Der australische 'bush' in Henry Lawsons “The Drover’s Wife”, “The Bush Undertaker” und “A Day on a Selection”

Formen und Funktionen der Darstellung

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Henry Lawson – the voice of the bush and the bush is the heart of Australia

3. The Drover’s Wife

4. The Bush Undertaker

5. A Day on a Selection

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography
. 7.1. Primary Literature
. 7.2. Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

“Bush is a term which probably derives from the Dutch word ‚bosch’ and was used as early as 1800. By the 1820s it was in common use to denote the unsettled areas of the Colony and, more specifically, as the Australian equivalent of the English words ‘woods’ and ‘forest’. Although many early settlers disliked and feared the bush, it did not go completely unpraised” (Wilde et. al. 1994: 128f.). However, “early complaints about the sombreness of the bush were strengthened by the many tragedies that befell the explorers and pioneers in their efforts to chart and settle it” (ibid. 129). The loneliness of the bush was mentioned also. When Adam Lindsay Gordon describes, in his preface to Sea Spray and Smoke Drift, “the dominant note of the Australian bush as one of ‘weird melancholy’ and the bush itself as ‘funereal, secret, stern’, he is reflecting the view that persisted for most of the first century of white settlement” (ibid. 129).

With the 1890s and the upsurge of nationalism and, through works of writers such as Henry Lawson (1867 – 1922), the bush “comes to be viewed as a major shaping instrument of the Australian national spirit and outlook” (ibid. 129). This notion of the bush was developed further. Literature was now eager to show the “mystique of the bush, a sense that it was a sacred, inspiring power, influencing for good, both individual and nation” (ibid. 129). But the focus was not only on the things mentioned so far but also on the bush people and their lives. “[T]he bushman stereotype emerges as a rugged, versatile individualist, cheerful, laconic, philosophical in the face of hardship, independent in his own troubles but generous and loyal to his mates and others who need help” (ibid. 129f.). Life of the bush women became a matter of interest even though it was mentioned less frequently than that of men.

Henry Lawson – “the voice of the bush” (Hermes 2007: 303) – was one of the authors who was interested in showing sketches from bush life to the readers of his short stories (Webby 2000: 65). His famous character sketches “The Drover’s Wife” and “The Bush Undertaker” and “A Day on a Selection”, all published in Lawson’s first major collection While the Billy Boils (1896), are examined more closely in this paper. A special focus will be on the forms in which the bush is represented to the reader and their functions with regard to the context of the story. It will be shown that the bush raises questions concerning gender relations and identity. The bush in the stories shows itself to us in its otherness and weirdness. The long prevailing glorification of the bush is no longer apparent in these stories. Lawson rather focuses on the sad life in the bush and thus becomes the voice of the bush and deviates somewhat in its representation from that of the typical Australian. How Lawson was able to depict the bush in the way he did will be of interest in the first chapter whereas the other chapters each focus on one of the stories mentioned above. As “A Day on a Selection” is not discussed to the extent that the other two are, its discussion differs in the respect that it resembles rather a close reading from the perspective from which I see it and to which some of the concepts discussed in “A Drover’s Wife” and “the Bush Undertaker” are applied.

2. Henry Lawson – the voice of the bush and the bush is the heart of Australia

The last two decades of the colonial period saw a striving for an own nation which is also reflected in the literature of that time. As Buckridge (1989: 138) points out:

What literary and other cultural texts of the period often seem to do is to epitomize Australia using carefully selected and highly condensed icons of Australianness and in doing so to suggest, demonstrate or assert the largely inexpressible virtue of the icon, and hence (by a metonymy which is often implicit) of ‘Australia’.

The subjects Lawson selected are incidents he witnessed or experienced himself during the time he lived with his family on a selection and which describe a phase of Australian life in the bush. As he knows what he writes about, he can depict life in the bush with accuracy and truth “adopted in a spirit of philosophic realism. […] Lawson’s detailed, objective style therefore faithfully records a subject with local historical value” (Lee 1992[1] ). That is why he does not create what he writes. He simply reports what is there to be seen by those who have the local experience necessary to see it and he has a direct and unmediated relationship with his material. As Lee (ibid.) states “his authenticity thus becomes his knowledge of his subject; a knowledge which results from his experience of his object”.

Stephen develops further, with his twin stories, the reasons for his acquaintance with the Australian bush. Through the Norse roots of Lawson’s father and the English heritage of his maternal grandfather intelligence, strength and skill are transferred, whereas the female blood line “transfers the emerging artist’s poetic gifts, along with ‘many of his mental traits’” (Lee 1992). What is of importance, however, is that, with this genealogy, Lawson is supplied with the requisites of both the artist and the bushman. His physiognomy and biography, namely his iterant lifestyle also contribute to it. “Lawson is a ‘slight, but tall and muscular’ man with ‘prominent features and large eloquent brown eyes’” (ibid.). From the distinction ‘Lawson as bushman’ and ‘Lawson as artist’ Stephens draws the conclusion that “Henry Lawson is the voice of the bush, and the bush is the heart of Australia. His equation Lawson = Bush = Australia is a proof that bush values are Australian values (Wilde et. al. 1994: 129).

Like other authors of his time, Lawson was obsessed with the spirit of creating a national identity which is a cultural construction. What we assume to be typical Australian is transferred by “codes of meaning embedded in language and other forms of representation: Codes of meaning are ideas which operate together within a particular culture. There is an agreement that certain meanings go together” (Schaffer 1988: 8) which are reproduced quite often so that they are finally taken for granted. However, the ‘real’ Australian is a national type who does not exist. Therefore, national identity can be understood within the Lacanian terms of the imaginary and symbolic. “Like an ideal mirror image of the self, the idea of the national character is imaginary. It represents a construction of the self arising out of fantasies, memory and desire, and is given value within a particular culture through the symbolic order of language” (ibid. 11). That is why the real Australian character has taken different forms; some are more closely linked to the norms than others. The dominant norms of Australian culture are masculine and white against which everybody is measured, defined, included or excluded as subjects in culture. Women are regarded as ‘not-men’ and as objects and passive. However, in exceptional circumstances, they can stand in place of men and take on masculine attributes and have the status of pioneering heroes even though they are women. But, according to Schaffer, “the land as an object virtually always is represented as feminine. It functions as a metaphor for woman – as in father sky to mother earth, colonial master to the plains of promise, native son to the barren bush […]. All these equations reproduce the ‘perfect’ couple: masculine activity / feminine passivity” (ibid. 14). Nevertheless, these categories can be changed: Men take on feminine attributes and vice versa.

How Lawson applies his stylistic means of objectivity, truthfulness, accuracy and attention to detail to his short stories or to his “sketches which depict ‘a phase of Australian bush life and character’” (Lee 1992: 11) and what kind of Australia or rather Australian bush and Australian nationality he represents will be shown in the following paragraphs dealing with “The Drover’s Wife”, “The Bush Undertaker” and “A Day on a Selection”.

3. The Drover’s Wife

This short story is one of Lawson’s earliest, first published in the Bulletin in 1892 and has been interpreted in various ways since this time which shows the richness of this text. On the surface, the story seems to be simple. Set in the Australian Bush, the story covers a night from early evening to sunrise the following day. A mother of four children whose husband is away droving sheep tries to protect her children from a snake which is seen as a danger to them. She stays awake the whole night. Early the next morning, she manages with the help of the dog, Alligator, to kill the snake.

The story is not that simple. Right from the start, we get a glimpse of how national and personal identity are realised. The title itself is telling. It shows that Lawson sees women as appendages to men (Schaffer 1988: 118). He does not want to individualize the title character and give her a self. It seems that he wants her to be seen as object of and dependent on her husband (Liesel 2007: 307). However, in my opinion, it could be possible that Lawson did not want to individualize her because he did not have a certain woman in mind but wanted to present the fate of bush women in general to the reader.

This short story is marked by the dichotomy of presence and absence. The wife’s husband, a drover and “ex-squatter[,] is away with sheep” (Roderick1972: 47). She is slipped into his role. Furthermore, her wood-heap, made by a stray blackfellow who is the last of his tribe, is hollow but filled with the presence of a snake instead. It seems as if the woman and the snake are each occupying an emptiness.

Taking the snake into closer examination, one finds out that it is not only a potential danger to the family, which could kill one of her children like a snake did with her brother-in-law’s little son (Roderick 1972: 48). Under the surface, the snake functions as a link to the mother as the placement of the words “Snake! Mother, here’s a snake!” (ibid. 47) and their capitalisation suggest. This link between the mother and the snake is extended when the wife tries to tempt the snake to come out into the kitchen with “two small dishes of milk” (ibid. 47). According to Schaffer (1988: 133), “this narrative detail underlines the mother’s role both as Eve, the temptress in league with the snake, and Mary as nurturer, the giver of milk”. The snake is a biblical symbol of the fall of man, the sin, and, resulting from that, the destruction of Paradise. Paradise in the early colonial period is the enthusiasm about and glorification of the flora and fauna of bush. The snake is the reason for the life the woman has to lead in the bush. This is even felt by the dog when he shakes the snake (“He felt the original curse in common with mankind” (Roderick 1972: 51)). The original curse is the curse made by God in Genesis 3:

I will put enmity between you [snake] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel. […] cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken (

So the fall of man caused the woman’s struggle with the snake / nature / bush. This shows that not only snake and mother are linked but also snake, mother and nature / bush. The latter is represented in the story as stunted and rotten, nothing you can live on properly (e.g.thorns and thistles) and it is characterised by extreme weather conditions such as droughts, floods, fire. To sum up, Schaffer says that ’the common curse’, Eve’s curse, the curse of original sin “separates civilization from the wild and barren wilderness, the self from the alien other”.

The snake does not only signify the threat of feminine otherness and sin but it is also associated with greed, Eve’s greed. According to Schaffer (1988: 133), greed is exhibited in this story in the character of the blackfellow with whom the drover’s wife had bargained to bring her some wood and awarded him with “an extra fig of tobacco” (Roderick 1972: 51) but who deceived her in building the wood-heap hollow. Throughout the text, one can find further allusions to blackness, positive and negative. On the negative side, when the eldest son, Tommy, (who replaces his father in this situation and has – as his name shows – a self) wants to catch the snake and yells “I’ll have the beggar” (Roderick 1972: 47), the snake as beggar is linked with the first beggar, the Aboriginal native (Schaffer 1988: 134). When the dog, Alligator, finally catches the snake, it is referred to as a “black brute, five feet long” (Roderick 1972: 51). This incident is preceded by the discovery of the hollow wood-heap made by a blackfellow and the baby who is terrified by her mother’s black appearance caused by the soot of the fire which she had fought. Baby and dog thought her to be a black man. As Schaffer (1988: 134) remarks, these occurrences metonymically link the black snake / beggar / native with the forces of threat to white civilization.

On the positive side, blackness alludes to the birth of the wife’s last two children. Left unattended “while her husband was bringing a drunken doctor, by force, to her” (Roderick 1972: 49), “God sent Black Mary” (ibid. 49) as assistance. “But Black Mary, midwife and witness to God’s curse on Eve that she [- as mentioned in Genesis 3 - ] bring forth children in pain and distress, was the ‘whitest’ gin in all the land” (Schaffer 1988: 134).

The midwife is not the only one where blackness has a positive connotation. The dog, Alligator, is described as a “black, yellow-eyed dog-of-all-breeds” (Roderick 1972: 47). As mentioned before, this story is a story of presence and absence. With his presence Alligator fills the absence of the wife’s husband and replaces him. Alligator, who got his name because his chawing-up apparatus greatly resembled that of the reptile, has the marks the husband should have: “He is not a very beautiful dog to look at, and the light shows numerous old wounds where the hair will not grow. He is afraid of nothing on the face of the earth or under it” (ibid. 49). He is a brave dog who protects the family against any kind of danger, e.g. swagmen or a potential ‘black man’ even though the latter turned out to be the wife herself, dangers which she cannot handle herself because of her feminine weakness. But his “sorrow for his blunder, and his anxiety to let it be known that it was all a mistake, was as evident as his ragged tail and a twelve-inch grin could make it” (ibid. 49f.). In this aspect he differs from the husband. These are the reasons why the dog is so important to the family and why “they cannot afford to lose him” (ibid. 47). If that happened, the threat of the feminine otherness would be complete.

This leads directly to the drover’s wife. “The Government statistician estimated that at the end of 1887 there were in the colony of New South Wales about 471000 women and girls” (Lawson 1982: 500) but not all of them lived in the bush. Most preferred the life as city or country women to that of bush women because the bush is “‘no place for a woman’” (Schaffer 1988: 52). “Fair, fresh-looking, plump” (Lawson 500) city women dreaded the life of “thin, wiry, flat-chested and sunburned“ (Lawson 1982: 500) or gaunt bush women who can work as well as men or even harder and live a monotonous and sad life in isolation. However, “women are beginning to follow into the Bush” (Bird 1989: 2) and Henry Lawson decided to help the reader to get a picture of such a woman. Through the woman’s reminiscences, which are interspersed and rendered in the past tense and expand the narrated time to encompass a considerable number of years, her heroism is established. She has overcome both natural and living threats: droughts, a bush-fire, floods, cattle diseases, a mad bullock, crows and eagles, bushmen and sundowners, swagmen which are – according to Schaffer – “all part of the alien otherness of the bush” (1988: 134). Some of these incidents are written in present tense. Hermes thinks that “present-tense narrational generalization also seems appropriate for depicting the woman’s ability to fight for herself and to manage her and her children’s lives on her own” (Hermes 2007: 308). In all these incidents mentioned above she acts in a masculine role and, to emphasize her (borrowed) masculine position, she wears an old pair of her husband’s trousers and fills his absence. But she cannot fulfil the male role totally and has her limitations. That is seen when she is supplied with provisions by her brother-in-law who also kills some of her sheep occasionally (Roderick 1972: 48) and when a “fire would have mastered her but for four excited bushmen who arrived in the nick of time” (ibid. 49). But she is aware that “there are things that a bush woman cannot do” (ibid. 50) and is then faced with her female otherness.

Further hints at her feminine weakness and otherness are when she weeps silently. “Of her own life she never speaks”. We, as readers, become aware of this when we follow the night vigil and her thoughts during that. She would have no-one to talk to in for miles around. “Yet she does not complain; she suffers silently. She thinks her lot peculiar to herself” (Lawson 1982: 501) and “she keeps her sorrows to herself, and endures everything” (ibid. 502). She “has no conception of the little jealousies, the spite and petty meanness of city women” (ibid. 501). Her husband


[1] This article was published in Australian Literary Studies. May 15 (3). 110 – 122. However, I used the PDF document which is available online, so I cannot give a page number here and whenever I quote from this text in my paper.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Der australische 'bush' in Henry Lawsons “The Drover’s Wife”, “The Bush Undertaker” und “A Day on a Selection”
Formen und Funktionen der Darstellung
University of Cologne  (Philosophische Fakultät, Englisches Seminar)
Australian Literature in English in the Colonial Period
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Formen, Funktionen, Darstellung, Kurzgeschichten, Henry, Lawsons, Drover’s, Wife”, Bush, Undertaker”, Selection”
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Karolin Büttner (Author), 2008, Der australische 'bush' in Henry Lawsons “The Drover’s Wife”, “The Bush Undertaker” und “A Day on a Selection”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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