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Henry Lawson: Australian writer

Henry Lawson's life and background

Portrait of Henry Lawson

Portrait of Henry Lawson by Sir John Longstaff. Oil on canvas 41x30.5cm. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an20358241.

Henry Lawson was born on the Grenfell goldfields in New South Wales on 17 June 1867. He was the son of a Norwegian seaman, Niels Larsen, who later changed his name to Peter Lawson.

In Henry's early years, the family lived on a poor selection in the Mudgee district. Lawson suffered from deafness and was often teased as a result.

His parents separated in 1883, and Henry moved to Sydney with his mother, Louisa. It was there that Louisa began publishing the feminist newspaper The Dawn.

Colin Roderick , who published a biography of Lawson called Henry Lawson: a life , suggests that Lawson suffered from manic depression and sought refuge from his mood swings in alcohol.

Henry married Bertha Bredt in 1896, and they had two children, but it was not a happy relationship and they separated in 1903. Henry spent periods of time in institutions for his alcoholism, and periods of time in gaol for failing to support his family. He died on 2 September, 1922, in Sydney. At his funeral, crowds lined the streets to farewell Australia's 'poet of the people'.

Henry Lawson and the Australian bush

Much of Lawson's work was set in the Australian bush, or was about bush life.

Although most Australians lived in cities and towns in the 19th century, it was the bush that somehow grabbed the imagination - perhaps because of the stark contrast between it and the more gentle and controlled environment of Europe, from where most non-indigenous Australians had come.

This was also the time before Federation, and Australians' allegiance was not to Australia, because it did not exist as an united entity as yet. Australians felt they owed loyalty to a particular colony - New South Wales or Victoria and so on - and beyond that, loyalty was owed to England, the King or Queen of England, and the British Empire.

By the 1890s Australia had been settled for a little more than 100 years and Lawson was arguably the first Australian-born writer who really looked at Australia with Australian eyes, not influenced by his knowledge of other landscapes. He was the first perhaps to give voice to interpretations of an 'Australian' character.

He was also from the bush, had lived on a selection, had been brought up in bush poverty, had suffered hardship and unemployment, and knew of the characters and lifestyles he talked about. His work reflected Australian experience with an integrity readers recognised.

Lawson and The Bulletin

Lawson was first published in The Bulletin in 1887 with the poem Song of Australia . The Bulletin was an influential publication which promoted a particular set of views - egalitarianism, unionism, and 'Australianism'. It was also white and male.

Lawson was a regular contributor, as was Banjo Paterson. A series of verses were published where Lawson and Paterson debated their different perspectives on the Australian bush - Lawson claiming Paterson was a romantic, and Paterson claiming Lawson was full of doom and gloom.

Tony Moore, in his 1997 paper about bohemian culture, says:

The bohemian traits revered by 'The Bulletin' writers are almost a caricature of the Australian national type propagated by the journal: mateship and blokey bonding to the exclusion of family life; hostility to religion, personified by the Protestant wowser; ironic humour; a fondness for alcohol, pubs and gambling; pre-occupation with a free-wheeling Australian identity (overlaid with francophilia and Irish nationalism) invariably opposed to a conservative Englishness; and an occasional flirtation with political causes such as socialism and republicanism. The identification of the bohemian with male mateship remains a strong thread in the Australian tradition, but one contested by women like Mary Gilmore in the 1890s, Dulcie Deamer in the 1920s, Joy Hester in the 1940s and Germaine Greer in the 1960s.

A British reviewer in the 1890s claimed:

The delusion these writers [of 'The Bulletin' school] labour under is trying to be too exclusively Australian, by which they come merely provincial. That a man's lot should be cast in the wilds of Australia is no reason that his whole inner life should be taken up with the glorification of shearers or the ridicule of jackaroos. And a genuine Australian poetry can only arise when such matters fall into their true place and assume their relatively small artistic importance.

Lawson and The Drover's Wife

Photo of one of Henry LawsonNational Library of Australia.

The British reviewer could not have been more wrong. Lawson became one of Australia's most influential writers and his interest in the 'glorification of shearers' and the' ridicule of jackaroos' became of significant artistic importance. His story, The Drover's Wife, which is about ordinary people living and subsisting off the land on an Australian selection is a seminal moment in Australian short fiction:

The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple trees, no undergrowth. Nineteen miles to the nearest civilisation - a shanty on the main road ... There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to fix a point in your mind, unless you are a bushman. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the stunted trees.
(Source: The Drover's Wife by Henry Lawson)

Lawson and Baynton: different perspectives

Of course Lawson was not the only writer who wrote about the bush and its people: Barbara Baynton and Steele Rudd are others. And of course Banjo Paterson.

Barbara Baynton took a blacker view of the bush than Lawson - particularly in relation to the fortunes of women who were often left alone for months by their husbands who were off droving or looking for work.

In Lawson's The Drover's Wife, the wife is alone except for her dog, Alligator, and her children. She is a woman of whom Lawson says:

One of her children died while she was here alone. She rode 19 miles for assistance, carrying the dead child ... She seems contented with her lot. She loves her children, but has no time to show it. She seems harsh to them. Her surroundings are not favourable to the development of the 'womanly' or sentimental side of nature.

In Baynton's The Chosen Vessel the scenario is similar. The husband, a shearer, is off working, leaving the woman alone with their baby in their shanty.

In The Drover's Wife, the drover is presented as a decent man: 'he is careless, but a good enough husband'. In Baynton's story, the husband laughs at his wife's fear of their cow:

It was he who forced her to run and meet the advancing cow, brandishing a stick, and uttering threatening words till the enemy turned and ran. 'That's the way!' the man said, laughing at her white face. In many things he was worse than the cow, and she wondered if the same rule would apply to the man, but she was not one to provoke skirmishes even with the cow.

Where Lawson's drover's wife endures and overcomes hardships alone, in Baynton's story, the woman, alone, friendless and isolated in the impassive Australian bush, is raped and murdered by a passing traveller.

A sense of the ridiculous

Lawson's drover's wife has another important quality - a 'keen sense of the ridiculous' which saves her often from tears and despair. There is no such saving grace for Baynton's characters - in neither The Chosen Vessel or in Squeaker's Mate, another of Baynton's stories about life in the bush. Squeaker's Mate is set in similar circumstances to the other stories mentioned, but paints an even blacker picture of the lives of women in the bush.

Baynton lacked the romantic admiration for the bush and its people which Lawson's work contained, because even while Lawson admitted to the harshness of bush life, his characters tended to stoicism and endurance and had an admirable ability to overcome difficult circumstances without self-pity.

Baynton's stories have a gothic intensity; her characters are victims of ugly poverty, and of the immutability of the Australian landscape.

Useful links

Henry Lawson: the man

Last updated: 1 October 2015
Creators: Jacki Thomas