My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson

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My Henry Lawson, published in 1943 and never republished as far as I can see, is a memoir of the great short story writer by his wife. I read other works about Lawson during my studies, particularly City Bushman by Christopher Lee and Louisa by Brian Matthews, which I plan to re-read and review in the next few months, but this one makes a nice entry point. Briefly, Lee argues that the mythologising of Australian bush workers was a product of city-based writers, in particular Henry Lawson; while Louisa is an account of the life of one of our great Independent Women, who also happened to be Henry’s mother. Bertha writes of her mother in law:

If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother, who fifty years ago, owned and published the first women’s newspaper in Australia. It was called “the Dawn – a Journal for Australian Women.”

Lawson, then quite young and not yet a published poet, was working elsewhere at the time and “had nothing to do with it, not even as a contributor”. Later in the same chapter Bertha writes:

Louisa was a remarkable character, a very determined woman and she and her poet son could never see eye to eye. Apart they remained friendly; together they were at daggers-drawn. They had many and fierce arguments and eventually Harry left home.

Henry Lawson was born at Grenfell [NSW], in a tent, on June 17, 1867. A “birth in a mining camp … was such a novelty, that every digger visited the home to ask to see the baby and to leave generous presents.” Bertha describes Lawson’s antecedents and upbringing, and it is important in light of Lee’s argument to emphasise just how much time Lawson spent in the bush, both growing up and as a young man.

Lawson spent some time in bush schools, though was often truant or helping his parents with work, and then his deafness, caused by illness, also intervened. Louisa had some poetry published in a local paper and Lawson, aged around 10 or 11, attempted some as well but his father objected to his “vaporisings” and they were thrown in the fire. At 14 he was working full time for his father who was a building contractor in country towns west of the Blue Mountains. His education was only resumed after Louisa left her husband and moved to Granville (Sydney) where Henry, then 16, was able to attend night school 3 nights a week. Within a year he had a poem about a shipwreck then in the papers (The Wreck of the Derry Castle) accepted by Archibald for publication in the Bulletin.

Lawson made a number of attempts to matriculate so he could go on to university, but failed, about which he was always bitter: “I was taught too little? I learnt too much/To use a pedant’s diction” (Lawson, The Uncultured Rhymer to His Cultured Critics). He drifted in and out of employment until at 19 he returned to working for his father, at Mt Victoria. There “he learnt to drink and found that under the influence of liquor he forgot his shyness”. When his father died at the end of 1888, Lawson completed his contracts and returned to Sydney, drifting again, but keeping on writing, and for a while working as a columnist in Brisbane.

Bertha doesn’t say so, but Lawson was becoming well known (see my earlier post Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson). In 1892 he borrowed some money from Archibald and took off for Bourke and subsequently Hungerford in far north-west NSW looking for work. His mate Jim Grahame wrote in the Bulletin in 1925 that he and Lawson tramped around the country west of Bourke working as rouseabouts (picking up fleeces, not shearing as was sometimes reported) for six months, before Lawson returned to Sydney by train as a drover with sheep going to the abattoirs at Homebush.

In 1895 Bertha was an 18 yo nurse from Bairnsdale, Vic, in Sydney visiting her mother. A friend introduced her to Lawson who became very persistent in pursuing her and they were soon planning to get married. By this time he had two books of short stories and poetry to his credit and a third, In the Days When the World was Wide, was with the printers. The future was looking rosy. After a couple of hiccups, Bertha’s mother gave her consent and the two were married on April 15, 1896.

In her description of a rowing excursion on Middle Harbour we are given a privileged view into their lives and Lawson’s writing:

Harry took pencil and paper, and while I sat and sewed, or rowed slowly, he wrote verses, chanting them softly to himself, to get the beat and rhythm. This was different from when Harry wrote verse at home, for then he would dictate it to me in that sing-song way of his, and after I had written it down, while he paced to and fro, he would correct it and read it to me.

With money in his pocket, an advance on his book, Lawson was restless and so they sailed for WA where Lawson hoped to become a gold miner, though as it happened they never made it past a camp on the hill near the cemetery in East Perth. When their money was about to run out Bertha engineered a return to Sydney. We get a glimpse of how famous Lawson was becoming:

… in Melbourne, the pressmen came down to interview us; and although we were travelling in the steerage, the captain allowed us to use the saloon, for Harry to entertain the press. It was the grand finale to our tour, and we landed in Sydney with two shillings in the exchequer …

In Sydney Lawson’s drinking mates were a problem, and with an introduction to the Premier, they moved on again, to New Zealand. A job was found for Lawson, as the teacher at an isolated Maori school where Bertha conspired with the locals to make it difficult for Lawson to get to the ‘bright lights’ of Kaikoura 12 miles away on the coast. Here she says, Lawson did some of his best work, all of Joe Wilson and His Mates, a play, and some poetry, including Written Afterwards in which he jokes about the restrictions imposed on him by marriage.

At the beginning of 1898 they returned to Wellington where their son, Jim was born and on to Sydney, where Lawson freelanced for a while till he found work as a clerk with the Government Statistician and gave up the grog. Despite his boss telling him he only had to show up during working hours and he could write what he liked, this lasted just one week!

Another book came out, there was another advance to spend, and another baby, Bertha (b. Feb 1900). Lawson was getting good reviews in Britain, the State Governor offered to pay his passage, and soon the family were on the move again (taking with them of course the ms for My Brilliant Career).

He had become one of the literary lions of London. A dinner had been given to welcome him, at which the leading literary men were guests. The world was at Harry’s feet…

Lawson however made little attempt to take advantage of the opportunities opening up for him. And after two years on the wagon, on arrival in London he started drinking again. Friends had found housing for them, but “with all this appreciation we still had not enough money to buy food”. Mary Gilmour, her husband and child came to stay (after the failure of New Australia). “We were all in deep financial difficulties”. Then Harry got an advance from Blackwoods (publishers) and Bertha “lost no time buying passages for myself and the children for Australia”. Lawson followed soon after.

They met up again in Colombo but by the time they were back in Australia the marriage was very nearly at an end. Bertha stayed in Melbourne for six weeks, while Henry went on to Sydney; they lived together for a while in Manly, but first Henry, then Bertha, was hospitalised for long periods; their furniture was seized for arrears of rent; a third baby died at birth.

Bertha found employment as a travelling saleswoman for Stuart & Co., booksellers while Lawson took lodgings, “it was useless taking up house again as he was quite penniless and the children had to be provided for.”

He had his happy times and I think those periods were usually associated with absolute freedom from responsibility and full expression of his genius. He hated to be tied down.

In this period, immediately before the Great War, Lawson had published a prose volume “The Rising of the Court” and a book of verses “Skyline Riders”. For a while during the War, the government gave him make-work, writing advertising for the Leeton irrigation area.

Bertha goes on to analyse Lawson’s writing, his connections to the working class, where she and he fit into his stories, particularly the Joe Wilson stories, and his links to the Australian ‘Bohemians’. Lawson died in 1922, of cerebral haemorrhage. He was given a State Funeral and according to Bertha, was buried in the grave that had been prepared for Henry Kendall.

This excellent little book ends with a previously unpublished Lawson short story, A Wet Camp.

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (the drawing reproduced on the cover is signed McCormack)


25 thoughts on “My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson

  1. How interesting that it’s never been republished – a bio about one of our most memorable authors by his wife. Sounds like it would be ripe for Text Classics if they could get the rights.

    I love this re Lawson and his mother: “Apart they remained friendly; together they were at daggers-drawn.”


    • I wonder if interest in Lawson is waning. It’s the 150th anniversary of his birth shortly (coinciding with the Williamstown Lit festival) but I haven’t seen it mentioned.


      • I think it waned a long time ago – and perhaps is perhaps more likely to start rising again. But I might be wrong. I think there are two books out recently on Paterson?


      • Guess you’re right. Bertha writes about the going out of fashion of bush ballads, though the stories were meant to live forever. As for ABP I dimly remember something about his mother.


  2. I’ve been noticing an anti-rural push ever since the infamous all-male Miles Franklin shortlist brouhaha. Amongst the insults hurled at the hapless three authors, was that they were part of ‘privileging’ stories from the bush. (Yes, That Deadman’s Dance, go figure). Note, this year, that this year’s stories are being touted as ‘urban’, placing Josephine Rowe’s A Loving Faithful Animal on notice because it has a character who walks down a long dusty Australian bush road.
    If students are reading classic bush stories these days, they’re probably reading Barbara Baynton, not poor old Henry…


    • That answer was a bit off topic, let me try again. I think ‘the bush’ is still a much greater force in Aus.Lit. than warranted by the 20% of our population who live outside our main cities. Think Roger Macdonald, The Hands, Charlotte Wood, Salt Creek, those connected short stories in Adel and the Coorong, even An Isolated Incident (sorry, driving, can’t look stuff up). Then there’s Indigenous Lit.


  3. Maybe only 20% of Australians live outside the city, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us only want to read urban stories, too many of which might just as well be set in New York or London. We all have the same history, which was largely rural until WW1 (95% of the population worked on the land at Federation). We all holiday in the bush. We all put our hands in our pockets when there’s disaster in the bush. I bet most of us get a lump in the throat as the plane home from Europe flies over the red centre.
    FWIW I think a kid who doesn’t know the story of The Drover’s Wife is a neglected child. I always read it to my Y5&6 students, most of whom were refugees from one place or another, and they thought it was a magnificent story. All the kids I taught came from densely populated places and it stretched their imaginations to think of a woman getting dressed up in her Sunday best to walk all morning and not see a single soul.


    • I think we agree that Aust Lit is still skewed towards the bush; and that ‘elites’ are (have always been) unhappy about this. I certainly think Lawson is still relevant, but I’m also a fan of new urban lit. Tsiolkas, Patric, Rawson spring to mind


      • Well, sorry to be difficult, but I don’t want to play the game of classifying books into urban/the bush and then assigning labels to people who prefer one or the other. Stories can and should come from everywhere, I want to read them all, and I want other people to read them with an open mind no matter where they’re set or where the author lives. It’s the same as the gender wars: I don’t want to play in that sandpit either.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jessica, I’ll follow up your link tomorrow. Bertha speaks quite well of Henry after they separated, he was conscientious about staying in touch, just impossible to live with.
      I corresponded with Alan, and would have met him for coffee except work intervened. He seemed quite bemused that I would review such an old book. He has another coming out this year, I’ll have to start looking out for it.


  4. To true the legend of the bush, thanks for the read, opened my eyes to the past of our Henry. You have to wonder about some of the stuff that was written about Henry but your piece gives a look inside the man from one who was close. Thanks for the read and Henry Lawson works will always inspire me. Cheers Kev


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