I have been rereading, thanks to my eBook collection, many short stories by Henry Lawson, that mighty contributor to our sense of Australian identity. Actually, I have to confess to reading some of the stories for the first time! Not “The Loaded Dog” or “The Drover’s Wife” of course — I have lost count of how many times in the past 60 years or so I would have read them. Leah Purcell’s reworking of “The Drover’s Wife” for Belvoir Theatre I missed: I would love to have seen it.
I have been enjoying renewing acquaintance with Lawson, but reminded too that the 1890s is after all a long time ago. Not that Lawson could help being a man of his time, but there are moments — indeed sometimes rather more than moments — that are downright embarrassing now. One such moment is in “The Lost Soul’s Hotel”, albeit that story is clearly tongue-in-cheek.
“And what about woman’s influence?” I asked.
“Oh, I suppose there’d have to be a woman, if only to keep the doctor on the line. I’d get a woman with a past, one that hadn’t been any better than she should have been, they’re generally the most kind-hearted in the end. Say an actress who’d come down in the world, or an old opera-singer who’d lost her voice but could still sing a little. A woman who knows what trouble is. And I’d get a girl to keep her company, a sort of housemaid, with a couple of black gins or half-castes to help her. I’d get hold of some poor girl who’d been deceived and deserted: and a baby or two wouldn’t be an objection—the kids would amuse the chaps and help humanize the place.”
By and large Indigenous Australia is invisible in Lawson’s stories. (Come to think of it Indigenous Australia was pretty much invisible in my first thirty years or so of life in The Shire and Illawarra — invisible to me, that is.)
Recently ABC Central West published, concerning the part of the state Lawson so often celebrated, How the Wiradjuri people of Central West NSW survived first contact with European settlers. There were some fascinating pictures, including one of Lawson’s famous contemporary Banjo Paterson. As a baby, with his Wiradjuri nanny Fanny Hopkins.
Another photo shows station employees on the Upper Bogan c.1897. You could read many a Lawson story set in that general area and never guess this could have been a regular Sunday sight.
Of interest: The Status of the Aborigine in the Writing of Henry Lawson — A Reconsideration, 1910 The Bulletin Magazine, and Bruce Pascoe — whose literary career actually owes a lot to Lawson. Remember Australian Short Story magazine?
Pascoe said in 2017:
Henry Lawson, who ignored Aboriginal people, wrote the great poem Faces in the Street, and every time I’m in a city part of my journey is in step with the rhythm of that poem, “drifting past, drifting past, to the beat of weary feet”.
But Lawson was thinking of the noble white poor, they were his heroes, whereas he lived in a world where the broken armies of the black resistance were scattered in the streets about him; yet one of the only times he mentioned them was to condemn them as cheats and scoundrels in The Drover’s Wife.
In all the millions of words devoted to that story I have never seen one critic analyse that remark.
“Yesterday she bargained with a stray blackfellow to bring her some wood, and while he was at work she went in search of a missing cow. She was absent an hour or so, and the native black made good use of his time. On her return she was so astonished to see a good heap of wood by the chimney, and she gave him an extra fig of tobacco, and praised him for not being lazy. He thanked her, and left with head erect and chest well out. He was the last of his tribe and a King; but he had built that wood-heap hollow.”
– Excerpt from The Drover’s Wife, by Henry Lawson
Our great laureate had contempt for black and the pages of our literature are still filling with new excuses and conditional regret…
Pascoe rarely understates his case, however. Another reason I regret missing Leah Purcell’s Indigenous reworking of the classic story — and still a classic, in my view. But a classic we read with different eyes in 2019 — as we should!