This is the last of the six books from the Australian Classics Library books that I was sent for review but there are six more titles in the series, and I recommend anyone interested in discovering more about these others should visit Whispering Gums where my good friend Sue has reviewed them. I really would like to see these books more widely read, and not just by the students for whom this series was intended…
It seems to me that there is something rather special about Australian classics, because they were written at the beginning of our country’s non-indigenous history. The canonical classics – the ones that are mostly read – were written in the same period but in the UK, Europe and America where societies had been settled for generations, and they were written by people who belonged. Our classics were written when Australia was still a country of pioneers, with tentative settlements along the coast and gold-mining areas – bordered by a vast, unknown and menacing interior. Life in the countryside in particular was not the predictable affair that it was in England, where Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy et al could write about people who were secure at least in their understanding of their geography, climate, soil, social structures and traditions. None of these fundamentals were secure in Australia at the time when our classic authors were writing, and this uncertainty shapes their work in ways that are unique.
Was it this insecurity that made Henry Lawson such a melancholy fellow? The introduction to Joe Wilson and His Mates tells me that this collection was written to please a publisher seeking more more cheerful stories for the British public. ‘Pessimistic realism’ and the ‘struggles of working Australians’ weren’t conducive to a literary career, but tristesse permeates this collection as much as any other of Lawson’s works that I have read.
Lawson’s personal history was enough to make any man morose – he was a child of an unhappy marriage who rushed into an unhappy marriage of his own; he was deaf due to a childhood ear infection, a disability which prevented him from completing the education he craved and which consigned him to menial work until his writing became popular. He remained perennially poor, and he became an alcoholic. Yet it was the outback trek that he undertook in 1892 which shaped his fiction – he saw at first hand the impact of drought in New South Wales and he saw for himself – as his intrigued British readers never could – that the vagaries of the Australian climate and the paucity of its ancient soils meant that dreams of wealth and success in verdant farmland were a chimera for most people. He wanted to puncture these romantic ideas by depicting the poverty, isolation, and loneliness of bush life as he saw it, and in doing so became the ‘voice of the bush.’ 
The very first story in Joe Wilson and His Mates hardly qualifies as optimistic. ‘Joe Wilson’s Courtship’ is as much a lament for the naiveté of youth than a wry tale of the travails of courting. From the outset it’s clear that the only times a man is happy are when ‘he finds out that the girl loves him. When he’s just married. When he’s a lawful father for the first time, and everything is going on all right.’ (p7) After that, it’s obviously all downhill, and cynicism about the state of matrimony seems to be warranted.
Brighten’s Sister-in-Law is a compelling tale. Joe is a father now, and his little boy Jim is subject to convulsions. For all of us who are parents it is awful to read about children suffering ailments so easily treatable today; but to read of it happening to a parent alone on a bush track and miles from medical help is harrowing. This story is a chastening reminder that the death of little children was commonplace in Lawson’s day, and that parents had no alternative but to be stoic about it.
The sense of a vast and hostile unknown gave rise to an insistent sub-genre in early Australian literature – the story of the lost child. In The Babies in the Bush the children are long dead, and Lawson writes movingly about the impact on the parents: the mother’s fragile mental state and the father’s desperate efforts to restore her to reality while dealing with his own unresolved grief. Short stories are sometimes lacking in complex characterisation, but in this story Lawson achieves much with little. The rough, tough bushmen listen to Maggie Head’s fancies with tenderness and empathy; and the narrator describes Walter Head with sensitivity, telling as much about himself as he does about The Boss:
He was one of those men who seldom smile…but when the Boss did smile his expression was very, very gentle and very sad. I have seen him smile down on a little child who persisted in sitting on his knee and prattling to him, in spite of his silence and gloom. He was tall and gaunt, with haggard grey eyes – haunted grey eyes sometimes – hair and beard thick and strong, but grey. He was not above forty five.
There seem to be many in this collection who are old before their time.
The Loaded Dog is well-known to Australian readers of a certain age because it was anthologised in The Victorian Readers , but I have never found it funny. It’s the story of a trio of whackers who decide to blow up a spiny catfish that’s inhibiting their fishing. Andy Page is the ‘genius’ who makes the explosive device, but their retriever gets hold of the cartridge, trails the fuse across the campfire and then pursues the men around the campsite with it. Slapstick humour has never appealed to me, and I don’t think it did to Lawson either – there is an awkwardness about this story that looks like an attempt to please his publisher.
There are others that are similarly not to my taste. The Ghostly Door seems pointless – a ghost story with the phenomena demystified, and A Wild Irishman – like many of the very short sketches of various ‘mates’ – is a character in search of a story. A tale about petty thieves getting away with it didn’t interest me either, even if their victim is equally dishonest, as in Poisonous Jimmy Gets Left. (Again, I think this one is meant to amuse).
What’s best about this collection is what Lawson’s publisher did not want: the clear depiction of bush life with its trials and tribulations. Lawson writes movingly about the awful loneliness of the bush and its effect on selectors living in very remote places, men and women old before their time, ground down by poverty and hardship, and bringing up their children only to see them leave. In Lawson’s world there is no romance about pioneering life: hacking a shanty out of the trees and trying to farm against the caprices of weather, climate and soil was ‘hard graft’, and in the drought many men were forced to become drifters, taking work wherever they could, leaving their women and children alone to manage as best they could. Many of these men survived the long hard days of droving or fencing or whatever it was – slaving in the heat and camping with a swag out in the intense loneliness of the bush – only by promising themselves a ‘spree’ when they got their cheques, so that most of what they earned was spent on drink anyway.
Joe Wilson does better than most because Annie keeps him out of Sydney’s pubs, but The Babies in the Bush shows that even a successful squatter can lose everything. And in the warped values of the bush, Lawson says there’s a price to pay for being well thought of:
He’d been a jolly, open-handed popular man, which means that he’d been a selfish man as far as his wife and children were concerned, for they had to suffer for it in the end. Such generosity is often born of vanity, or moral cowardice, or both mixed. It’s very nice to hear the chaps sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, but you’ve mostly got to pay for it twice – first in company, and afterwards alone. I once heard the chaps singing that I was a jolly good fellow, when I was leaving a place and they were giving me a send-off. It thrilled me, and brought a warm gush to my eyes, but all the same I wished I had half the money I’d lent them, and spent on ’em, and I wished I’d used the time I’d wasted to be a jolly good fellow.
The tension between this sense of alienation and the Australian concept of mateship is never far away in this collection. In Telling Mrs Baker the bushmen concoct an elaborate story to conceal the truth about Mr Baker’s death in the horrors of drink – because even though they despised his behaviour, he was a ‘mate’. Theirs is a sense of solidarity born of sharing hardship, suppressed fears and hopelessness. It excludes women, perpetuating the myth of weak women needing to be protected as much from the truth as from the harsh Australian sun. Yet Lawson’s women experience similar hardships and more, and they seem resilient – certainly able to survive bush life without periodic drinking bouts. Many of Joe Wilson’s mates suffer by contrast with strong, capable women, from Mrs Myers in Jimmy Grimshaw’s Wooing to Mary Wilson herself and even her shabby neighbour Mrs Spicer ‘proud with the pride that lies down in the end and turns its face to the wall and dies’ (p71).
The so-called ‘History Wars’ in Australia seem to have pitted a mythic heroic pioneer against a genocidal counterpart intent on the destruction of the indigenous people – thus placing stories like Lawson’s in a kind of political camp that would probably have shocked him. It seems to me that although his writing does suffer from the casual racism of the 19th century, it would be a pity if in the 21st century these stories were dismissed as ‘politically incorrect’ and were lost to new generations of readers…
Author: Henry Lawson
Title: Joe Wilson and His Mates
Publisher: Sydney University Press, 2008
Source: Review copy from Sydney University Press