BE­HIND THE MYTH

Lionised by a pub­lic who adored his bush writ­ings and deft ev­ery­man touch, Henry Law­son had a dark side re­vealed most fre­quently to his wife, writes Ker­rie Davies

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

On Fri­day, April 3, 1903, Bertha Law­son, the wife of poet and short­story writer Henry Law­son, filed an af­fi­davit in Syd­ney’s Di­vorce Court. Bertha stated: “My hus­band has dur­ing three years and up­wards been a ha­bit­ual drunk­ard and ha­bit­u­ally been guilty of cru­elty to­wards me. My af­fi­davit con­sists of the acts and mat­ters fol­low­ing. That my hus­band dur­ing the last three years struck me in the face and about the body and blacked my eye and hit me with a bot­tle and at­tempted to stab me and pulled me out of bed when I was ill and pur­posely made a noise in my room when I was ill and pulled my hair and re­peat­edly used abu­sive and in­sult­ing lan­guage to me and was guilty of divers [sic] other acts of cru­elty to me whereby my health and safety are en­dan­gered.”

Un­der the head­ing “Di­vorce Court”, pub­lished pro­ceed­ings fol­low­ing the af­fi­davit didn’t men­tion Law­son v Law­son. In­stead the ar­ti­cle named the cases of Es­ther Anas­ta­sia La Falaise whose hus­band Joseph “asked for a di­vorce from his wife on the grounds of her drunk­en­ness and ne­glect of do­mes­tic du­ties”; and Ge­orge Arthur Stevens, who sought the “resti­tu­tion of con­ju­gal rights” with his wife, Beatrice Mary, who hadn’t re­turned from Eng­land. A di­vorce was granted to Delitha Ran­dall on the grounds of de­ser­tion.

The af­fi­davit, signed by Bertha and the com­mis­sioner for af­fi­davits, was bun­dled with the Law­sons’ di­vorce records, tied up with a cer­e­mo­nial rib­bon and later de­posited at State Archives and Records NSW, it­self hid­den in Syd­ney’s bush­land out­skirts.

Far more prom­i­nent is Henry Law­son’s statue, which has stood in Syd­ney’s Do­main since 1931, nine years af­ter the writer’s death. Sculpted by Ge­orge Lam­bert, Henry stands atop a plinth of sand­stone, with those big, sen­si­tive eyes look­ing out over the Botanic Gar­dens and ac­com­pa­nied by a swaggy and a dog, mod­elled on a hound from a res­cue home. At a pre­view of the plas­ter model held at Lam­bert’s stu­dio, Henry was de­scribed by crit­ics as “an im­pos­ing piece of sculp­ture in larger than life size”, and a “re­mark­able like­ness”.

At the time, the Henry Law­son Lit­er­ary So­ci­ety protested that the sculp­ture’s lo­ca­tion was too hid­den away. Per­haps the so­ci­ety was right. Af­ter I’d been told in an off­hand con­ver­sa­tion that Henry did not (or could not, as his sup­port­ers de­fend) pay reg­u­lar child sup­port, and I be­gan re­search­ing the Law­son mar­riage, the statue seemed to me to have be­come more shad­owy than ever. To me, Henry was no longer a poet cel­e­brated with an­tholo­gies, stat­ues, a for­mer $10 note and names of roads. Henry was a fa­ther to two chil­dren. He was a hus­band. There was a wife, who clearly was bring­ing up the chil­dren with lit­tle help. And there were dis­turb­ing de­scrip­tions of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in the af­fi­davit that his bi­og­ra­phers had glossed over or doubted.

As a sin­gle mother with a gypsy ex, I felt so drawn to Bertha’s story, not Henry’s, which had been told many times be­fore with lit­tle re­gard for Bertha.

Dur­ing the past five years, as my daugh­ter grew from a child to a young woman, I of­ten walked past Henry’s statue on my way to the An­drew (Boy) Charlton Pool far­ther down the leaf-strewn path. I’d pause, stare at Henry on his plinth and won­der, how did Bertha live as a sep­a­rated, sin­gle mother in the early 20th cen­tury, when women had barely won the vote? Did the Di­vorce Court sup­port her? Or Henry?

Henry was cruel, Bertha al­leged. “Ha­bit­ual drunk­ard. Blacked my eye. En­dan­gered me.”

The ques­tions kept do­ing laps in my head. Be­fore there is a sep­a­ra­tion, there is a mar­riage. In late 1895, Henry Law­son, 28, met Bertha, 19, near her step­fa­ther’s bo­hemian book­shop, McNa­mara’s, which ac­cord­ing to Bul­letin writer and Henry’s friend Ber­tram Stevens smelled of beer and onions. In later life Bertha told au­thor Ruth Park, who with hus­band D’Arcy Ni­land co-wrote a ra­dio play about Henry and Bertha’s courtship, that “she was im­pressed by Henry’s deep brown eyes. Big mar­vel­lous eyes.” In her me­moir, Fish­ing in the Styx, Park later ob­served of Bertha, “My im­pres­sion was that, when young, she had prob­a­bly been a volup­tuous lit­tle bun­dle. Still she gave off that in­de­fin­able fra­grance that at­tracts men.”

Park’s notes about Bertha are among her pa­pers at the State Li­brary of NSW. She noted that Bertha’s mother “blew up Henry” about their courtship, say­ing Bertha “was too young” and “how can you pro­vide for her?”. Bertha told

Bertha Law­son

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