Lucy Sus­sex

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ker­rie Davis Lucy Sus­sex’s

How to ap­proach a bi­og­ra­phy sub­ject who is a na­tional icon, whose work is canon­i­cal? Since his death, Henry Law­son has been a bone of con­tention for var­i­ous bi­og­ra­phers. The most re­cent in­ter­est­ing ap­proaches have been to con­sider other as­pects of the story, as with Brian Matthews’s Louisa (1987), about Law­son’s gifted and for­mi­da­ble mother. In two new books, Law­son is con­sid­ered as part of a dual bi­og­ra­phy.

In A Wife’s Heart, Ker­rie Davies ex­plores Henry and Bertha Law­son’s mar­riage, jux­ta­posed with her own me­moir of sin­gle mother­hood. In Mates, Gregory Bryan writes par­al­lel lives, of Law­son and his friend bush poet Jim Gor­don (pseu­do­nym Grahame, so as not to be con­fused with Adam Lind­say). Although Gor­don is now largely for­got­ten, Law­son con­sid­ered him the bet­ter writer.

To Davies first, and Bertha, a woman too con­ve­niently dis­missed as a she-devil who de­stroyed a great Aus­tralian au­thor. Her fam­ily were so­cial­ist book­sell­ers and her sis­ter mar­ried Jack Lang. Bertha was very young when she mar­ried, soon a child with chil­dren. Lit­tle about her early pho­to­graphs sug­gests strength, or that she would sur­vive men­tal ill­ness and a spec­tac­u­larly un­happy mar­riage.

In writ­ing this book, Davies fills a gap in the Law­son story. It is a con­tested space, Law­son hav­ing his par­ti­sans. Sev­eral acted as if they had pro­pri­etary rights on his life, from Mary Gil­more to Colin Rod­er­ick.

In mak­ing Law­son an icon of Aus­tralian let­ters, some gifted women were over­shad­owed, in­clud­ing Miles Franklin and Bar­bara Bayn­ton, ar­guably his su­pe­rior. Law­son’s wom­en­folk fared even worse. Matthews’s Louisa did take is­sue with the gen­eral misog­yny, much orig­i­nat­ing with Law­son him­self. It is only now that Bertha gains a sim­i­lar ad­vo­cate at book-length.

In part Bertha’s oc­clu­sion seems less than that she had ac­tive en­e­mies but that oth­ers sought to protect her. Her records from an English in­sane asy­lum were un­der em­bargo, as were the pa­pers of her daugh­ter Bertha Jago. Rod­er­ick had ac­cess to nei­ther.

What he did was dam­ag­ing enough, edit­ing Henry’s phras­ing so it cru­cially omit­ted the fact Bertha had post­na­tal de­pres­sion/ma­nia. In the 19th cen­tury it was recog­nised that such ill­nesses were brief and the prog­no­sis good, even with­out treat­ment. Bertha did re­gain her wits but Henry was never the same.

Their mar­riage had al­ways been risky, the pair be­ing young and in­di­gent, with only a writer’s un­cer­tain in­come to sus­tain them. For Law­son to take his lit­tle fam­ily to cold, lonely Bri­tain, in search of a bril­liant over­seas ca­reer, was mad­ness, but then it ran in his fam­ily.

He was also an al­co­holic with a nasty tem­per, as pub­lisher Ge­orge Robert­son warned Bertha. Naively she be­lieved love could re­form a drunk. Bertha was right, but not with Henry.

The book starts by pulling no punches, quot­ing Bertha’s pe­ti­tion for di­vorce on the grounds of drunk­en­ness and vi­o­lence from Law­son. Na­tional icon as wife-beater shock! It is per­haps no sur­prise: oth­ers suf­fered from Law­son’s stick.

Davies is firmly on Bertha’s side, ar­gu­ing that the lit­tle woman was no vil­lain­ess, rather truly heroic. She brought up two chil­dren alone, de­ter­minedly tak­ing Law­son to court for his re­peated fail­ure to pay child sup­port.

If he went to jail or asy­lum, bet­ter that than her chil­dren starve or be taken by wel­fare. As her let­ters make ob­vi­ous, she walked a hard and lonely path. In the end she tri­umphantly suc­ceeded while Henry cadged for loans that he drank away, along with his ge­nius.

We now have sup­port­ing moth­ers ben­e­fits, grants for writ­ers and treat­ment for the things from which poor Law­son suf­fered: deaf­ness, de­pres­sion and ad­dic­tion. Bertha had lit­tle help, yet through hard work and willpower reared her chil­dren to be healthy, in­de­pen­dent adults.

Davies is rightly in awe of Bertha for this feat. She found the same thing very dif­fi­cult her­self, even a cen­tury later. This book be­gan as Davies’s me­moir of be­ing a sin­gle mother. It later mor­phed into a com­par­i­son, part per­sonal, part schol­ar­ship, be­tween her and Bertha.

The ap­proach could be ex­cru­ci­at­ingly fan­girl and has other dangers. Com­par­ing your sit­u­a­tion to the spouse of a fa­mous writer can im­ply A Wife’s Heart: The Un­told Story of Bertha and Henry Law­son By Ker­rie Davies UQP, 243pp, $29.95 Mates: The Friend­ship that Sus­tained Henry Law­son By Gregory Bryan New Hol­land, 488pp, $40 (HB) hubris. Davies’s hus­band may be ir­re­spon­si­ble but he is no Law­son and she did not di­vorce him for cru­elty.

A Wife’s Heart thus in­volves the bi­og­ra­pher in the story, an ap­proach most suc­cess­ful in AJA Sy­monds’s 1934 classic The Quest for Corvo, where the sub­ject is so elu­sive it cre­ates a mys­tery nar­ra­tive.

In com­par­i­son Law­son and Bertha are well­doc­u­mented. A book could be writ­ten about the mar­riage alone, with­out the bi­og­ra­pher’s own life. The re­sult is a hy­brid text, and at some point some­body must have sug­gested it be me­moir or Law­son story but not both. Nev­er­the­less, Davies per­sisted.

At times the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is too ob­vi­ous, as when Davies dis­cusses her own ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing an artist’s model, with ref­er­ence to Han­nah Thorn­burn. The lat­ter be­came Law­son’s muse and ideal, be­ing for­ever young and con­ve­niently dead. Law­son may not have known Han­nah died from an abor­tion. But was she more than just the woman who got away? There are hints as to a third in the mar­riage, such as the woman “who wrecked our lives”, as Henry wrote to Bertha.

Davies dis­counts the role of Lizzie Humphries, the ser­vant with whom Law­son de­camped to Lon­don while Bertha was in the asy­lum. None­the­less, he wrote most nas­tily about her, and fur­ther re­search on the Law­sons in Eng­land may re­veal more to her story.

What emerges in this book is Bertha as in­domitable. She even had her own happy end­ing, form­ing a lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with bush poet Will Law­son (no re­la­tion), who gave up drink­ing for her.

Bryan has al­ready writ­ten a me­moir/bi­og­ra­phy about Henry Law­son, To Hell and High Wa­ter (2012). He and his brother Bar­rie re­traced Law­son’s foot­steps with Gor­don. The two poets walked 200km-plus from Bourke in NSW to Hunger­ford in Queens­land, an epic jour­ney, sig­nif­i­cant to both men. Here they could play the swag­man, as im­por­tant an Aus­tralian fig­ure as Law­son him­self.

As the ti­tle in­di­cates, Mates is about a friend­ship, although Bryan has the dif­fi­culty that the two men did not see each other for more than 20 years. When they did co­in­cide again, the mates re­sumed where they had left off. Law­son was dead, though, within six years. In truth the pair spent lit­tle of their lives to­gether.

Gor­don emerges from Bryan’s ac­count as a de­cent chap, au­then­ti­cally a bush­man and worker. He was ap­par­ently among the few not to quar­rel with the dif­fi­cult Law­son. Gor­don also had the luck to marry Celia McIn­tyre, daugh­ter of a gra­zier, a woman with some money, who tol­er­ated his rest­less­ness. No Drover’s Wife nor Cho­sen Ves­sel she, for when both­ered by a tramp she shot him.

Un­like Law­son, Gor­don happily sup­ported his fam­ily, and was a de­voted hus­band. Cer­tainly he drank, as was the na­tional pas­time, but not to Law­son’s ex­cess. After Law­son’s death, he wrote about their friend­ship for The Bulletin, which also en­hanced his rep­u­ta­tion as a writer.

Again like Law­son, he gained a Com­mon­wealth lit­er­ary pen­sion late in life: Ben Chi­fley was a fan. Yet his work ap­peared in book form late, in the 1940s, and is not, like his friend’s, still in print.

In­deed Gor­don lacks an en­try in the Aus­tralian Dic­tionary of Bi­og­ra­phy. He is, as Bryan ad­mits, for­got­ten ex­cept for his as­so­ci­a­tion with Law­son, where he is among many of the poet’s mates. Much of this lengthy book is nec­es­sar­ily about Law­son.

Gor­don did not know Law­son dur­ing his mar­ried years, though he happily con­trib­uted to me­mo­rial vol­umes com­piled by Bertha and her daugh­ter. The mate’s code, as Bryan notes, pre­cluded crit­i­cism. So does the psy­chol­ogy of the al­co­holic. Gor­don seems too sensible and kind a man to do more than lis­ten, and not take sides.

He had lit­tle to say about the Law­son mar­riage. Bryan is there­fore obliged to draw on Gil­more who, as a for­mer Law­son sweet­heart, was hardly dis­in­ter­ested. She was only sec­ond to Law­son in black­en­ing Bertha’s name, mostly via a manuscript me­moir. Bertha was re­cov­er­ing from se­vere men­tal ill­ness when they first met, but Gil­more gives her nary any sym­pa­thy.

Read­ing Bryan be­side Davies shows there are two sides to ev­ery mar­i­tal story, as there are to friend­ships. Bryan per­forms a gen­uine ser­vice in re­triev­ing a gifted bush poet who did not go off the rails.

Though anointed Law­son’s suc­ces­sor, Gor­don slipped from the na­tional con­scious­ness. He lived to see some ac­claim with the sec­ond of his books but never re­cov­ered from the loss of a son in World War II.

Of th­ese two books, Davies’s is the more ground­break­ing, in its de­fence of Bertha ad­mirably set­ting the record straight. Bryan is more con­ven­tional. Both are the prod­uct of care­ful re­search, and func­tion to some de­gree as com­ple­men­tary. Davies will be read by women, and Bryan more by men. Yet nei­ther will be the last word on the Law­sons. will be a guest of the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, May 22 to 28. most re­cent book is Block­buster! Fer­gus Hume and The Mys­tery of a Han­som Cab.

Henry Law­son, left; his wife Bertha, be­low

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