The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

KSP writes in the preface to the 1963 edition: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story …”. The novel, her first, was published in 1915 and was a success. Nathan Hobby, whose Prichard biography is at this moment at the printers, has more to say about the book’s origins here.

She goes on: “It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.” And hence we may infer that Wirreeford stands in for Yarram.

For the benefit of foreigners, Gippsland is that part of Victoria to the east of Melbourne and south of the Victorian Alps (map, Yarram out to the east, near the coast). It is hilly, damp, fertile and green, home once to enormous eucalypts, their range now greatly restricted by clear felling for farming and timber milling. Though, as I remember from my childhood there, the sandy coastal regions feature mostly scrubby paper barks. South Gippsland is Gunai country, though Prichard doesn’t pay the original inhabitants much attention. The Gunai were dispersed by a series of massacres of which you may read more here.

The Pioneers is historical fiction covering the early days of white settlement, which began, in this area, in the 1840s. Miles Franklin claimed in the 1930s (I can’t locate a source for this statement) that she and Steele Rudd were the progenitors of a uniquely Australian school of fiction dealing with the lives of ordinary families in the Bush, which she distinguishes from the ‘mateship’/Lone Hand/ Bulletin school (Gen 2); from the urban modernism and social realism of the years between the Wars (Gen 3); and from earlier ‘upper class’ novels of bush life, such as those by Henry Kingsley and Ada Cambridge (Gen 1).

I have written before that in the 1970s, John Hirst and Judith Godden posited that the myth of the Independent Bushman/Lone Hand (“the Australian Legend”) had been ameliorated in the 1930s by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth. Miles Franklin was a big part of that, but it is clear that The Pioneers, which predates MF’s re-flowering as a writer of pioneer fiction by a couple of decades, must earn KSP at least co-progenitor status.

That said, The Pioneers is more Robbery Under Arms than All That Swagger, but with an admirable dash of Independent Woman thrown in, and some lovely descriptive prose.

The novel begins with Donald and Mary Cameron making their way inland from ‘Port Southern’ into hilly, forested country. Donald is a Scot and Mary is Welsh. Sticking closely to ethnic stereotypes, Donald is as well known for being tight-fisted and Mary tells stories about fairies. I’m not sure that without the notes we’d know where or when we are. It is clear that the couple are pioneers, squatting on uncleared land in the bush but the nearest we get to locating ourselves is the arrival of escaped convicts from Port Arthur/Hobart Town over the water (though that’s hardly specific as Mary Bryant for instance escaped by boat as far as Jakarta).

A few months later .. A one-roomed hut, built of long, rough-barked saplings, ranged one above the other, and thatched with coarse reddish-brown bark, laid on in slabs, stood on the brow of the hill not far from the dray’s first resting place.

A light under the door indicates a restless night and in the morning Donald emerges with a bundle wrapped in a shawl, his son Davey. Unlike most pioneer families, that’s it for issue and Davey remains an only child.

The convicts above are important because they arrive when Donald is away, but Mary, apparently unafraid, helps them, making of one a friend for life, who when he returns a few years later with his daughter Deidre, becomes the local schoolmaster.

Donald prospers. Davey and Deidre grow up side by side. A little township forms. A bushfire sweeps through while Donald is away (again) and Mary is saved by the Schoolmaster. The pioneer side of the story declines in importance and instead, as we concentrate on the second generation we get into Walter Scott territory with villainous publicans, rival lovers and cattle rustling.

Deidre watched Davey going out of Narrow Valley in dim starlight of the early spring morning, the mob, hustled by Teddy and the dogs, a stream of red and brown and dappled hides before him.

I’ve read a few KSP’s – Working Bullocks, Coonardoo, Haxby’s Circus that I can think of – and I’ve generally found her prose awkward, stilted. That is not the case here. Perhaps as is so often the case, her first book was her best book. The descriptions flow. The action flows. It’s a good story, well told.

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Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, first pub. 1915. Revised edition (pictured) Rigby, 1963. Kindly loaned to me by Lisa/ANZLL.

For other KSP reviews see AWW Gen 2 page (here)

24 thoughts on “The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

  1. How interesting. I know that part of South Gippsland very well… I was the reporter on the Yarram Standard for a couple of years (now sadly defunct, along with its sister paper and my other alma mater The Star in Leongatha). It’s fairly wet / lonely country now; I can’t imagine how pioneers eked out an existence back then.

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    • I knew of course you grew up down that way but I hadn’t realised you had such a close connection. Now I want to know was it before or after your first degree? Did you have a cadetship? Was it an owner editor cranking out the local paper on a little press? As for farming, I haven’t been down there much as an adult but my impression was that it would support fat cattle even without much clearing.

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      • LOL. After I did my Masters in Journalism I got a job on The Star, which was owned by the Giles family, who also owned the Standard. So I would do 3.5 days on the Star and 1.5 days on the Standard. This was 1996 right up until I went to the UK in August 1998. It was a great job, actually, got to experience everything associated with newspapers (sourcing stories, writing them, taking pics, writing headlines/captions, answering phones and taking classified ads…the whole gamut). Was very sad when I heard the family shit both papers down just after the pandemic hit. They even got a mention on MediaWatch 😢

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  2. I enjoyed your review, Bill, and your picking up of things I hadn’t such as the tight-fisted Scot and the fairy-telling Welshwoman! I also enjoyed your description “That said, The Pioneers is more Robbery Under Arms than All That Swagger, but with an admirable dash of Independent Woman thrown in…” Made me chuckle!

    I did enjoy this book.

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  3. I’m just trying to imagine a Scot and a Welsh person trying to understand each other. Those can be some strong accents! This almost sounds like a story in which the woman falls in love with the school master because her husband is always gone.

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    • I guess if we can understand them – with a bit of effort! – they could understand each other. I’m just grateful KSP didn’t render their speech in dialect. Mary was too straight to falling love with the schoolmaster, though he certainly fell in love with her. But really, despite the title and the way it starts out, this is Davey and Deidre’s story.

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      • I remember the first Scots I ever met in my life. It was after midnight, I was in college, and we were all in a diner being not sober. They had traveled to the U.S. to sky dive, explaining that it was much more costly in Scotland. Now, getting that information took about an hour because holy moly, I could not understand them. At the time, I thought all Scottish people sounded like them, but looking back, they were likely drunk to the gills.

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  4. Reading your posts makes me realise just how lacking my reading of Gen I, II and III is. Most nights I’m so tired after work, I can barely read a chapter before falling asleep. It takes a long time to finish a book that way!!

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  5. This is one of the books on my 2020 list (and the year is waning on, so I’d best pay attention) so I’m pleased to hear that you enjoy it so much. I’ll aim to remember to come back to this after I’ve read it myself!

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    • Pioneers is a far more carefree work than I expected from KSP. Now I’m really hanging out for Nathan’s biography of her (next year) to see when socialist realism began taking over her writing. Looking forward to your review.

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  6. Very interesting to read your thoughts on The Pioneers, Bill! It is a good yarn and its exuberance is rather charming. I’m surprised you found her prose in other novels awkward, but maybe it relates to the complaints by Henry Handel Richardson and others about her terrible punctuation. And Working Bullocks has an ornateness that could be called awkward.

    They should have kept the Frederick McCubbin frontispiece of The Pioneer for the 1963 edition; it’s in the 1915 edition!

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    • Isn’t that McCubbin also the cover for The Drover’s Wife? Perhaps it’s getting overused. Anyway, I like the 1963 willowy Deidre. Punctuation doesn’t bother me much. I plan to do reviews of Working Bullocks and Coonardoo eventually and I own but haven’t read a couple of the Kalgoorlie ones, so that gives me plenty of options to see, and say, what I mean. I do think I found WB clumsy though, when I read it for course work around fifteen years ago.

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