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)

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All My Love, Anne Brooksbank

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The best image I could find

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”.

Henry on one of their walks takes her to rooms above a Castlereagh St bookshop where he has a few drinks and recites (bellows) Sons of the South and she meets William Lane.

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

see also:
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)

Louisa, Brian Matthews

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Brian Matthews begins Louisa (1987) with complaints about his typewriter, which is dented and damaged and “everyone else I know or had ever heard of” was using a word-processor; his struggles with writing; and his problems with biography. ‘At the top of a clean, white page’ he has written:

“Louisa Lawson (née Albury) was born on ‘Hungry’ Rouse’s Guntawang Station in February 1848 and was baptized in the homestead drawing room by the Reverend Archdeacon Gunther.”

Such fastidiously slavish conformity to formula: she/he (name) was born on/at (place) in (date) and (add in more or less random detail for balance); such awful inertia, such adamant refusal to open out into anything of further interest.

This sentence … reminded me forcibly of the problematic nature of biography and of this biography in particular. The truth of the matter was: despite my diligent pursuit of fact and evidence, anecdote and clue, I knew very well as I finished and recoiled from that so conventional opening gambit that there was a critical shortage of material.

Brian Matthews was born in 1936 and “lives [in 1987 at least] in the Mount Lofty Ranges (Adelaide) with his wife and five children” – a sentence whose point I have never understood, and yet it is found, with just the details changed, in nearly every author bio. He was teaching Literature at Flinders Uni, and had written previously on Henry Lawson. Now he was tackling Lawson’s less well-known mother, a fiercely independent woman, a writer and publisher, and an important figure in Australian first-wave feminism. The problems to overcome, as he sees it are;

First: paucity of hard evidence. The act of writing biography is stalked at every point by the temptation to invent…

Second: even when material is plentiful, but especially when it is not, there exists the danger that the writer will enter the narrative, inflated and indulged behind the fluctuating presence of the subject.

For a dozen pages he proposes and abandons various forms of parallel factual and speculative texts before settling on a new beginning:

Gertrude Eloise was the second of twin girls born to Louisa Lawson on 30 April 1877 in Mudgee. Her sister Annette Elizabeth, whom her mother and Henry later referred to as Nettie, died in January of the following year.

And so we finally begin making our way, easily and fluently, into Louisa’s story, although with occasional interspersions from ‘Owen Stevens’, our biographer’s alter ego.

Gertrude in later life was to write about both Louisa and Henry. Owen Stevens comments on her value as a source: “She failed as far as Henry was concerned … But she was far too close to Louisa for far too long … to get it really wrong.” But the next paragraph begins: “The biographer is both shocked and obscurely excited about the forthrightness of this statement” and after some further questioning, “henceforth he will patrol the alternative text, like an editor” ready “if need be, to kill him off at the slightest sign of trouble.” So, it seems we are to have not one but two alternative streams of text.


I’ve written about Louisa before, in The Independent Woman in Australian Literature, but here is a re-hash of her bio:

Brian Matthews describes Louisa as tall, with striking looks, and tirelessly hard-working. Used from a young age by her mother as an unpaid skivvy and child-minder, she rushed into marriage at 18, to an itinerant 34 year old gold miner, Peter Larsen. With 5 children under 10 before she was 30, she struggled to survive on their small bush block at Eurunderee, near Mudgee (the source of many of Henry Lawson’s stories), running a small general store and post office, farming with the help of Henry, Peter being mostly away, and still finding time to write poetry and to lead a successful local campaign for Eurunderee to get a school; before finally giving up and moving to Sydney in 1886, where she supported herself by sewing and washing and taking in boarders.

 In 1887 she purchased an ailing newspaper, the Republican, which had its own small printing press, and which in 1888 morphed into Dawn, a monthly newspaper for women. Later the same year the absent Peter died leaving her some money, enabling her to enlarge her press, and within a year she was employing 10 women, including printers, earning her the enmity of the (male only) printers’ union. Through Dawn, Louisa launched a campaign for female suffrage in 1889, and in 1891 she was elected to the council of the newly formed Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. Until the vote was won in 1902 she frequently spoke at large assemblies, and the facilities at Dawn were volunteered for meetings and the printing of pamphlets. Louisa, no doubt reflecting on her own experience, was fierce about the difficulties faced by women forced by economics into unhappy marriages: ‘“Half of Australia’s women’s lives are unhappy,” proclaims the first editorial.’ In 1900 she was hit by a tram and the effects of the injury lingered, until, in 1905, Dawn, which had been an important voice educating and campaigning for women’s rights, was closed down and Louisa retired to her gardening.


It is central to both Louisa’s life and to Henry’s writing, that Louisa was a great story teller. Matthews points out that Louisa, who moved in all kinds of Sydney social circles, despite her limited education and having lived in the bush in poor to desperate circumstances until she was in her forties, assumed a position of leadership in the women’s movement by dint of her articulate public speaking, both formally and off-the-cuff. And he is able to analyse how stories, related at various times by Louisa, Gertrude and Henry, gain in dramatic intensity, while retaining a core of near-identical ‘facts’. So, most famously, The Drover’s Wife, is in essence a story that Henry and Gertrude had often heard told (and embellished) by their mother.

The biography progresses with each chapter of ‘mainstream’ text enlivened by suggestions from ‘Owen Stevens’ and counter-suggestions and occasional grudging agreement from the ‘real’ biographer. Louisa clearly had a hard life, starting out in rural poverty, reinventing herself in the city, encumbered by sons with serious mental illnesses, and then, at the height of her success as a publisher and women’s advocate, is knocked down by a tram, confined to bed for a year, left with ongoing back problems and headaches, and finally declines into what sounds like dementia with her children – other than Henry who by 1920 was totally incapacitated by alcoholism – scheming to inherit her cottage.

Matthews discusses Louisa Lawson’s achievements under four headings: Poetess, Dawn, Womanhood Suffrage, Inventor, before grudgingly adding a fifth, Henry.

Poetess: Louisa wrote poetry throughout her life, was published, in other magazines as well as her own, and published one collection, The Lonely Crossing (1905) which Matthews says is worthy of serious consideration. “The situation at the heart of many of Louisa’s poems is reminiscent of Barbara Baynton’s stories of besieged women. Indeed, she shows quite considerable consciousness of other writers – Boake, Longfellow, Kendall, to name a few – and often benefits from her knowledge of them.”

Dawn: “Louisa’s great years [1888-1900] began when the scatty, exciting, amateurish, outrageously belligerent little Republican disappeared overnight and re-emerged as The Dawn. For the next twelve years, Louisa Lawson was a known, striking and ubiquitous figure in Sydney journalistic and feminist circles.”

Dawn, throughout its seventeen years, crusaded for the interests of ordinary women – not anti-marriage but against laws and customs which gave men the ‘whip-hand’; pro divorce; full of useful hints – how to ride a bicycle , or ‘the possibilities in a leg of beef’; plain living; women’s health; opportunities for women to exchange ideas and information; women’s shelters; womanhood suffrage.

Womanhood Suffrage: In May 1889, Louisa addressed the inaugural meeting of The Dawn Club which became an important forum for discussing women’s rights. Two years later, a meeting addressed by Louisa, Rose Scott and others resolved to form The Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW into which the Dawn Club was merged. Matthews lists an executive committee which does not include Louisa, though her ADB entry says: “When Mrs Dora Montefiore formed the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales in 1891, Louisa was invited to join and was elected to its council.” In any case, Louisa continued to play an active part, both at meetings and in The Dawn – in contrast to the studied silence of the mainstream press. If I have a criticism of Matthews it is that he has very little to say about the League and the part played by Louisa.

Inventor: By contrast, Matthews spends a whole chapter on the saga of a buckle for securing mail bags invented by Louisa and adopted for use by the Post Office. She won a couple of contracts to supply the buckle and there was talk of it being used by Post Offices throughout the Empire, but eventually her design was stolen by the firm she was using to manufacture it, and with the connivance of managers within the Post Office bureaucracy, and despite numerous, tedious court cases, her title to the design and hopes for an independent retirement, were lost.

Henry: In those times before Henry Lawson was in the process of being forgotten it was common to blame Louisa for neglecting her children (I think this may be a dig at Colin Roderick and his book The Real Henry Lawson). But in fact Henry was an adult when Louisa moved to Sydney. She found him work and then when she purchased the Republican and its printing press, he worked for her there and later wrote articles for Dawn. Louisa always encouraged Henry with his writing (to which Peter, his father, was opposed) and was the first to publish him, Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894),  including for the first time anywhere, The Drover’s Wife.

Matthew’s opinion is that: “Henry Lawson was a great writer. He was also, sadly, critically disabled by deafness [not to mention a poor education, and a disinclination to accept criticism]… Allowing for his misfortune, however, it can still be said that he was impetuous, shallow and an incorrigible whinger.”

The final chapters document the years of Louisa’s decline, which I am happy to gloss over. Louisa Lawson was a striking woman and this is a striking biography, both for its form and its content, and should be on the TBR of every student of Australian Lit.

 

Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, 1987. My edition Penguin, 1988

see also the much more expert opinions of Nathan Hobby, here
and I recently wrote on Bertha Lawson’s biography of Henry Lawson, here