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
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