As a young teenager I went through a phase of discovering Australian writers. I loved stories and poetry that resonated with the small country town that I grew up in. One of these writers was Henry Lawson, the Australian poet and short story writer that helped define popular images of early Australia.
So when last semester I found I was to study Australian writers from the era of Federation (which occurred in 1901) I chose to revisit my teenage love of Henry Lawson.
Some analysts have argued that Henry Lawson’s work was particularly inspired by his childhood experiences and an 1892 trip to Bourke. Decline in the quality of his later work was put down to exhaustion of inspiration from those same experiences, rather than decline in his physical and mental health as a result of alcoholism.
Lawson’s typical bushman represents one kind of Australian ideal in the decades around the turn of the century. His early writing took place during economic depression that was destroying the basis of that ideal bushman and driving such characters from the land and into the city.
In 1900, Henry Lawson and his wife, Bertha, headed to London where Lawson hoped to further his name and fortune as a writer. But he struggled to find his way in London, struggling with the weather, the culture and the attitudes toward a writer from the colonies. When I read his work from that time I can see Lawson was trying to recreate characters and themes from the same material he used in Australia—the poor and working class people. Is the fact that these writings were less successful a reflection of Lawson’s lack of skill with such material, as has been suggested, or because he was really a writer of Australia and that’s what he did best? I think he saw similar problems in England to Australia, but to Henry Lawson England lacked that ‘typical bushman’ type that he found to be an ideal. How could you write about social problems without your ideal hero?
One critic described Lawson’s writing as ‘a cleverly executed photograph’, even though he criticised Lawson’s lack of art. Many other critics have also commented on the true to life aspect of Lawson’s writings. So many people have made similar comments that it seems accepted as the truth. Lawson saw the real Australia, he wrote about it, and nobody could deny it was the truth. But while there is likely some truth in what Henry Lawson portrayed, his focus on the ideal Australian meant that he did not sympathetically portray other experiences of Australia.
The real Australia is a myth. We all create our own myths while some buy into the myths created by others—through literature during Lawson’s time and more recently in other forms. Lawson wrote for others like himself that longed for a bygone era when things were somehow better. This was a time of romance based, I’m guessing, on stories told to a young Henry by his father. When things in the modern world aren’t going so well it is natural and common to yearn for those seemingly easier days from our childhood. From this yearning, Henry created his own myth and it resonated with many of his readers.
Lawson’s ‘realism’ in describing life in the bush was partly motivated by desire for change, a revolution to improve life for the working class. He recognised the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in Australia toward the end of the 1800s, a time that saw the beginning swell of the labour movement. By describing how things really were was perhaps one way that Lawson could effect change, much in the same way the Charles Dickens did in novels such as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
Nevertheless, it is a little too simple to suggest that Henry Lawson portrayed only one type of ideal bushman. Lawson’s world was highly stratified and he was well aware of social structure. At the top of the pile was the squatter, wealthy landholders that claimed their land early in Australia’s history and made their money from wool. Various land Acts forced the squatters to relinquish some of their land for closer settlement. For the most part it was the poorer quality land that was made available while the squatters retained the better land. The selectors were required to work and improve the land while paying off their debt to the government. For most of these people life was hard. Another strata was the itinerant workers, particularly the shearers that would travel from shed to shed following the wool season. It was from this group that Henry Lawson took his ideal Australian bushman. All other types were to be pitied or despised to varying degrees.
There are parallels with Henry Lawson’s nostalgia for bygone, better days and the current political scene where an aim is to ‘make Australia/America/England great again’. But Lawson’s nostalgia is for an Australia and a freedom that largely never existed. His is a belief that he was born for better things and a return to a romanticised past would restore him to his rightful position.
More complicated is Henry Lawson’s relationship with women. In most of his stories women are portrayed as either virgin angels or broken down housewives. The inference is that young women can only stay virginal angels if they don’t settle down as a wife on a small selection. There is an underlying hint of domestic violence in many of these stories, often based on the man’s drunkenness, which is excused on the basis of trying to deal with the struggle and heartbreak of being a small selector.
Lawson idealises his angelic virgin but despises any woman that is not. This is usually done indirectly, such as through a comment made by a character or an aside from the narrator. In Lawson’s eyes women are small minded, concerned with details rather than big picture things. His male characters are often portrayed as being concerned with the wrongs of the world and are constantly frustrated by wives that want them to stay at home and worry about the family. According to Lawson it was women’s fault that men made fools of them self. He saw women as unjust and unreasonable, spoiling men’s pleasures with their domestic concerns.
Henry Lawson’s repeated exhortation of mateship as an Australian ideal is problematic from a feminist perspective. The use of mateship in Lawson’s writing is seen as membership of an exclusive group—the group of noble bushmen, shearers, drovers, wanderers on the track—that by definition excludes women. Women are always seen as ‘other’, outsiders to the group of ‘mates’.
AS a young woman in a more modern world I found it very difficult reading Henry Lawson’s open misogyny, particularly in his later writings when he was often drunk or in prison for failing to pay maintenance to his ex-wife. These stories openly advocate domestic violence and justifying it on the basis that ‘all women are liars’.
By the time I had finished reading and thinking about Henry Lawson’s writing I had lost something. Yes, there was that familiar childhood excitement about reading stories that were based on the same streets that I played. But now I’m only too aware of how Henry Lawson’s misogyny is still repeated today. Somewhere since I was thirteen years old I have lost my innocence of the world, and that is how I lost Henry Lawson as well.