The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorehouse (ed.)

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The cover painting above is Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife (1945) from a trip he made the previous year and his drawing A Drover’s Camp near Deniliquin (1944). Deniliquin is in NSW, 80 km north of the Victorian border at Echuca. I have often been through that way, heading east to Conargo, Jerilderee, Wagga or north to Hay, Hillston, Bourke and on into outback Queensland, and drovers and their mobs of sheep are still a common sight. Twenty years ago, destitute, I seriously considered the merits of getting an old truck and a plywood caravan and travelling at walking pace as the sheep in my care grazed the back roads and byways of the Riverina. As it happens Milly saved me, for the time being anyway, and that’s a story for another day.

Drysdale always claimed the naming of his painting was unconnected with the title of Australia’s most famous story, but many have sought to connect the two, not least Murray Bail, who in his own The Drover’s Wife (1975) claims that the big bodied woman is his (or more strictly, his dentist narrator’s) missing wife.

In this book Frank Moorehouse brings together a whole collection of this, his own and other writers’ stories and essays – on some of which I have already written (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer, The Drover’s De Facto) – to make a fascinating whole.

Let me attempt a brief chronological overview (Moorehouse’s book is arranged thematically). The undoubted source of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (read it here) is his mother, Louisa’s early married life in the bush near Mudgee, NSW, her husband often away droving and prospecting. Louisa chucked it in in 1886 when Henry was about 19, moved to Sydney, bought a newspaper, and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights. She was a loud forceful woman, Henry was not, and a great story teller.

Moorhouse includes an essay by Louisa, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889), see above, which discusses many of the elements of hardship and isolation which Henry includes in his story. Henry’s The Drover’s Wife first appeared in the Bulletin in 1892. Two years later Louisa used her presses to publish “a poorly printed collection” of Henry’s stories entitled Short Stories in Prose and Verse. Then in 1896 Angus & Robertson brought out a more comprehensive collection, While the Billy Boils.

Academic Ryan O’Neill demonstrates how the Bulletin‘s house style moulded Lawson into one of world’s great short story writers. He argues that the influence of the Bulletin‘s and Lawson’s “Bush Realism” was to be hugely influential in Australian short fiction into the 1960s. Moorhouse looks at iterations in the text to interrogate Lawson’s attitude to race. So, the B in Blacks is capitalised for the first time in the version the Lawson’s printed, but is subsequently discarded, while the comic King Billy intercedes between the drover’s wife and the Black midwife, Mary only in later versions and, according to Moorhouse, only after Lawson got feedback from his cronies down the pub. In a separate essay Matthews argues that Lawson was gay.

Lawson’s genius was to both write within the Bulletin format and to rise above it, subtly – and not so subtly in The Drover’s Wife – spreading his mother’s first wave feminism, while all the time being upheld by men as the messiah of mateship. Men sought to emulate his laconic style, from Vance Palmer to Roger McDonald, but he was also influential with women, not least Miles Franklin and Eve Langley.

In lieu of interrogating this influence Moorhouse has included ten or so short stories which reference Lawson’s story. I have already reviewed The Drover’s De Facto; others include The Drover’s Wife’s Dog by SF writer Damien Broderick; a long story of a young woman’s coming of age, Afraid of Waking It by Madeleine Watts, good but barely relevant; Murray Bail’s story about the woman in the painting; and Moorhouse’s own mock account of an Italian student’s misreading of the Lawson and Bail stories and Drysdale’s painting, which allocates to Australians the extreme affection for sheep usually ascribed to Kiwis.

There are some excellent photos of Drover’s Wifes paintings, images from stage works, notably Leah Purcell’s play (and also stage notes), and a wonderful pair of images titled the Drover’s Wife, Urisino Bore (1958) of drover Ronald Kerr and his sixteen year old wife Mavis, married 39 weeks pregnant (by Jeff Carter (1928-2010)), and again in 2011 after more than 50 years together (and quite often apart, as is the case for all drovers’ wives).

Sue/Whispering Gums has recently re-brought Barabara Jefferis (1917-2004) to our attention and her The Drover’s Wife (1980) is a fitting story to end this review.

It ought to be set straight. All very well for them to spin yarns and make jokes but nobody has written any sense about me. nobody has even given me a name except one and he got it wrong and said I was called Hazel. The drover’s wife, the doctor’s wife, the butcher’s wife. You wouldn’t think of all the countries the one where women are the fewest would be the one where they don’t exist, where men’ll say ‘the missus’ sooner than give a name.

In a chronology I couldn’t quite keep up with Jeffris’ DW is first a kid from the backclocks of NSW who runs off with a dentist [the Murray Bail story]; runs into Henry Lawson – “so I told him a lot. Talked too much – must’ve – because some of it he took and turned into that story about the snake …”, and the story about Mary, the Aboriginal midwife, and the story about the baby she lost – “That was the story I told Mr Lawson a long time afterwards, or at least the parts of it that were alright to tell a man.” Meets and is painted by Mr Drysdale, and then there was Murray Bail “who must have known the dentist”.

What I meant was to tell not so much about me and the drover and the dentist and the rest of them but about how women have a history, too, and about how the Bushman’s Bible and the other papers only tell how half the world lives… We’re not sheep or shadows, or silly saints the way Mr Lawson would have. There’s more to us. More to me than any of them have written, if it comes to that.

But she still doesn’t tell us her name.

Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017


AWW Gen 2 Week, 13-19 Jan. 2019

I’ve put up the first iteration of the AWW Gen 2 page (here) with links to reviews and posts by me, Lisa/ANZLL, Sue/Whispering Gums, Kim/Reading Matters and Brona’s Books – check them out and see what else I can add – and links also to stories and novels readable as pdfs or downloadable to e-readers.


see also:

Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)

Nancy Elin’s review of Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife (here)

The Drover’s De Facto, Anne Gambling

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Mack cattle truck, triple road train
The Drover’s De Facto (1986) is from Frank Moorehouse’s collection of stories and essays inspired by the iconic Henry Lawson short story The Drover’s Wife, which I visited earlier (Louisa Lawson vs Kaye Schaffer) and which, if I spend yet another day stuck in Sydney, I might finish reviewing.

BTW isn’t ‘de facto’ so 1970s. I was passionate back then about not requiring government approval for my relationship status. Though I was eventually brought to realise that spouses and children should be acknowledged in some sort of formal way, about the same time as ‘de facto’ lost its stigma and fell out of common usage.

The ‘drover’ in Gambling’s story is a cattle truck driver from a Queensland cattle/oil town – think Dalby, Roma, Moonie (map). The Mack pictured above is about the right vintage (I care, I’m not sure you do) but from Victoria River in the NT. I would have included a photo of me and the Young Bride in front of my own much more modest cattle truck in 1974 but it’s home on my desktop. YB and I started off de facto, from day one, but in 1973 I got a job driving for a neighbour of my grandfather’s and mum couldn’t stand the shame if Grandma and Granddad found out about us living in sin.

‘She’ picked him up in a singles bar in the city,

… left with him.
He took her to a classy hotel in his big Mack truck.
Called ahead on the CB to reserve the honeymoon suite while she giggled like a schoolgirl, twenty-five with a degree.

His wife has shot through with their kid. He doesn’t have much to offer, a small house in a country town. He’s away a lot.

The romance of the bush overtook her sensibilities, Paterson and Lawson combined to urge her toward a life for which she was uneducated and unprepared.
But that’s OK, she said, I’ll work on my Masters. Yeah, he said, something to do, I guess.

This is starts out as an amusingly written story, though, in the Lawson tradition, with a sad ending – I would say with a pathetic ending but there’s a word whose meaning has been taken from us – of, I estimate, about 4,000 words or a third more than the old Bulletin 3,000 word limit which taught Lawson to write with such concision. But the undertones are savage, and I begin to wonder what truckie done her wrong.

‘She’ battles with the old wood stove. Chopping wood, which I like most country kids did routinely, gives her blisters and open sores. Having a hot meal on the table when he gets home. Or when he’s ready.

And he’d arrive home at whatever time it was and want to lay her. At first she thought it romantic until it came to the physical torture of no foreplay and no satisfaction ever, for her, enduring half an hour at a time … She’d go limp in his arms and if it was dark, she’d cry. Whimpering that he took for signs of ecstasy … Then he’d finish with a thrust … Soon, he would lift his head and say I’m hungry, how would you like to cook somethin’ for me, love?

 

They start to fight. She goes into town while he’s away, drinks and dances with the engineers in from the oilfields. He hears of course, from his mates, and belts her. And that’s it, it’s over, and soon she’s on the road out of town.

It’s an interesting, if obvious, riff on The Drover’s Wife, a middle class city girl thinking through an idle daydream. Working out for herself the consequences, though she might be pleased to know we’re not all stereotypes.

 

Anne Gambling, The Drover’s De Facto, first pub. in Latitudes, 1986

Frank Moorehouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017


I have to put this here in case I later lose track of it, as I inevitably do. A terrific essay in the London Review of Books (June 2003) by Marxist literary academic Terry Eagleton, whom I greatly admire, reviewing three George Orwell biographies (here).

Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer

The Drovers Wife Stamp

Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife (1896) is clearly the seminal short story of Australian Lit. against which all other accounts of life in the Bush must be measured. Frank Moorhouse’s The Drover’s Wife (2017) is a collection of essays on ways The Drover’s Wife has influenced and been reflected in Australian writing and painting. I won’t review the book here, not least because I’ve only just started reading it (and thank you B.i.L who gave it to me for my birthday) but what I do wish to explore are two essays within it which go to the heart of my thesis – that there is an Independent Woman in Australian Literature who is a counterpoint to the myth of the Lone Hand/Bushman/larrikin soldier which most Australians see as the only true symbol of Australianness.

Louisa Lawson, The Australian Bush-Woman (1889)

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) was of course Henry Lawson’s mother. But she was also a story teller, a writer, a poet, a suffragist, a newspaper publisher, and for many years, a drover’s wife. By 1889 when this essay was commissioned by the Boston Woman’s Journal she had been publishing and writing in her newspaper Dawn and its predecessor for more than a year.

… for hasty purposes, my colonial sisters may be roughly sorted into three heaps – city women, country women and bush-women, and it is of the last I will write; for it is of their grim, lonely, patient lives I know, their honest, hard-worked, silent, almost masculine lives.

Bush-women she says may be all day in the saddle alongside the men, then doing “what little had to be done in the house on her return… It would not anyhow be much more than making a ‘damper’ in a tin dish and putting it in the ashes.”

For by bush-women I mean … the wives of boundary-riders, shepherds, ‘cockatoo’ settlers in the far ‘back country’; women who share almost on equal terms with men the rough life and the isolation which belong to civilization’s utmost fringe.

The bush-woman is thin, wiry, flat-chested and sunburned. She could be nothing else, living as she does.

… she will tramp five miles with a heavy child on her hip, do a day’s washing, and tramp back again at night. She works harder than a man. You may see her with her sons putting up a fence, or with the shearers, whistling and working as well as any.

There is one thing the bush-woman hates – it is discipline. The word sounds to her like ‘jail’.

In those remote and isolated spots, man is king and force is ruler. There is no law, no public opinion to interfere. The wife is at the man’s mercy. She must bear what ills he chooses to put upon her and her helplessness in his hands only seems to educe the beast in him.

Louisa concludes that all of the bush-woman’s hopes reside in her daughters – “now wherever a dozen children can be got together there is a school.” The girls surpass the boys, besides, the men always “have the drink washing away their prospects.” These girls, “quick, capable and active … will give us a race of splendid women, fit to obtain what their mothers never dreamed of – women’s rights.”

Louisa’s vision is remarkably similar, no doubt because of its inherent truth, to that of Barbara Baynton (1857-1929), another woman who spent her early married years imprisoned on an isolated back-block.

Kay Schaffer, Henry Lawson, The Drover’s Wife and the Critics (1993)

I went straight to Kay Schaffer’s essay because countering her arguments had been an important motivator for my Masters dissertation, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (2011). Basically, Schaffer argues that “Women have been considered to be absent in the bush and the nationalistic bush tradition” and that the Bush stands in for the feminine, abused and conquered by men.

Yes, the tradition excludes them, but women are only “absent in the Bush” because Schaffer, and Marilyn Lake, and Gail Reekie and Anne Summers don’t look for them. I argued in my dissertation and I think I have demonstrated over a number of years on this blog that there is a considerable body of work supporting both the Independent Woman and Pioneer Women as ‘myths’ in their own right, most recently of course our own MST’s Elizabeth Macarthur.

Schaffer manages to dispute The Drover’s Wife, in which Henry Lawson essentially restates his mother’s thesis as a short story, by claiming that the wife is a surrogate man – “That is, she becomes part of man’s battle against the land as a masculine subject”.

So Schaffer claims that there is no myth of independent women in the bush because those women who are portrayed as independent are just standing in for men:

In most of [Lawson’s] stories the characters who struggle against the hostile and alien bush are men, but this is not necessarily the case. The position of ‘native son’ could, in exceptional circumstances, be filled by a woman. That is, the bushwoman can stand in place of her husband, lover, or brother and take on masculine attributes of strength, fortitude, courage and the like in her battle with the environment (as long as she also maintains her disguise of femininity). She could also be called and have the status of a pioneering hero. This is the position of the drover’s wife.

For a few pages she discusses The Drover’s Wife and its ongoing iconic status, variously interpreted. But still she comes back to –

She stands in place of her absent husband. The drover’s wife is a woman. But heroic status is conferred upon her through her assumption of masculine identity.

Schaffer can only support her thesis of men vs the Bush by claiming that independent bush-women are token men. Tell that to Louisa Lawson and Barbara Baynton, child bearing and child rearing on their own in the Bush while still working the properties of their absent husbands.

Kay Schaffer is an Emerita Professor in Gender Studies and Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Arts, University of Adelaide.

Postscript

In January, 2019 I’ll hold an AWW Gen II week – I don’t expect the tremendous response we got to Gen 1 week this year, but I guess I’ll have some time off work, and I think it would be worthwhile to discuss women writers who came of age in the period 1890-1918 and the background against which they were writing, ie. the Bulletin and the Legend of the Nineties. More anon.

 

Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife, Knopf, Sydney, 2017

Australia Post – celebrating the sesquicentenary of Lawson’s birth (here)
WAD Holloway, The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)
Brian Matthews, Louisa (review)
Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (review)
Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds (review)
Barbara Baynton, Squeaker’s Mate (review)
Barbara Baynton, Human Toll (review)