Writing The Boy in the Bush

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The Boy in the Bush came out in 1924 and was written by D.H.Lawrence based on a story by M.L. (Mollie) Skinner.  My copy is a Penguin from 1984, but I was lucky enough to come across in the new Perth library*, a revised and annotated version from the series, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H.Lawrence.

D.H.Lawrence was born in 1885 in Nottinghamshire. His father was a miner and his mother had been a school teacher. Lawrence, who might otherwise have been expected to go down the mines, won a scholarship to Nottingham High and thence to University College, Nottingham where he qualified as a teacher. He taught for a while but quickly became a full-time writer. By 1922, when he first arrived in Australia, he had had published 6 volumes of poetry, 3 short story collections and 7 novels, most famously Sons and Lovers (1913) and Women in Love (1920).

Mollie Skinner was born in Perth, WA in 1876, but grew up in London, where she trained as a nurse, before returning to WA in 1900 to work, mostly in country hospitals. During WWI she served in India and Burma, and after the war, back in Australia, she turned her experiences into an epistolary novel Letters of a V.A.D., which sold poorly (ADB). She died in York, WA in 1955.

Arrriving in WA in May, 1922 – en route to Sydney where he was to write Kangaroo – Lawrence was booked into a guesthouse/convalescent home in the hills outside Perth, and there he met Skinner. He read her novel and persuaded her that she should write another one:

‘It frightens me – all the bush stretching away over these hills frightens me, as if dark gods possessed the place. My very soul shakes with terror when I wander out there in the moonlight … Why don’t you write about this strange country?’ he said. ‘About how it was met by the first settlers? …

from Mollie Skinner’s autobiography The Fifth Sparrow (1972), quoted in the editor’s Introduction.

Lawrence believed Skinner had great powers of observation and of setting down what she observed, but little imagination: “You have the power of seeing things and making them live, but not the power of flight from your subject.” He made a critical reading of the novel Skinner was then working on, Black Swans, and later wrote a preface for it. Over time he also revised for her a story and another novel, Eve in the Land of Nod, so they must have had a reasonable working relationship. The following year Lawrence was in the USA when he received a draft of the novel he had suggested to Skinner and which she had called The House of Ellis. He wrote to her:

I have read ‘The House of Ellis’ carefully, such good stuff in it: but without unity or harmony. I’m afraid as it stands you’d never find a publisher. … If you like I will take it and re-cast it, and make a book of it … If you give me a free hand, I’ll see if I can’t make a complete book out of it.

In fact, he didn’t wait for her reply, but spent most of September 1923 working on the novel, then another month travelling in Mexico and writing as he had time. On 1 November he wrote again to Mollie:

The only thing was to write it all out again, following your MS [ie. the typescript she sent him, which is now lost] almost exactly, but giving a unity, a rhythm, and a little more psychic development … The end will have to be a good deal different.

Of course I don’t know how you feel about this. I hope to hear from you soon. … The title, I thought, might be The Boy in the Bush. There have been so many ‘Houses’ in print …

We must assume that at some stage Mollie gave him at least a qualified ‘yes’ as in January 1924 he sends her a completed typescript and asks, “Will you go through it at once, and let me have by return any suggestions you can make.” Within a month or so Lawrence was able to write to Mollie with proposed publication dates and details of the division of royalties.

Mollie wrote back with some proposed changes and requested the deletion of the last two chapters. Lawrence was willing to go along with her, although the effect of removing his ending would have been to give in to the pruderies of a timid public, but the novel had already gone to the printers.

Paul Eggert, the editor of the Cambridge version, writes:

There is no doubt that, even after Lawrence’s rewriting of the story, The Boy in the Bush still reflects its origins in Mollie Skinner’s life and background. Jack Grant’s [the hero’s] story, in outline at least, is an adaptation of that of her brother John Russell (‘Jack’) Skinner … sent out to Western Australia at seventeen or eighteen … to learn farming at his uncle’s farm at Beverley [130 km east of Perth].

Lawrence met Jack Skinner briefly while staying at Mollie’s guesthouse and apparently saw Skinner’s refusal to settle down as ‘an honest and resolute refusal to submit to fixed convention’.

In a Note on Miss M.L. Skinner attached to the German edition Lawrence writes:

… The House of Ellis, full of good stuff, was so confused as to make one despair. I left it, not knowing what to do. Showed it to publishers in New York – they said it was hopeless. So in the autumn, in Los Angeles and Guadalajara, I wrote it all out again, altering freely. Some of the chapters, and the whole of the end … are mine – the rest is Miss Skinner’s material.

On publication, Mollie’s first reaction was to write and thank Lawrence warmly for his services: ‘You have been most kind and generous … and I’ve got to forgive you for those end chapters- because they are yours. And I do think you have brought it all out like a magician.’ Later, as reviews came out questioning the extent of her co-authorship, she claimed that up to 70% of the novel was hers. Eggert thinks otherwise. The autograph manuscript of The Boy in the Bush, 580 pages, was written out by Lawrence by hand, not by writing over Skinner’s typescript and/or inserting his own pages between hers as he might easily have done if he were merely revising, and in fact did do when she asked him later to help her with Eve in the Land of Nod. The Boy in the Bush, in both its character development and in what is clearly visible from the stages the ms went through, is most definitely a D.H. Lawrence novel.

The novel sold well and was reviewed around the world, but there’s nothing like a parochial point of view:  “… the more excellent parts are probably the work of Miss Skinner … [who] could, with advantage, have dispensed with Mr Lawrence’s literary aid and benediction.” West Australian, 18 Oct. 1924.

If I can persuade you to read this book, then chase up the Cambridge version. It is full of notes (at the end!), maps, a family tree, a history of the Swan River settlement, and so on.

I’ll put up a review of my own in a few days.


* The Perth City library, which opened just a few months ago, is a striking 6 storey circular building in the centre of town with views from the upper floors across Perth Water (more here), but a fairly average ‘suburban’ collection – including a strangely slender A.B. Facey with handsome hardback binding which only the small print revealed had been produced by Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I thought they went out of business with brown cardigans, twin-sets and heavily elasticized girdles.

 

D.H. Lawrence and M.L. Skinner, The Boy in the Bush, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 1990. Edited by Paul Eggert.

The Battye Library holds 17 letters from Lawrence to Skinner (here)

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5 thoughts on “Writing The Boy in the Bush

  1. What an interesting tale! Vernay mentions Skinner in passing in A Brief Take, but only in the context of D H Lawrence having “co-written” the book with her and whether that would mean we could classify his work as ‘Australian literature’.

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    • Lawrence himself was happy to credit Skinner as co-author, but in the end, and while I think the research is not conclusive, I don’t think any of the writing in the book is hers, the focus on Jack’s inner monologue makes it a very intense book, and it ‘feels’ like it’s all DH Lawrence.

      And definitely Australian. In my review (currently at 1600 words as I attempt to cut it back) I hope I show that The Boy in the Bush is an important contribution to the (male-centric) Australian Legend.

      I also think this and Kangaroo could easily be taken up by the Right, in an Ayn Rand sort of way, although the religious right might be less comfortable.

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  2. Even when writers coauthor a book in today’s age of sharing Google drive documents and so forth, I still feel strangely about it, even though I know working with an editor of having a trusted reader give feedback are all forms of co-authoring.

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    • While I’m sure editors sometimes tell you there are deletions or alterations you MUST make, in the end you’re still the boss and you get the credit.

      I’m not sure at what stage Molly discovered she’d become a co-author, let alone that she was definitely relegated to second place. The impression I got was that she would send her work to DHL to be revised and that he got enthusiastic and took over – the Cambridge editor doesn’t make it clear.

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