When Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) went up to Tarella Station – north of Wilcannia in the deserts of far western NSW – in 1905 to be governess for a year, she was to find herself not the only writer sitting down to dinner each night. Tarella was owned by E. Quin, and his oldest daughter, Tarella, but universally called Ella, six years older than KSP, was already a published author.
This came up when I was reading KSP’s autobiography Child of the Hurricane but I was reminded of it more recently during a few drinks with KSP biographer Nathan Hobby, and decided to follow it up.
Searching on Trove for ‘Tarella’ brings up some references to the station (for instance, here) but searching on Ella’s pen name ‘James Adare’ brings up a number of stories published in the two or three years before KSP’s year on the station. So , for instance ‘How the Mighty are Fallen’, a funny story about a Bishop on an outback station who goes missing each evening (Queenslander, 30 Apr 1904).
KSP herself wrote a fictionalized and highly romantic account of her journey to and stay on Tarella, in the form of letters to her mother, ‘A City Girl in Central Australia’, serialized over six issues of New Idea the following year (1906). Sadly, Trove doesn’t seem to have New Idea, and the extensive AWWC story archive has no Prichard at all (She’s under copyright until 2039).
In her only mention of Ella’s writing, KSP is pretty dismissive, and there is no hint they ever compared notes. Tarella Quin subsequently had some children’s stories published plus two adult novels, A Desert Rose (1912) and Kerno: A Stone (1914),.
There was another ‘connection’ between Ella and KSP. Ella’s younger sister, Hazel was in the same year at PLC* Melbourne as Hilda Bull (and Nettie Palmer), and Hilda was KSP’s next door neighbour, best friend, and former primary school classmate. The Quin family had a second property on the edge of the Dandenongs, on the outskirts of Melbourne where they would often spend the summer – and in fact KSP returned home with them after the summer of 1904/5 – but it is not recorded that KSP knew the Quins prior to being employed.
Also in that PLC year was Ida Rentoul, the ‘fairy’ illustrator who went on to illustrate at least one of Tarella’s children’s books, Gum Tree Brownie and Other Faerie Folk of the Never-Never (1907). Years ago when I wrote about Ida’s older sister Annie, I gave her the writing credit for Gum Tree Brownie. Of course I no longer have the source for that. Annie Rattray Rentoul went on to Melbourne University and then returned to PLC as a teacher. A reader of that post gives this sad postscript to Rentoul’s life
Back in 1978, [unnamed] worked at Mont Park Psychiatric Hospital. There was a patient there named Annie Rentoul. Annie was mocked by the patients and some of the staff when she said that she was an author. She went everywhere with a huge handbag. The handbag was often hidden by other patients and uncaring staff, causing her great distress.
I spent weeks researching Annie’s claim of being an author. Ida Rentoul-Outhwaite was easier to find; she was a formerly well known children’s book illustrator. Eventually I found the information; Annie wrote the words; Ida painted the illustrations.
I remember being so excited and couldn’t wait to let Annie know what I had found, but … Annie had died a few days earlier.
I wept for this poor woman who was treated so unkindly in a huge mental health institution.Madeline Keil, 8 Oct 2018
The last rabbit hole brought up by searching ‘Tarella’ that I want to mention is a quest by the Age (Melbourne) in 1933 to name The Fifty Best Australian Novels. This story was written up by Vivian Smith, in the Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 Oct 1989.
Following a piece in the Age in Feb, 1933 on the Fifty Best Modern English Novels, readers were asked to write in with their 50 best Australians. Such is the sad state of our knowledge of our own literature, that the staff writer (editor?) begins with:
At first sight it would appear to be a difficult task to choose the fifty best Australian novels published since 1900. Memories of For the Term of His Natural Life, The Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn, Robbery Under Arms and a few others float before the mind: one is tempted to conclude that fifty genuinely Australian novels have not been published. Such, however, is far from the truth. Here is a list of over forty novelists whose work, produced since 1900, may legitimately claim consideration on its merits as being more or less permanent contributions to English literature [my underlines].
Unexpectedly, the women appear to make the more impressive showing. Pride of place may perhaps be given to Katharine Susannah Prichard, who has claims to be considered our greatest present-day novelist.
No.s 1 and 2 on his list are KSP’s Working Bullocks and Coonardo; then, 3. M Barnard Eldershaw, A House is Built; 4,5,6 the three books of Henry Handel Richardson’s, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney; followed by 7. either Maurice Guest or The Getting of Wisdom; 8. Helen de Guerry Simpson “with her gigantic novel” Boomerang; 9,10. Dorothy Cottrell’s Singing Gold and Earth Battle; 11, 12. Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career and Old Blastus of Bandicoot; and 13. Mrs Aeneas Gunn, We of the Never Never; before we get to any guys.
I’ll list the first 15 (authors) of the first letter writer, because they are interesting (ie. I largely agree with them): 1. Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career; 2. Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy], Such is Life; 3. Louis Stone, Jonah; 4. Barbara Baynton, Human Toll; 5. AB Paterson, An Outback Marriage; 6. KS Prichard, The Pioneers; 7. HH Richardson, Maurice Guest; 8. Arthur Adams, The Australians; 9. Brent of Bin Bin, Up the Country; 10. Bernard Cronin, Bracken; 11. Ion Idriess, Madman’s Island; 12. Velia Ercole, No Escape; 13. FD Davidson, Man Shy; 14. DH Lawrence, Kangaroo; 15. DH Lawrence and Molly Skinner, The Boy in the Bush.
Yes, Vance Palmer does get a run, but well back in the field; and also Martin Mills [Martin Boyd] for The Montforts; Henry Lawson, Joe Wilson and his Mates; and Dulcie Deamer, As It Was in the Beginning; along with quite a few others now long forgotten. The two most prominent women to miss out were Rosa Praed, Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land (1915), and Ada Cambridge, Sisters (1904). Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead, Dymphna Cusack, Kylie Tennant were still a year or two away from sweeping all before them.
To end, one discursive correspondent who wins me with “a single book, a masterpiece in its way, Such is Life, by Tom Collins”, has the sentence which captured my search: “Prominent Australian novels of more recent years have been Deadman’s, by Mary Gaunt, Kerno, a Stone, by Tarella Quin, Boomerang, by Helen Simpson, Black Opal and Working Bullocks, by perhaps the ‘livest’ of our novelists, Katharine Prichard …”
You are no doubt wondering, where’s Dragan? He hasn’t rung me again, and perhaps really only had me in mind for covering the serious shortfall in drivers willing to put up with crossing the Nullarbor and the constant commitment to Covid testing and isolation that requires. We’ll see.
Nathan Hobby, The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, due out from Melbourne University Press, 3 May 2022.
PLC. Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne. See also: The Getting of Wisdom, Henry Handel Richardson