Signs of subtlety in the short stories of Katherine Susannah Prichard and Peter Cowan

Document Type

Journal Article


Soochow University Press

Place of Publication



School of Arts and Humanities




Phillips, G. (2016). Signs of subtlety in the short stories of Katharine Susannah Prichard and Peter Cowan. Language and Semiotic Studies, 2(3), 93-106.


This essay discusses the truth of a commentary by Dr Dale Spender on the history of gender and subtlety in earlier Australian literature by making a comparison of selected stories of two of the greatest Australian prose writers of the mid-twentieth century: Katherine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) and Peter Cowan (1914-2002). Spender believes that Australian women authors, by virtue of their deeper insights and more delicate descriptive writing, can claim a uniqueness in their depictions of Australian life and landscapes in short stories compared to male authors. This essay focuses on stories by the two authors and argues that these works would be appropriate for testing the truth of Spender's claim. Both writers published many volumes of stories and in fact Prichard's first story to be translated (Christmas Tree) was published in Chinese in the 1920s. Cowan was almost a generation younger than Prichard but their writing careers overlapped. He published eight volumes of stories, and she published five. Using post-colonialism and ecocriticism as its theoretical references, this article argues that, while Spender might be correct when she claims that male authors in the early years of Australian literature lacked sophistication or subtlety, Prichard and Cowan do not deserve the same criticism. Even allowing for the greater amplitude of Prichard's work in the international sphere, Cowan does not lack sophistication and subtlety. To a certain extent, both Prichard and Cowan demonstrate the rapid growth of sophistication and subtlety in the youthful history of Australian writing. So perhaps we should just celebrate them and be thankful their works remain remarkable subtle and highly readable to this day.

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