Born during a hurricane in Fiji, Katharine Susannah Prichard took that image as the title for her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane. When Prichard was three, her Australian journalist father moved the family from Fiji to Melbourne, then to Tasmania. Prichard thrived in this rural island state, and she based her 1928 children’s book, The Wild Oats of Han, on her idyllic childhood there.
After graduating from South Melbourne College, she worked as a governess in Gippsland and in New South Wales, both rural Australian areas. From the Gippsland experience she drew material for her first novel, The Pioneers, a historical tale that recounts the opening of the region and bristles with sturdy settlers, escaped convicts, cattle rustlers, and other frontier types. In 1908 she went to London as a freelance journalist for the Melbourne Herald, and on her return she served as the paper’s society editor. A second novel, Windlestraws, which appeared in 1917, had been written before The Pioneers. Set in the London theater world, its melodramatic narrative relates the adventures of a Russian prince and a dancer.
In 1919 Prichard married Hugo Throssell, and they settled in Western Australia. Throssell, a decorated World War I hero, established a ranch but was plagued by financial problems, which the 1929 Depression worsened. Meanwhile, Prichard devoted herself to politics and writing. She was a founding member in 1920 of the Communist Party of Australia. A year later, she published The Black Opal, her first attempt to blend economic theory and fiction. The novel tells how an opal-mining community in Western Australia guards its independence by opposing the evils of capitalism. Working Bullocks followed in 1926. Although stressing political ideology as well, it overcomes this limitation to render a sensitive exploration of the mystical relationship between humans and the environment. Three years later, Coonardoo received praise as the first honest portrayal of an Aboriginal in Australian literature. Most critics consider these two novels Prichard’s best work.
Resolutely involved in politics, Prichard helped found several organizations, including the Unemployed Women and Girls’ Association, the Modern Women’s Club, and the Australian Writers’ League. Her fiction writing did not lag, with Haxby’s Circus offering a nonpolitical and thoroughly charming tale of Australian circus life. In 1937 Intimate Strangers was published; it had been completed before her 1933 Russian trip. In part an honest study of a disintegrating marriage, the narrative loses momentum once the unhappy couple unites to work for a better society. It is generally acknowledged that this novel, which originally ended with the hero’s suicide, may have been partially responsible for the death of Prichard’s husband, who reportedly read the unrevised manuscript while his wife was touring Russia and killed himself before she returned. A year later Prichard published The Real Russia, a nonfiction account of her travels.
Moon of Desire is her weakest novel–an adventure story centering on the search for a fabulous pearl. The Roaring Nineties, the first volume of a trilogy about the gold fields of Western Australia, appeared in 1946, followed by Golden Miles and Winged Seeds. Poorly received by some readers because of its didactic elements but praised by others for its political courage, the trilogy traces with historical accuracy an important phase of Australian history. Obvious ideology mars the books, however. Nearly twenty years passed before the publication of Prichard’s final novel, Subtle Flame, whose hero, disillusioned by the Korean War, embarks on a crusade for nuclear disarmament.
Until the advent of the Cold War, Prichard remained a public figure, highly regarded in some circles for her politics and widely respected as a writer both at home and abroad. Stunned in the early 1950’s by the wave of anticommunism, Prichard retreated to her Western Australian home, Greenmount, where she died in 1969. Shortly before her death, Prichard wrote to a friend: “Such a strange, lonely life it is, these days.” During this period, her novels, once published in London and New York, found their main foreign audience in the Soviet Bloc.
Described by one critic in the 1980’s as a genteel, middle-class, politically naïve woman who clung to communist ideals and ignored the harsh reality, Prichard undoubtedly impaired her fiction by burdening it with propaganda. However, she has emerged as an important figure in Australian literature whose record of that country’s history and land and settlers shines more brightly than her ideological exposition.