As if I didn’t have enough books in my own TBR – mere hundreds – I borrowed this one, a gift from my Henry Lawson fan brother and his young family a quarter of a century ago, such a long time ago, such a short time, mid-life crisis time for me and my young family, from my mum when I was there recently.
The author, Anne Brooksbank (1943- ) wife of the late Bob Ellis, commentator and script writer whom I still remember vividly with Mungo MacCullum and John Hepworth (and Sam Orr, Michael Luenig, Morris Lurie how could I forget) in the Nation Review (1970-81) “lean and nosey like a ferret”. Sorry, I shouldn’t define a woman by her husband. Brooksbank has a number of novels to her credit, many film and tv scripts, some I think in collaboration with Ellis, and has recently rewritten All My Love as a play which seems to be touring Western Victoria as I write.
All My Love (1991) is the story of the romantic relationship of Australian poet Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) and the iconic Henry Lawson (1867-1922). Gilmore’s ADB entry says ” Her account of an unofficial engagement and Lawson’s wish to marry her at the time of his brief trip to Western Australia (May-September 1890) could be accurate regarding dates, but there is no other corroborative evidence. There was clearly, however, a close relationship between them in 1890-95, but it was broken by his frequent absences from Sydney. Mary’s later comments on his career were always somewhat proprietorial but the extent of her influence on his literary talents and her contribution to his literary education remain unsubstantiated.”
The words ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’ pop up regularly in accounts of All My Love on the net, but nowhere in the periphalia (there must be a word) of the book itself, though right from the first chapter it is clear we are in the territory of historical fiction rather than even ‘imagined biography’ – there are no footnotes or endnotes and the letter young schoolteacher Mary Jean Cameron (Gilmore) gets from her mother is so full of framing information (about Louisa Lawson and Dawn) that it could not possibly be real.
Brooksbank doesn’t say where Mary was, but it was Silverton in outback NSW in 1889. She describes the drive into Broken Hill (also not named) with the coachman shouting Adam Lindsay Gordon ballads to his horses, and then the train rides to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney as Mary takes the long way home (map) to spend Christmas with her mother who had some years earlier left her husband in southern NSW, and Mary as the eldest to care for her siblings, and “gone off to work as a breezy and often inaccurate journalist for a Sydney paper”.
On her first day in town Mary is introduced to Louisa Lawson, even taller than she is, nearly six feet, is commissioned (ordered) to write an article about miners’ women, and is told by her mother and Henry’s that they are to meet.
In the third chapter Henry goes off to meet that “wretched young woman”. That is, while still in the third person, the viewpoint switches to Henry, and so it alternates for the rest of the book. The meeting is of course awkward (Lawson’s deafness is not mentioned till later). Still, they go for a walk and he shows her the ‘real city’.
Henry, who couldn’t spell, and in fact was in real life defensive about not having had much of an education, would bring his poetry to Mary to correct, and “seemed quite glad to relax into the role of being instructed, and it bothered her that he did. He had clearly been ordered about by his mother for most of his life …” Mary herself had already had a few poems published and began to write more, “in competition”.
There is some discussion of their differing attitudes to Aborigines. Henry “had been brought up the child of poor selectors who saw the Blacks as a lost and inferior people” whereas Mary had been taught by her father who had known and learnt from the local Wiradjuri. Mary’s early nurse was a Wiradjuri woman but “there was secret approval given from Sydney for the wiping out of the Blacks … I never saw her again.” This would have been in the early 1870s, around Wagga. (“The allusion to massacres by Mary Gilmore here and elsewhere and other oral traditions suggest there were further killings of Wiradjuri from the 1870’s on.” Wiradjuri Heritage Study by Wagga Wagga City Council).
Mary gets a North Shore (Sydney) school for 1890 and the two meet most days, until Louisa, angry with Mary’s mother, attempts to force a separation by sending Henry and his brother Peter off to the WA goldfields. Henry responds by proposing to Mary, but she is not ready. (What is it with Henry and the WA Goldfields? The next time he heads off, in 1906, he rushes into marriage with Bertha and even then doesn’t make it past a camp on the river at East Perth and soon returns home).
Mary takes a room at Louisa’s and Henry is soon back, but not soon enough. Louisa has been intercepting his letters to Mary and she has lost heart and moved away. “In the months that followed, and the year after that, Mary heard of him from time to time. Heard that he was raising a few eyebrows with his drinking …” Years pass. Henry gets sent out west by the Bulletin, “You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs“(HL). William Lane sails for Paraguay. Louisa prints Henry’s first book [Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894)] and while he is out delivering it, he and Mary finally bump into each other again.
But. Despite clearing up the heartbreak of the missing letters, he’s a drunk, he’s sleeping with the bookshop owner’s plump young step-daughter (Bertha), and she’s off on the next ship to William Lane’s Cosme in Paraguay.
There, Mary marries the uneducated bushman, Will Gilmore and they have a son. Cosme fails. Sailing home (the long way again) via Patagonia and Liverpool they are invited to stay with the Lawsons, by then living in London, and are persuaded by Henry, and Bertha’s doctor, to take the mentally unstable Bertha and her two children back to Australia with them, an horrendous journey. Bertha is jealous of Mary and says so loudly. The ship breaks down, and they are joined in Bombay, where it is being repaired, by Henry unable to remain in London without his children. He takes a separate small cabin for himself in which, on the way home, for the first and only time Brooksbank imagines them in bed (based on a Mary Gilmore poem: “I lifted up his head/And laid it on my breast“).
And that’s just about it. A fascinating subject which Brooksbank never really succeeds in bringing to life.
Anne Brooksbank, All My Love, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1991
My review of My Henry Lawson by Bertha Lawson (here)
My review of Louisa by Brian Matthews (here)
Janine, The Resident Judge’s review of A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson by Kerrie Davies (here)