Feminism In Lawson

Lawson’s depiction of women #

The enigma of Lawson’s writing is that while demonstrating the ideal of the Bushman-as-hero, he nevertheless, also acknowledges the heroic qualities of the Australian Bushwoman.  It is highly probable that he was influenced by his relationships with his mother, Louisa, and his wife Bertha.  

Pioneer Women writers include, Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Richardson), Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner and Nettie Palmer, colonial writers, who stood apart from the governing myths of blokes, bush and The Bulletin.  Helen Garner said of Baynton “she knows the landscape, with its bleak terrors and its occasional beauties.  She has observed with a merciless eye the dull stupidity and squalor that poverty brings”.

The Drover’s Wife illustrates the * ‘loneliness and solitude’* of outback Australia, while enduring ‘pain and suffering’ obstacles, including an uninvited serpent endangering her family, reminders of the past death of her child *“nineteen miles for assistances, carrying the dead child”*, feeling self- isolation *“thunderstorm comes, and the wind…”* threatening to blow out her candle.”

Anecdotes, of such tales as “she fought a bush-fire once while her husband was away’ gives the persona qualities to her character and allowing her to ‘tell a story within a story’ creating empathy in the audience.   The pathetic life resonates, reverberates and resounds.   The Drover’s wife embodies the spirit of resilience that is deeply universal and eternal in all humans.

The women’s  lives shape our understanding, that the unique Australian traits, of spirit and courage are the products of an interaction with a hostile and unforgiving environment.

 Henry Lawson achievement is that through the woman’s thought as she sits there until by the time of the climax know her intimately. Only women in his stories have the strength to face the emptiness of their lives. In which they are imprisoned and find in themselves, the love, humour, and courage from which they create human communion and value. The structures of civilisation are maintained by bush custom, and the endurance of woman.  Lawson derived from his mother’s prose sketches, (type of tired, stress and no sense of stability).

The anonymous nature of the character told by an ‘omniscient narrator’ in third person, “bush all around bush with no horizon, for the country is flat” gives us an evocative view of any drover’s wife. She is not given a name because the composer wanted his story to encompass all ‘bush women.’

***The Drover’s Wife ***has an absent husband because of the demands created by desperate poverty.  The land which is supposed to free them becomes a prison entrapping them into perpetual poverty.

The Joe Wilson stories depict men are the hapless victims. The mateship depicted in most stories is a fragile one, less based on mutual support than on a refuge from despair.  Most are trapped by poverty, debt and family. The land is pitiless and unforgiving; it is a constant struggle just to survive.   Joe Wilson expresses his powerlessness:

* *

“I said to myself, ‘I’ll take more notice of Jim and give Mary more of my time, just as soon as things clear ahead a bit.’  And the hard days went on, and the weeks, and the months, and the years – Ah well!”

The strength often is left to the women who endure the isolation, the loneliness and emptiness of their lives by finding love, humour and courage from each other and go on.  It is only through other human company that they can continue to struggle.  Civilisation is supported by the endurance of strong resourceful women.

* *

Mary used to say, when things get worse, ‘why don’t you talk to me Joe? Why don’t you tell me your thoughts instead of shutting yourself up…. It’s hard for me; I get to think you’re tired of me….I might be cross and speak sharp ….How am I to know if you are in trouble if you don’t tell me?

Most of the Joe Wilson stories are an expansion of The Drover’s Wife, depicting stalwart women and broken men. #

Mrs Witherly #

An old local body named Mrs Witherly still went into town twice a-week with her ‘bit av prodjuce’, as O’Dunn called it. She still drove a long, bony, blind horse in a long rickety dray, with a stout sapling for a whip, and about twenty yards of clothes-line reins. The floor of the dray covered part of an acre, and one wheel was always ahead of the other—or behind, according to which shaft was pulled. She wore, to all appearances, the same short frock, faded shawl, men’s ‘lastic sides, and white hood that she had on when the world was made. She still stopped just twenty minutes at old Mrs Leatherly’s on the way in for a yarn and a cup of tea—as she had always done, on the same days and at the same time within the memory of the hoariest local liar. However, she had a new clothes-line bent on to the old horse’s front end—and we fancy that was the reason she didn’t recognise us at first. She had never looked younger than a hard hundred within the memory of man. Her shrivelled face was the colour of leather, and crossed and recrossed with lines till there wasn’t room for any more. But her eyes were bright yet, and twinkled with humour at times.

She had been in the Bush for fifty years, and had fought fires, droughts, hunger and thirst, floods, cattle and crop diseases, and all the things that God curses Australian settlers with. She had had two husbands, and it could be said of neither that he had ever done an honest day’s work, or any good for himself or any one else. She had reared something under fifteen children, her own and others; and there was scarcely one of them that had not given her trouble. Her sons had brought disgrace on her old head over and over again, but she held up that same old head through it all, and looked her narrow, ignorant world in the face—and ‘lived it down’. She had worked like a slave for fifty years; yet she had more energy and endurance than many modern city women in her shrivelled old body. She was a daughter of English aristocrats.

And we who live our weak lives of fifty years or so in the cities—we grow maudlin over our sorrows (and beer), and ask whether life is worth living or not.

In Brighton’s Sister-in-Law, Mary accuses Joe: ‘You never take notice of the child,’   Later when Brighten’s sister-in-law nurses Jim back to life, Joe gives her the following tribute:

*I never saw such a change in a woman as in Brighten’s sister-in-law that evening. She was bright and jolly, and seemed at least ten years younger. She bustled round and helped her sister to get tea ready. She rooted out some old china that Mrs Brighten had stowed away somewhere, and set the table as I seldom saw it set out there. She propped Jim up with pillows, and laughed and played with him like a great girl…  She kept old Brighten and me listening and laughing till nearly midnight. *

Males inability to communicate comes through with:

I got down and went round to where she stood. I held out my hand and tried to speak, but my voice went like an ungreased waggon wheel, and I gave it up, and only squeezed her hand.

‘That’s all right,’ she said; then tears came into her eyes, and she suddenly put her hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek. ‘You be off—you’re only a boy yourself. Take care of that boy; be kind to your wife, and take care of yourself.’

Joe and Mary’s Fight

Mary didn’t seem able to eat. She sat on the three-legged stool near the fire, though it was warm weather, and kept her face turned from me. Mary was still pretty, but not the little dumpling she had been: she was thinner now. She had big dark hazel eyes that shone a little too much when she was pleased or excited. I thought at times that there was something very German about her expression; also something aristocratic about the turn of her nose, which nipped in at the nostrils when she spoke. There was nothing aristocratic about me. Mary was German in figure and walk. I used sometimes to call her ‘Little Duchy’ and ‘Pigeon Toes’. She had a will of her own, as shown sometimes by the obstinate knit in her forehead between the eyes.

Mary sat still by the fire, and presently I saw her chin tremble.

‘What is it, Mary?’

She turned her face farther from me. I felt tired, disappointed, and irritated—suffering from a reaction.

‘Now, what is it, Mary?’ I asked; ‘I’m sick of this sort of thing. Haven’t you got everything you wanted? You’ve had your own way. What’s the matter with you now?’

‘You know very well, Joe.’

‘But I DON’T know,’ I said. I knew too well.

She said nothing.

‘Look here, Mary,’ I said, putting my hand on her shoulder, ‘don’t go on like that; tell me what’s the matter?’

‘It’s only this,’ she said suddenly, ‘I can’t stand this life here; it will kill me!’

I had a pannikin of tea in my hand, and I banged it down on the table.

‘This is more than a man can stand!’ I shouted. ‘You know very well that it was you that dragged me out here. You run me on to this! Why weren’t you content to stay in Gulgong?’

‘And what sort of a place was Gulgong, Joe?’ asked Mary quietly.

(I thought even then in a flash what sort of a place Gulgong was. A wretched remnant of a town on an abandoned goldfield. One street, each side of the dusty main road; three or four one-storey square brick cottages with hip roofs of galvanised iron that glared in the heat—four rooms and a passage—the police-station, bank-manager and schoolmaster’s cottages, &c. Half-a-dozen tumble-down weather-board shanties—the three pubs., the two stores, and the post-office. The town tailing off into weather-board boxes with tin tops, and old bark huts—relics of the digging days—propped up by many rotting poles. The men, when at home, mostly asleep or droning over their pipes or hanging about the verandah posts of the pubs., saying, ‘’Ullo, Bill!’ or ‘’Ullo, Jim!’—or sometimes drunk. The women, mostly hags, who blackened each other’s and girls’ characters with their tongues, and criticised the aristocracy’s washing hung out on the line: ‘And the colour of the clothes! Does that woman wash her clothes at all? or only soak ‘em and hang ‘em out?’—that was Gulgong.)

‘Well, why didn’t you come to Sydney, as I wanted you to?’ I asked Mary.

‘You know very well, Joe,’ said Mary quietly.

(I knew very well, but the knowledge only maddened me. I had had an idea of getting a billet in one of the big wool-stores—I was a fair wool expert—but Mary was afraid of the drink. I could keep well away from it so long as I worked hard in the Bush. I had gone to Sydney twice since I met Mary, once before we were married, and she forgave me when I came back; and once afterwards. I got a billet there then, and was going to send for her in a month. After eight weeks she raised the money somehow and came to Sydney and brought me home. I got pretty low down that time.)

‘But, Mary,’ I said, ‘it would have been different this time. You would have been with me. I can take a glass now or leave it alone.’

‘As long as you take a glass there is danger,’ she said.

‘Well, what did you want to advise me to come out here for, if you can’t stand it? Why didn’t you stay where you were?’ I asked.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘why weren’t you more decided?’

I’d sat down, but I jumped to my feet then.

‘Good God!’ I shouted, ‘this is more than any man can stand. I’ll chuck it all up! I’m damned well sick and tired of the whole thing.’

‘So am I, Joe,’ said Mary wearily.

We quarrelled badly then—that first hour in our new home. I know now whose fault it was.

I got my hat and went out and started to walk down the creek. I didn’t feel bitter against Mary—I had spoken too cruelly to her to feel that way. Looking back, I could see plainly that if I had taken her advice all through, instead of now and again, things would have been all right with me. I had come away and left her crying in the hut, and James telling her, in a brotherly way, that it was all her fault. The trouble was that I never liked to ‘give in’ or go half-way to make it up—not half-way—it was all the way or nothing with our natures.

‘If I don’t make a stand now,’ I’d say, ‘I’ll never be master. I gave up the reins when I got married, and I’ll have to get them back again.’

What women some men are! But the time came, and not many years after, when I stood by the bed where Mary lay, white and still; and, amongst other things, I kept saying, ‘I’ll give in, Mary—I’ll give in,’ and then I’d laugh. They thought that I was raving mad, and took me from the room. But that time was to come.

In Past Carin - Joe admits:

*“I think that most men who have been alone in the Bush for any length of time—and married couples too—are more or less mad. With married couples it is generally the husband who is painfully shy and awkward when strangers come. The woman seems to stand the loneliness better, and can hold her own with strangers, as a rule”.
*

Mrs Spicer lets it all out when she visits Mary for a chat:

‘Don’t you feel lonely, Mrs Spicer, when your husband goes away?’

‘Well—no, Mrs Wilson,’ she said in the groping sort of voice. ‘I uster, once. I remember, when we lived on the Cudgeegong river—we lived in a brick house then—the first time Spicer had to go away from home I nearly fretted my eyes out. And he was only goin’ shearin’ for a month. I muster bin a fool; but then we were only jist married a little while. He’s been away drovin’ in Queenslan’ as long as eighteen months at a time since then. But’ (her voice seemed to grope in the dark more than ever) ‘I don’t mind,—I somehow seem to have got past carin’. Besides—besides, Spicer was a very different man then to what he is now. He’s got so moody and gloomy at home, he hardly ever speaks.’