THIS YEAR – 2017 – is the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the Australian writer Henry Lawson. Lawson scholar Paul Eggert, in his book Biography Of A Book: Henry Lawson’s While The Billy Boils (Penn State University Press, 2012), writes, ‘Lawson, at fifty-five, died in poverty on the morning of 2 September, 1922, a Saturday.’
Well known around the streets of inner Sydney as a ruin of man, a sad alcoholic, he was nevertheless accorded a state funeral – on Monday the 4th… The first request for a state funeral by his publisher and the editor of Aussie, Phillip Harris, was turned down…but the chance arrival of the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, by train on Sunday morning changed everything… A deputation including the poet, Mary Gilmore, put the case for a state funeral to him… He ordered the funeral for the next day at St Andrews Cathedral… His tribute read ‘Lawson knew intimately the real Australia, its droughts, its floods. He loved Australia… None was his master. He was the poet of Australia, the minstrel of the people.’
During his short lifetime, Lawson published twenty-three collections of stories and verse. The population of his Sydney, say in 1900, was nearly half a million, roughly the size of Newcastle today. The population of Australia was at that time 3,700,000 – just over half the population of London.
In 1902, Lawson was thirty-three and at his peak as a writer, living in London with his family, his wife Bertha and his two children. The passage of Lawson and his family to London was paid for by his Sydney publisher, George Robertson of Angus & Robertson; the Governor of NSW, Earl Beauchamp; and book collector and benefactor David Scott Mitchell (whose collection was to form the core of the NSW State Library). They wanted Lawson to make his name there. To some extent, he did: in the two years he was in London, he found a literary agent and published two books, one of which included ‘The Drover’s Wife’ (which he had written in 1892 and which was to become his best known work). The highly respected English critic David Garnett wrote at the time:
‘The Drover’s Wife’…is a sketch of a woman in the bush, left for months alone with her four children, while her husband is up-country, droving… If this…can be taken as a summary of a woman’s life, giving its significance in ten short pages, even Tolstoy has never done better…
He gained strong reviews and recognition from the critics – but not all were favourable.
During this time in London, Bertha was admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital as a mental patient and then Bertha and the children returned to Australia without Lawson. Lawson followed soon after. Back in Sydney, Bertha, after six years of marriage, obtained a decree for judicial separation testifying to Lawson’s violent behaviour towards her – and later that year Lawson is thought to have attempted suicide.
After the return from England, Lawson’s life was fairly much in decline and his work began to deteriorate but he remained much read, and together with photographs and illustrations his face became a visual icon and his writing the voice of the young, emerging Australia and its post-settlement origins and aspirations. Until recently he was taught in schools and universities throughout Australia, but now only here and there.
In 1964 Lawson’s face honoured the general-use postage stamp, and from 1966 until 1993 his face featured on the ten-dollar note. This year a new set of Lawson stamps were issued, including one dedicated to ‘The Drover’s Wife’ story – a rather glamorous drover’s wife.
‘THE DROVER’S WIFE’ is Henry Lawson’s most re-published short story. But more than that, since 1892, when the twenty-five-year-old Henry Lawson published it in The Bulletin magazine, Australian writers, painters, performers, filmmakers, playwrights, photographers and literary theorists have created a rich river of art and scholarship inspired (or in some cases, provoked) by the story. More complicatedly, some of these works are also inspired by the Russell Drysdale painting The drover’s wife (1945), now in the National Gallery of Australia.
There are thirteen contemporary short stories with the title, a ballet and a short film by Sally Richardson. Recent works that allude to it include a prize-winning play by Leah Purcell, told from the Aboriginal point of view (now optioned for a film); a novella by Madeleine Watts, ‘Afraid of waking it’, published in Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short; an experimental graphic novel by Ryan O’Neill; and an opera/oratorio, From Hell to Heaven, by composer Andrew Howes. This year there are three new books about him and his work, including The Drover’s Wife: A Collection (Random House), an anthology of the art works and scholarship inspired by the Lawson story and Drysdale painting, which I edited.
In 1975, the story and painting were sensationally brought together in a remarkable short story by Murray Bail entitled ‘The Drover’s Wife’, which was published in Tabloid Story. Curiously, this conjoining of the two works could be a false back-construction. Drysdale is quoted as saying that he was not inspired by the story when creating his painting. Some, including myself, seriously doubt this.
It is a phenomenon unique in the Australian artistic imagination – the drover’s wife has become our Mona Lisa.
What is it about Lawson’s story that it continues to inspire other artworks a hundred and twenty-five years later?
The story tells of the isolated drover’s wife (she is given no name) and her four children fighting off a snake, fighting a bush fire, of the trials of running the farm alone and of her living with the threat of rape by itinerant visitors who drift onto the property. Her husband has been away droving and was once away eighteen months.
From what we know from historical sources, the story in physical detail is an accurate enough fictionalised picture of some of the living conditions in which women settlers found themselves. That is, the story is sound realism and would’ve drawn on the outback life Lawson would’ve observed as a child and adult and heard told by others. Interestingly, the story also leans heavily on an essay by his mother, Louisa, on the lives of bush women.
The essay, ‘The Australian Bush-Woman’, was written in 1889, three years before ‘The Drover’s Wife’, and originally published in the Boston Woman’s Journal and the London Englishwoman’s Review.
In ‘The Australian Bush-Woman’, there is an examination of the cruel, violent relationships that existed between men and women, and it relates to contemporary Australia and our inheritance of that violent domestic culture which continues to scar us as a society. While drawing very much on his mother’s essay in the making of his story, Lawson leaves out her references to male violence towards women. As we now know, especially since the publication of Kerrie Davies’ book A Wife’s Heart (UQP, 2017), domestic violence was to emerge and destroy Lawson’s marriage.
Louisa Lawson writes that the early settlers who took to the bush life:
…were generally of rough, coarse character, or, if they were not of such nature originally, the solitude and the strange, primitive life must have made them so. 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. There is a vast deal of the vilest treatment of women.
Louisa’s description of the isolated bush-woman and Henry’s creation of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is also a depiction of Lawson the silent observer. Living in his semi-deafness, alienated by his creative sensibility, living with a precarious gender (more on this later), itself an ‘isolation’, all formed a bubble of isolation even when in company, placing him apart from his male companions, surrounded by threat.
Given this, I believe that Lawson was able to successfully empathise with the drover’s wife’s sense of herself as a lone, threatened female coping in a hostile bush, which was also for Lawson a hostile male world.
As in the process of the making of all fiction, the author’s personality is backstage. The person ‘Henry Lawson’ as a flawed, hapless man is there with his demons while his imagination strides onstage to take over, forming itself as the story teller, the narrator, voice of the nation, a persona with a very masculine moustache. In the case of Lawson, the living person backstage has another precarious personality, distinct from the assured writer of strong stories and, sometimes, overwrought, high-flown, drum-beating, verse.
AS I WORKED on analysing ‘Lawson the story’, I was surprised to find that Henry Lawson had a precarious sense of his own gender-personality. This is revealed by contemporary descriptions of his personality and manner, and his description of himself (‘sex’ being the anatomical identity of a person and ‘gender’ being the culturally created identity).
I want to strongly stress that any personality parallels I have with Lawson did not motivate the original research or shaping of my book. My research was initiated by my curiosity about the unique survival of the story ‘The Drover’s Wife’ while his reputation faded, and the way it had inspired many other works of art in a way that no other work has done in Australian culture.
The evidence of Lawson’s gender tensions formed as I read through the observations of him by his contemporaries and later critics. I saw that while quickly observed, this was essentially dodged in the extensive portrayals of him as a man. It was certainly not seen as a positive part of his work and his personality, and consequently it was pushed to one side because of social embarrassment. Quite a few readers, politicians, critics and academics were ‘guardians’ of a certain iconic male Australian image of Lawson. He was often appropriated for other causes, essentially of a strident male culture and an emerging male-dominated nationality. Effeminacy is certainly not in the image of Lawson that emerged from my high school or university study of him.
Lawson uses the word ‘feminine’ to describe himself, as did others. But given the rigid and coarsened Australian masculine culture in which he mostly moved, the consciousness Lawson had of his femininity (which was considerable) meant that he tried to suppress or modify it so that he could find acceptance in conventional male company. But he does not seem to have been too successful in ‘passing’ as a ‘normal bloke’, yet he was very successful in projecting this through his writing, which became accepted as the voice, manner and mores of the male bloke of his times – although some critics observed femininity in his writing as well.
The feminine and the masculine in an artist (or within all of us) was used creatively, through the process of the artistic imagination, to create the strong, unified ‘body’ of work known as ‘Lawson’, paradoxically disembodied from ‘Henry Lawson’ the person backstage, whose personality was sexually confused, alcoholic and chronically troubled.
Dr Zoe Fraser at Griffith University, whose thesis was in the area of gender studies, read my essay and questioned what the word ‘feminine’ or ‘effeminate’ meant back then when directed at a male, compared, say, to what we take it to mean today. It had nuances that no longer really apply. In reply, I speculate that the words when used to describe Lawson would have been directed at his personal style as being odd, queer and abnormal, and later use to mean ‘weaknesses’ as a man both in his character and his writing. I would further speculate that behind his back those men and women who knew him would have wondered about his sexual nature.
Lawson identifies with others like him. ‘I’ve seen the poor, pale, delicate victim the butt of brutal ignorance in many places… I always know him…his face, figure, voice and manner told plainly of a gentleman…’ [Italics mine.] The effeminate style was sometimes equated with the stereotyped style of an upper-class English gentleman.
From the beginning of his life he was seen by relatives and others as a ‘sensitive’ or a ‘delicate’ young man, and they sometimes described him as ‘feminine’. The words sensitive and delicate were, and sometimes still are, coded polite words for feminine or effeminate, but also sometimes used to denote an ‘artistic personality’ in a male.
Lawson describes his own sense of his ‘difference’ in A Fragment of Autobiography, written around 1903–1906 when Lawson was in his late thirties but only published in full in 1964.
I had a fondness for dolls, especially wooden judy dolls, and, later on developed a weakness for cats – which last has clung to me to this day. My Aunts always said I should have been a girl… I kept big things…locked up tight in my heart… I was a very sensitive child… My aunts said it was a pity I hadn’t been born a girl… My old schooldays sweetheart was Mary B – the tomboy…
[Spellings and grammar taken from the manuscript.]
He also recounts that he liked sitting with the girls at school, which was, in fact, seen as a punishment for misbehaving boys.
About this time – or I may have been a little younger – I began to be haunted by the dread of ‘growing up to be a man’. Also I had an idea that I had lived before, and had grown up to be a man and grown old and died. I confided in Father and these ideas seemed to trouble him a lot. I slept in a cot beside the bed and I used to hold his horney hand until I went to sleep. And often Id say to him: ‘Father! it’ll be a long time before I grow up to be a man, won’t it; and hed say ‘Yes, Sonny. Now try and go to sleep.’ But I grew up to be a man in spite of lying awake worrying about it.
[Spellings and grammar taken from the manuscript.]
His diary is a remarkably impressive, unflinching attempt to see himself so clearly, so dangerously.
When in the workforce, as a youth and young man, Lawson also records:
Blank [one of his employers]…seemed to hate me especially – because of my clean skin and effeminate appearance probably. He used to call me a ‘B-----y woman!’
At another job, Lawson describes being tormented and bullied because he was different.
About twenty years after his death, his wife Bertha published a biography of Lawson titled My Henry Lawson, in which she tries to describe his difference, drawing on what she knew of his childhood and youth before she married him:
Harry’s mannerisms and queer ways were often the subject of comment at home…as jests about himself putting his ‘odd self’ to the test of feminine appreciation… He went to one of his mother’s boarders and asked her to marry him believing she would laugh and refuse. But to his dismay, she accepted him…
Later, his closest mate, perhaps his most important intimate, Jim Gordon, describes how particular Lawson was in his tramping camping practices, and he uses the coded term ‘fussy’. Lawson taught Gordon how to put his swag together just so.
And when Lawson was at a poets’ camp in Mallacoota, Victoria, in 1910, organised by his friend the writer (among other things) EJ Brady, Lawson remonstrated with them because they did not have a camp broom. Using a fishing line and some tea-tree limbs, he spent a morning binding together a broom to sweep the hut and tent daily. He also taught the others how to make a campfire properly, and when to put the billy on to boil; they laughed at him for his prim housekeeping. When they changed campsite, he created a camp for them with elaborate bush comforts. Again, the others were amused at Lawson’s tendencies, which now would be described by the gay colloquialism ‘clean queen’ (a personality trait not confined to one sex or
Bertha describes how Lawson’s publisher, George Robertson, tried to talk her out of marrying him, saying, ‘Henry Lawson is a genius and you know what geniuses are like – they can never make a woman happy.’ At eighteen she probably had little knowledge of ‘geniuses’ or, for that matter, what would make her, as a woman, happy. But Robertson’s politely coded advice is telling, even if it did not stop her from marrying him.
PAUL EGGERT USES a description of Lawson at twenty-nine in Melbourne from the Champion literary magazine, where editor Henry Hyde Champion describes him as ‘A tall, slight man, delicate in appearance, and with an air of refinement and sensitiveness, Lawson would give a first impression of femininity. This is deepened by his quiet, though decisive, style of speech…it is in his virility of thought that his masculinity is manifested.’
At the time Lawson didn’t yet have the more virile, theatrically exaggerated moustache that was to become an important part of his image preserved in the postage stamp that was in circulation for so many years. A skilled barber, perhaps protective of his customer’s manhood, would have used the tricks of his trade to thicken it and blacken it – moustache wax, dye and argan oil.
That year, 1896, Lawson’s first book of verse, In the Days When the World Was Wide, was published and reviewed, probably by AG Stephens, editor of The Bulletin, who wrote, ‘Lawson’s keen sympathy, his knack of observation, are characteristically feminine. His sense of humour, his talent for vivid portrayal, are as characteristically masculine.’
Other critics in his day came to criticise this ‘femaleness’ in Lawson’s work. Joseph Furphy, an older writer friend of his, said in 1897 that Lawson was ‘too feminine…indifferent to the virilities of human response – too indifferent to achieve a balanced view of life’.
A feminised point of view in a male writer cannot be ‘balanced’?
In her study, Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition (CUP, 1988) Kay Schaffer writes:
For the most part, critics begin to challenge Lawson’s bush as unrepresentative, morbid and brooding. But what they deem undesirable in Lawson’s fiction, they attribute to failings in the personality of the artist. Further, the form of chastisement relies on an understanding of masculine/feminine dichotomies. Lawson is depicted as weak, womanish, and unmanly when his writings no longer conform to the nation’s dominant idea of itself…
She quotes a review by AG Stephens: ‘His womanish wail often needs a sturdy Australian backbone’, and points out that ‘Lawson accepted and rebuked himself for having the prevailing negative male connotations of feminine sexual identity as an explanation for his personality which differed from the rigid masculine norms of the time.’
Critics variously interpret these personal attributes as indicative of feminine weakness or a poetic sensibility (which can of course amount to the same thing)…that which is deemed ‘weak’ in Lawson’s writings and in his personality. The critics of Lawson, depending on the social, economic and political requirements of the age and the speaker’s relation to the dominant discourse of the day, have found in his writings evidence of manly strength and feminine weakness, both national prosperity and…a pessimism… ‘The Drover’s Wife’ can be seen as a symbol of freedom and progress, or constriction and defeat, depending on the requirements of the age and the critic’s ideological ties to the ‘national interest’.
Schaffer was writing this in 1988, before the social and academic discourse had made its remarkable breakthrough towards what has become gender studies, although she was already working at its cutting edge.
The western, English-speaking discourse, and along with it the law, bureaucracy and social awareness, has moved to accepting other gender identities. New thinking in gender studies recognises that there is a spectrum of gender personalities each with its own integrity and often with a recognised style of public expression. We now have the awkward, unmanageble term LGBTQIAA (lesbian, gay, transexual, bisexual, queer, intersex, asexual, ally). Another term now in use is ‘gender fluid’. LGBTQIAA is generally grouped and known as ‘queer culture’– the turning of a disparaging word into a proud identity.
However the tensions and social uneasiness and denial of the legitimacy of this spectrum are still powerful even in Western cultures. While writing this essay, I heard a program on Radio National recalling the suicide in 2016 of the gay thirteen-year-old Tyrone Unsworth after being bullied at his Brisbane schools. His mother said he was gay and that he had been consistently bullied over his sexuality for years. ‘He was a really feminine male, he loved fashion, he loved make-up and the boys always picked on him, calling him gay-boy, faggot, fairy; it was a constant thing from Year 5.’ Tyrone killed himself at his grandfather’s farm.
And then there is the question of the George Lambert statue of Lawson in the Sydney Botanic Gardens, created in 1931. A few years back, I wrote to my friend, short story writer and publisher Tim Herbert, that I had again visited the Lambert sculpture of Lawson in the Botanic Gardens. ‘You will recall that when I last visited Lawson I observed to you that Lambert had given Henry a limp wrist? I thought it gently captured something…which contemporaries had also observed in Lawson – what we might see today as an effete sensitivity and a posed manner uncharacteristic of the real men in Lawson’s world.’
This prompted Tim to visit the statue and write back to me, ‘Limp-wristed he is indeed. Does Lambert include the much more masculine (hairy and big-handed) character from ‘While the Billy Boils’ on the right hand side as a counterweight to fey Henry?’
Tim and I discussed whether we were seeing what we wished to see in the statue, but we aren’t alone in seeing effeteness. In 1977, Lawson scholar Chris Lee, in an essay in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, examines the evolution of the Lambert statute, which he further developed in his book City Bushman: Henry Lawson and the Australian Imagination, (Curtin University Books, 2004).
After Lambert had presented a sketch to the statue committee, Lee says, the poet John Le Gay Brereton, a member of the committee and friend of Lawson’s, complained that he ‘was unhappy with its representation of the poet. No poet looked like this.’ Brereton felt that the Lawson figure needed to display more ‘strength of character’ considering his ‘appeal was to the bushman and to the vigorous’. He also considered the hair ‘unnecessarily long’. The committee instructed Lambert to ‘strengthen’ the figure of Lawson by making his hands ‘more virile’.
A glance at Lambert’s preliminary pencil sketch of the Lawson figure makes it quite clear what Brereton was complaining about. The stance, its slender figure, and the poise of its delicate hands and wrists are effeminate. It is very different from the heroic, rugged, independent images of bush characters. Henry Lawson was again in need of some ‘sturdy Australian backbone’.
In his statue, Lambert seems to have ignored the committee’s instruction except for the tilt of the head and tidying up of Lawson’s hair, but the expressive hands and the bend of the knee have been heightened. His styling of Lawson’s stance, his wrist and bent knee seem to capture Lawson’s often remarked upon lankiness – ‘tall and thin with usually an awkward quality’. Maybe a suggestion that Lawson did not present as a conventional male and was somewhat effeminate in his movements. In our times, perhaps the favourite stereotypical example of this in theatre is the man who holds out his little finger while drinking a cup of tea.
A number of people who knew Lawson have described the somewhat charismatic quality of his physical presence, especially of his eyes. Paul Eggert recalls that as a third-year high school student in 1966, he chose as a prize for mathematics a hardback copy of Cecil Mann’s Henry Lawson’s Best Stories (Angus & Robertson). ‘I would have noticed the large sad eyes and scraggy moustache of a man…formally photographed, peering out of the darkness and looking piercingly at me…’
Lee told me he thought Lawson had a woman’s eyes, but I doubted that there were established sexual differences in eyes. The female gender has evolved ways of using eyes for heightened expression with cosmetics and lash and brow shaping. Maybe women have longer eyelashes and Lawson did too. Lee recorded these references to Lawson’s eyes in his book. Michael Tansey, a teacher of Lawson, wrote ‘…his soft brown eyes…twinkled like stars…and invited you to talk to him’. Helen Jerome said that his ‘dog-like yearning eyes…always seem to have tears lurking in their brown depths’. Arthur H Adams said ‘His voice was low, his soul was sad, his fine and mournful eyes looked out with a child’s wistfulness at this strange world.’
The sculptor Lambert knew Lawson but, unlike Lawson, Martin Terry records in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, that Lambert, ‘with…great charm, moved easily in fashionable circles…and had “a slightly theatrical manner”’.
Tim Herbert also happened to pass the statue again with an artist/designer friend Mark Facchin, who at first doubted our perception. After Tim sent him the Lambert sketch Mark changed his mind and wrote back, ‘Yes in the sketch and statue Lawson…has a slightly awkward contrapposto. The weight feels like it’s directed from HL’s right shoulder down to his left hip and foot suggesting he is leaning on a wall. His right heel about to push forward…Definitely a queer pose.’ I learn from Mark that contrapposto is classical sculptural use of the body pose to express personality or a psychological disposition, a certain temperament.
Again, Tim and I were at lunch discussing the sketch and the statue photograph that I had with me. Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, was with us and we asked for his opinion. He thought the sketch ‘more queer’ than the statue but the statue was definitely effete – he thought the hands were especially expressive. Capon suggested that maybe Lambert was having a joke with the committee. I said I thought he was trying to portray his friend as he actually was as a response to the mateship and other masculinity in which Lawson’s work been cloaked, that Lambert, as I do, saw the beauty in Lawson’s effeminacy.
Yet Kerrie Davies, in A Wife’s Heart, gives a different interpretation of Henry’s stance as caught in the Lambert statue: ‘Henry’s hand seems to form around an invisible mug, perhaps of billy tea, or more likely beer.’ She quotes the Memorial Fund’s chairperson, who in a speech said ‘Lawson’s hand was not raised in gesticulation whilst reciting, but “so as to see a distant hill or as if to recall far horizons of memory – a familiar gesture of the poet’s”.’
THE WORD ‘EFFEMINATE’ in its pejorative meaning has been in English for around at least three hundred years; its equivalents were current in other languages and cultures way back at least to the Greeks. The word ‘tomboy’ in its current meaning is also approximately three centuries old in English, dating to 1545–55 (Oxford and Collins dictionaries). ‘Tomboy’ is rarely pejorative, but while it may sound as if it is a term of amused acceptance, I suspect it is also used as a corrective nudge to a young girl to be more ‘ladylike’. Colloquial and slang words for both have probably existed as long as language and the formation of what we know as Western masculinity, although the wearing of wigs, make-up and jewellery have had their place in male fashion in the upper classes and courtly circles. I think that both ‘feminine’ and ‘effeminate’ when directed at a male are slightly less pejorative now, though only slightly so. Lawson, in his own observations, seems clear about the fierce negative markers and implications of his effeminacy.
And Lawson’s critics, including AG Stephens, Charles Manning (oh dear, the name) Clark and others have seen it as a deficiency in his writing talent springing from the effeminate ‘weakness’ in his personality. Lawson may, himself, have used it or seen it as an excuse for his general ‘weaknesses’ such as alcoholism, financial irresponsibility and his failure as a father and conventional husband. Clark writes that Lawson had ‘a feminine mind in a masculine body’, and later, ‘a violent destructive person inside the gentle Henry Lawson’. He says that Lawson ‘should have been a girl’ (he probably picked this up from reading about Lawson’s aunt’s remark), and Clark includes ‘evidence’ [my quotes] of ‘a repressed homosexuality, a spendthrift personality and the influence of British philistinism’ as reasons for his disturbed personality and the ultimate disintegration of him as a person and as a writer.
The critic AA Phillips in 1958 wrote, ‘Lawson could not resolve women’s’ rejection of him and the…alienation from his wife and mother’ and so ‘he succumbs to feminine weakness’.
The androgynous nature is not uncommon in the arts. In 1926, Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, ‘I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man.’ Many other writers have contemplated the role of androgyny and gender fluidity in the arts. I have myself. But what does the androgynous personality know: both conventional man/woman genders, or neither? Or neither fully? Does it have special access to the gender spectrum? Does it open insights or does it close off the writer in a no-person’s, ungendered land? I don’t believe any of us are caged in our genders, in our formation. We all have to trust our intelligence, scholarship, our empathy, the knowledge that comes through intimacy and through social interaction, together with our imagination to give us some knowledge of others and, at the same time I hope, release from sex/gender/class/ethnicity superiorities (and insecurities) which can become the vicious prejudices found in our culture.
The most significant influence in Lawson’s formative life (other than genetics) was his mother Louisa Lawson (1848–1920) after they left both the bush and his father. He was sixteen when she was thirty-eight, and they lived together in Sydney in a bohemian, radical, feminist household.
In 1887, Louisa bought the Republican magazine and with Henry, aged twenty, edited and wrote most of the newspaper’s copy. In fact, they created a merged identity with their joint contributions appearing under the pseudonym of ‘Archie Lawson’ – mingling his creativity with hers. I can’t find out why they chose ‘Archie’.
Three years later he began a relationship with the poet and radical Mary Gilmore, who was two years older than him and better educated. Gilmore taught him to use a dictionary and lent him books that she felt he should read. She writes in her letters and diary of an unofficial engagement and Lawson’s wish to marry her, but it was broken off by her, perhaps because, she says, of his frequent absences. (Heavy male drinking can be a form of emotional flight and absence.) Lawson’s pattern of abrupt flight from emotional demands was emerging. At some stage in his relationship with Mary he seems to have taken off to Western Australia for six months.
If alive today, Lawson may not be as so destructively conflicted and disturbed by his effeminacy and could be bolder and more secure about himself, even substantially supported. But he would recognise the still strong remnants of the primitive male culture he dealt with and the psychological damage and suicides it produces.
Maybe his imagination and the direction of his writing would’ve been safely set free. Who knows, maybe he would’ve written Priscilla, the story of two drag queens and a transsexual who take a Lawson-like bus tour from Sydney to outback Australia? During the journey they win over, or even triumph over, the masculinity of Lawson’s outback.
There is even a pub in Broken Hill known as the Priscilla (officially the Palace Hotel). He may also be surprised to find his moustache made him fashionably attractive to some gays.
It has to be noted that whatever prejudice he came up against because of his effeminacy it did not prevent him from becoming a highly regarded writer, even ‘the voice of the nation’. He was not ostracised nor his work rejected.
NOW WE COME to the question of mateship. Lawson’s work was seen as celebrating mateship. Where does that fit into the picture of his personality and its expression?
In Lawson’s story ‘That Pretty Girl in the Army’, he defined the culture of mateship as:
A Bushman always has a mate to comfort him and argue with him, and work and tramp and drink with him, and lend him quids when he’s hard up, and call him a b----- fool, and fight him sometimes; to abuse him to his face and defend his name behind his back; to bear false witness and perjure his soul for his sake; to lie to the girl for him if he’s single, and to his wife if he’s married… And each would take the word of the other against all the world, and each believes that the other is the straightest chap that ever lived – ‘a white man’.
Maybe mateship is a gender and we should add M to LGBTIOAA? Michael Taussig in his book The Nervous System (Routledge, 1992) poses that ‘mateship’ as it developed in Australia through the works of Lawson and others was, in some cases, a way of ‘naturalising’ what are seen as ‘unnatural practices’ (the legal term of the day). It is well known that some men in the absence of women – say, the first settlement convicts, men in prison, boys in boarding school, sailors at sea – will turn to ‘unnatural practices’ for relief and pleasure.
Historian Russel Ward in his classic work The Australian Legend (OUP, 1958), saw mateship as a central Australian value but does not resolve the place of women in the term. Ward argues that mateship is based on the traditions of mutual aid among rural workers (which emerged as the ideology of trade unionism and friendly or benevolent societies) and convicts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He also identifies it as a public style or demeanor. He says that the ‘typical Australian’ was ‘a practical man, rough and ready in his manners…stoic...taciturn rather than talkative…sceptical of pretension and authority’. In 1999, Prime Minister John Howard wanted the word mateship included in a proposed preamble for a revised constitution (now discarded).
But how did Lawson personally experience mateship?
While working on my essay I came to privately speculate that his creation and celebration of mateship might have within it a yearning for an intimate sexual bonding with a male. I was therefore happily intrigued by the appearance of Gregory Bryan’s Mates: The Friendship That Sustained Henry Lawson (New Holland, 2016), which examines the relationship between Lawson and the young Jim Gordon (who changed his name a few times during his life and, tutored by Lawson, became a published writer).
But remember Lawson was attractive to and attracted by women. He had at least four romantically significant but difficult relationships with women – Mary Gilmore, who remained a friend through life; with a misty woman Hannah Thorburn, his ‘spirit girl’ to whom he wrote a poem; his wife of six years, Bertha; and then Isabel Byers, a woman twenty years older than he, who took over managing his life.
In 1896, at twenty-nine, Lawson married the nineteen-year-old Bertha Bredt, daughter of Bertha McNamara (1853–1931), a socialist agitator and feminist who owned a bookshop.
Bertha’s descriptions of their courtship seem to show that he felt a strong attraction to her. ‘We had happy times in those days of our courtship with many outings and plenty of fun.’ As a courting man, she describes him as ‘teasing, and mischievous’.
Until Bryan’s book, no deeply close relationship between Lawson and a man had come to my attention. Bryan establishes that Lawson found a singularly intense bonding with Jim Gordon, a friendship that stands out from any of his other male friends or mates – as the title of the book declares it was ‘the friendship that sustained Henry Lawson’ (but not sufficiently). Although the face-to-face relationship covered only five years of their lives (divided into two parts), it can be seen as the most intense bonding Lawson had with another person, male or female.
The relationship between them began in 1892 when Lawson, aged twenty-five, went to Bourke for The Bulletin and met the seventeen-year-old Jim, who described the meeting this way: ‘I had noticed this long-necked, flat-chested stripling eyeing me off each time we passed and I noticed too that he had the most beautiful and remarkable eyes I have ever seen on a human being…soft as velvet and of a depth of brownness that is indescribable… Lawson eventually said Hullo and introduced himself.’ They talked easily, and quickly found empathy. Jim was on the track looking for work, many miles from home, and at the time as ‘homesick as a motherless calf’. ‘Where are you staying?’ Lawson asked, and Jim told him he was ‘living at a hotel but that my sugar bag was running low… Lawson became animated…and gripped my hand and said, “Come and camp with me.”’
After bonding in Bourke, they spent eighteen months together wandering the outback finding work and, in Lawson’s case, finding reportage – ‘copy’ – for The Bulletin. They shared their earnings and their food (their blankets?) and slept under the stars or in roadside traveller’s huts or the rouseabouts’ hut at sheep stations. Both found that they were somewhat uncomfortable with the coarse masculine language and blokey larking of the shearing sheds where Gordon and Lawson found menial jobs as rouseabouts (neither could shear). Lawson later wrote of being a ‘spiritless exception’ in the world of the men of the sheds. Jim describes Lawson lying in his bunk in the hut after work, writing while the other men fooled about. In his book, Bryan says ‘Lawson would have seemed an effeminate oddball.’ I would also assume that Lawson and his young mate would’ve been the subject of other sorts of taunting remarks and innuendoes similar to those Lawson had experienced in his earlier life and childhood.
Over eighteen months they ‘humped their blueys’ together on the four hundred and fifty kilometre track between Hungerford and Bourke. Lawson wrote of the trek: ‘No break in the awful horizon…fierce white heat-waves blaze.’ Journalist and Lawson scholar Bruce Elder, who has walked it, describes it as ‘the most important trek in Australian literary history’ and says that it ‘confirmed all Lawson’s prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson no longer had romantic illusions about a “rural idyll”.’
I am unsure of the track’s importance in literary history, but I imagine that for Lawson and Jim it was emotionally the most important time in their lives, and from what I know of male life, I imagine that their personal romance grew even if the romance of the bush did not.
Back in Bourke, after three months together, Lawson abruptly left for Sydney. There is no information on why they parted – his pattern of fleeing from emotional demands, and especially in this case blocked by the conventions of the times, meant they could not have gone on living together.
They did however live in on each other’s minds and in their writing. Three years after their Bourke separation Lawson wrote a poem ‘My Old Mate’.
I found you unselfish and true –
I have gathered these verses together
For the sake of our friendship and you
You may think for a while, and with reason,
Though still with a kindly regret,
That I’ve left it full late in the season
To prove I remember you yet;
I can still feel the spirit that bore us,
And often the old stars will shine –
I remember the last spree in chorus
For the sake of that other Lang Syne,
When the tracks lay divided before us,
Your path through the future and mine.
You will find in these pages a trace of
That side of our past which was bright,
And recognise sometimes the face of
A friend who has dropped out of sight –
I send them along in the place of
The letters I promised to write.
I CAN STILL feel the spirit that bore us: they were not to meet again for twenty-three years. Both went on to marry and father children – Jim’s marriage seemed to have been happy enough and it survived – Lawson’s did not. Lawson named his only son Jim.
Then in 1916, when Lawson was struggling with life, he was given a house and income in Leeton through the assistance of friends and the NSW government. The town had prohibition, which was probably in the minds of the sponsors of Lawson’s ‘exile’. However, when there Lawson managed to keep on drinking, helped by ‘well-wishers’ in the town.
He had been given what we would call today a residency fellowship to write about the great agricultural experiment with irrigation in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (known as the MIA) centred on Leeton – a town planned by Walter Burley Griffin, including a fine hotel for VIPs, which is still there today. He was accompanied by Isabel Byers, by then his de-facto wife – or maybe de-facto mother. After his marriage to Bertha failed, Lawson found some stability in a dependent relationship with Isabel, who was twenty years older and self-supporting.
Arriving in Leeton, it turns out that Jim was also there with his family trying to make a go of a government-allotted irrigated farm. Jim read of Lawson’s arrival in the Murrumbidgee Irrigator and sought him out. They bonded again as mates – Lawson used the expression ‘re-mated’. Each day they spent more and more time with each other – going off for days camping together on the Murrumbidgee River – ‘fishing’ was their cover (it recalls the two married closeted gay cowboys in the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, based on a story by Annie Proulx). Jim records that they spend their time talking and drinking. Jim’s wife became jealous, but his kids loved Henry.
In describing the Leeton days, Jim goes out of his way to record, as a way of celebrating the very special nature of their bonding, that there was only ever one tiff between them, about a very minor matter.
After a year and half – another eighteen months – Henry couldn’t stand small-town Leeton or the publicity-type work he was expected to write (he did keep his contract – thirty poems and ten prose sketches about the MIA), and, of course, there was the problem of prohibition. Life with Isabel had become acrimonious – perhaps she, too, was jealous of Jim. Lawson abruptly left for Sydney without even packing his things or saying goodbye. He wrote a note to Jim saying, ‘I’m the Commander of the Army of the Fed-ups.’ Isabel had to look after the practicalities and formalities of closing up the house and sale of their possessions and the termination of his contract.
I talked with Gregory Bryan about the sexual and physical nature of Lawson’s relationship with Jim. He said that Jim in his writings recalls that they ‘talked and talked’ and that Henry and he would walk arm-in-arm or ‘holding hands’. Sometimes they walked and talked in the moonlight. They were ‘loath to part’ at end of each day. Bryan quotes Jim’s poem ‘When Lawson Walked With Me’ – ‘Henry gripped my fingers tight’ and ‘linked arms with me’. Bryan told me that ‘some of Gordon’s descendants speculated about the homosexual nature of the relationship…a grand-daughter spoke of them walking hand-in-hand, however she was not born until later so would only have heard of them from someone else’.
Bryan said that he found particularly thought-provoking a line in ‘By the Banks of the Murrumbidgee’ (which Lawson wrote shortly after the 1916 ‘re-mating’ in Leeton) that claimed the name he used to call Jim back in the Bourke days ‘surprised and disturbed’ and caused ‘distress and pain’ to Jim’s wife and family. Bryan said he would love to know what the name was that Henry was referring. The idea that it distressed and pained Daisy is fascinating. We guessed that it was a term of endearment.
Bryan also said that he found another line in ‘By the Banks of the Murrumbidgee’ particularly intriguing:
We first met in Bourke some twenty-five years ago, and thus we share two pasts, so as to speak; but we were very young men then, those pasts are boys’ pasts; and being but recently re-mated we haven’t got to speak of those pasts yet. There’s a certain shyness about the matter, if you understand, which may or may not deepen as those twenty-five year pasts are cleared up.
What is the ‘certain shyness about the matter’ of their earlier association? What were the ‘hosts of old regrets’ that Jim wrote about feeling when he learnt of Henry’s death?
Back in Sydney, Lawson was repeatedly hospitalised for alcoholism and mental illness, and at times he left Isabel and became an itinerant in the streets of Sydney. The two men kept in contact by letter and Jim would visit Henry in Sydney where they would go on drinking sprees. After Lawson had had a stroke, Jim brought him his favourite delicacies. In 1922, five years after leaving Leeton, Lawson returned to Isabel and died in her home in Abbottsford, aged fifty-five.
On Lawson’s coffin was ‘a bunch of native roses, a cluster of glowing wattle, and some bush ferns’ put there by Mary Gilmore, who had remained a friend throughout his life and had become a friend of Jim, who probably helped her with the funeral arrangements and flowers. The story Bryan tells is a story of deep male bonding. His daughter Barta said, ‘Dad loved Jim very much. And Jim loved him… Dad said, “After all, I think he’s about the best thing I ever did.”’ The reunion twenty-three years later in Leeton must have brought home to Lawson what he wanted, what he should’ve searched for and the impossibility of it.
After Lawson’s death, Jim wrote: ‘The stars have never seemed so bright/ Since Lawson walked with me.’
Jim Gordon was one of the prime movers in having the statue of Lawson erected in the Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1931. He also continued to commemorate Lawson in his writing until his death.
AS A YOUNG writer, and still now, I have had an ambivalent relationship (but some affinity) with Lawson’s life and with his body of work. As a new generation of young ‘cosmopolitan’ writers we wanted to distance ourselves from the bush tradition. I should at this point declare a bias in my research trace, something of an undertow in which I found myself. I am not the first writer to find parallels and to claim Lawson as something of a soulmate. Frank Hardy stands out for having adopted Lawson as a personal socialist comrade, and now here I am speculating that Lawson belongs just as much with the LGBTQIAA – queer – movement than with any of the other socialist, republican, nationalist and political movements which over the years have claimed him, and those individuals who identified with him. Who knows, he may become a hero (but perhaps not a role model) for all the queer kids of the LGBTQIAA movement. Or am I also appropriating him? I don’t think so.
I, too, had a crucial, mentor-bonding with an older man that began when I was seventeen and he twenty-seven. From the beginning the relationship was sexual (my first), and initiated by me. We lived together for a few years and it continued on and off sexually through my life for fifty years until he broke it off. We both went on to marry, and in his case he had children and his marriage has lasted. My only formal marriage was to my high school girlfriend and it was unsuccessful. Although in my male relationship the empathy faded somewhat (as can happen in mentor relationships), the sexual attraction and affection remained. Like Lawson, I, too, have had somewhat of a dependency on alcohol and difficulties in male/female domesticity.
Maybe Jim and Lawson, with their deep rapport and their love of writing, their shared love of drinking, sleeping together under the stars away from domesticity, also found sexual pleasure. I hope so. Dining and drinking together in intimate conversation, camping together, can at times express and represent and create a distinctive, deep intimacy.
I know of no suggestion or record (nor would I expect to find it, given the repressive times) of Lawson having a homosexual life – by that I mean having sex with males or wishing to have sex with males. I am resistant to Manning Clark when he writes of mateship being a form of ‘sublimated homosexuality’. I cannot see how that can be established. I am also resistant of the term ‘repressed homosexuality’ – unless it is used by someone who feels that they are ‘sublimating’ or ‘repressing’ and discover this in themselves, and wish to discuss it. But I don’t believe it can be confidently discerned through observation.
Men and women, men and men, women and women can choose to have an intimate relationship and live together without having a sexual relationship. There are also effeminate heterosexual men and there are non-effeminate gay men. There can also be married relationships where one or other can have an important relationship outside the marriage – sometimes it is as important, or even more important, than the marriage, without threatening the marriage, even incorporated into it as a shared, respectful bonding – either in orbit around the marriage or, even at times, within the marriage.
AND NOW A final thought: when the younger Henry, at twenty-five, wrote ‘The Drover’s Wife’ he may have allegorised his own condition, his ‘own sickly daylight’ as the wife describes the dawn in the story. No joyful new day for either of them.
There is a revealing incident in the story, the bushfire incident, when the drover’s wife experiences, for a few moments, dramatic transformations in her personality that are wonderfully revealing. For a brief time, she becomes a man. She crosses the gender boundary: ‘She put on an old pair of her husband’s trousers and beat out the flames with a green bough… The sight of his mother in trousers greatly amused Tommy,’ the eldest child. This is perhaps the nervous laughter of children when confronted with a disordering of their certainties. Tommy may have been even more nervously amused if his drover father – had he been around – had put on one of his wife’s dresses.
Then the wife is again transformed momentarily into an Aboriginal Australian – she experiences life from the other side of the racial divide. Lawson writes in the story, ‘It was a mixed-up affair all round; when she went to take up the baby he screamed and struggled convulsively, thinking she was a “Blackman”; and Alligator [their dog], trusting more to the child’s sense than his own instinct, charged furiously, and…did not in his excitement at first recognise his mistress’s voice, but continued to hang on to the moleskins until choked off by Tommy with a saddle-strap.’
The identity confusion in the bushfire incident – the conflagration – I think also existed in Lawson. In writing ‘The Drover’s Wife’ maybe he too became girl-woman-wife-mother-man-Aboriginal – ultimately, himself, vanishing into the landscape of the bush, of sexual precariousness and also the landscape of claims Australia made on him and his work.
He did not write another story from the gender persona of a woman, although he had women characters. Lawson himself may be the drover’s wife.
I wonder if some inklings of this were in his poem ‘The Wander Light’, written in 1905 when he was thirty-eight and writing about his feminine nature in his private diary.
…my ways are strange ways and new ways and old ways,
And deep ways and steep ways and high ways and low;
I’m at home and at ease on a track that I know not,
And restless and lost on a road that I know.
It echoes Isaiah in the King James’ Bible, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…’ He was saying that he was very much alone inside his femininity and its conventional strangeness, the inner life of writing, his social unacceptability – but maybe also he was affirming his exceptionalism, and that the words were addressed to the heterosexual world and contain a defensive superiority, defending the special value, as well as the alienation, inherent in his nature.
And, in our history and literature, Lawson is exceptional.
In writing about Jim Gordon and Lawson, I am indebted to the research done by Gregory Bryan in his book Mates: The Friendship That Sustained Henry Lawson (New Holland, 2017). His book provides the missing piece in the puzzle about my understanding of Lawson.