standing tryst that her subject, then living, did not want disclosed, knowing that in time this relationship would be revealed. Prichard similarly refused to divulge the identity of her ‘Preux Chevalier’ in her autobiography fearing the personal repercussions on others.

There is necessarily an element of assumption and excision in any historical narrative. There are characters and moments in Prichard’s life inevitably not covered in this biography (some of which are covered in my book, Art Was Their Weapon). Perhaps Hobby rightly felt it unnecessary to replicate the chronicle. I was fortunate to meet many of Prichard’s close companions, notably her son, whilst undertaking my research and I’m grateful that my work is cited in this biography.

In Hobby’s generous review of my book, he asserts quite reasonably that ‘it’s perhaps inevitable that there are several or interpretations of her [Prichard] with which I would demur’, (https://nathanhobby.com/2019/10/30/review-art-was-their-weapon/)  exemplifying the personal imprint of any author on a biography.

The book is a substantial 150,000 words though never feels a labour to read. Publication required some brevity, and he was faced with consigning some of his final draft, including some Eureka morsels, to the cutting room floor. Near torture for any non-fiction author.

This biography, thankfully written for a lay rather than an academic audience, should serve to reinstate Prichard to her rightful place as an important cultural figure, and hopefully encourage the recognition of other remarkable women hitherto marginalised or expunged from the cultural and social record of this country.

The book itself is a handsome production by Melbourne University Publishing’s Miegunyah Press imprint.

 – Dylan Hyde 

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Dylan Hyde is an art historian and the award-winning author of Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild (Fremantle Press, 2019). He is currently at work on Vincent van Gogh: A Pilgrimage.

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The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard is available from https://www.mup.com.au/books/the-red-witch-hardback

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