At the 2017 Brisbane Writers Festival, I sat on the ‘Australian Heroes’ panel with First World War historian Martin Crotty, Rebe Taylor, author of Into the Heart of Tasmania, and Crotty’s colleague, University of Queensland historian Geoff Ginn.
‘We are in an iconoclastic cultural moment when it comes to grand figures on pedestals,’ Ginn said. ‘There are pressing thoughts on the nature of heroism and stereotypes of heroism.’
It was a small audience—my publisher consoled that by 5.30 pm most have gone home or to the festival bar. We talked about a range of topics from the Anzacs, Henry and Bertha Lawson’s marriage breakdown and the survival of the Tasmanian Indigenous population to the debate surrounding colonial statues. Despite the scattered seats, we still managed to provoke a walkout.
Seated near the front row, a man raised his hand.
‘I protest at the tenor of this discussion,’ he said, unrolling a piece of paper. ‘I’ve heard a fair bit of undermining talk so my contribution is to simply list my heroes.’ Among those he recited were Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson, General Sir John Monash, aviator Charles Kingsford Smith and cartoonist Bill Leak.
‘I don’t think we are undermining. I think we’re grounding heroes in reality,’ Crotty responded.
‘There’s some extraordinary people on your list,’ I said of his rollcall. ‘They do need to be remembered for what they did. It’s a different element of the narrative.’
‘Most of the names on your list are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon,’ Crotty continued. ‘Now, the fact is we live in a society that preaches gender equality, that is multicultural. I accept your right to have them as heroes but national heroes is a more problematic concept.’
‘I’m leaving,’ the man said.
‘Fair enough,’ Crotty replied.
• • •
In 1927, Virginia Woolf decided that ‘the Victorian biographer was dominated with the idea of goodness’.1 Nearly a century later at the BWF panel, the audience member expected goodness to prevail in our panel discussion. I don’t think anyone on the panel was suggesting that there was no longer room for ‘goodness’ or bravery, for writing and art worthy of celebration, for discovery, and all else that is entwined with heroes. But there are also voices that have not been heard, that have been hidden by the statues of history.
The ‘biographical corrective’ as discussed by Nigel Hamilton2 is part of the swing away from exemplary, untouchable lives to a ‘growing surrender to public voyeurism’.3 that relates to Janet Malcolm’s view of biography as a form of literary burglary.4
Now we have a focus on ‘exemplariness transferred to the subject’s private life’.5 Yet within this focus, Hamilton argues that there is now an ‘assertive, challenging, critical and contesting spirit in biography at least in regard to history,’ and notes that ‘the corrective trend—and its consequences, will I believe, be seen to be culturally significant, indeed as a defining quality of the ‘Biography as Corrective’ in years to come’.6 While he doesn’t explicitly mention festival walkouts, Hamilton warns that biographers embracing the corrective are unlikely to be embraced by those invested in the past narratives:
One such wall that the revisionist biographer must scale is patriotic pride. Another is accepted dogma. A third is the personal stake people may have in a given interpretation. A fourth is lack of evidence to counter myth. And so on …7
I wonder if ‘corrective’ suggests that there is only one true story, replacing one dogma with another. That seems to be the fear of those who protest in the comment section, at least in regard to my book A Wife’s Heart and specifically its inclusion of Bertha Lawson’s affidavit alleging domestic violence at the hands of her husband Henry Lawson.8 There is an element here of challenging misrepresentations, particularly in relation to heroes’ wives such as Bertha Lawson, who was portrayed as vengeful and unstable by earlier biographers. But perhaps part of the biographical corrective is adding depth to the dogma and multiple interpretations of the hero at its heart. It is not so much correcting but gazing at the hero from a different point of view that reveals the unexpected.
In his collection of essays, The Drover’s Wife: A Celebration of a Great Love Affair,9 Frank Moorhouse wrote about his curiosity and surprise upon discovering a new perspective on Henry Lawson’s sexuality that he suggested could make Lawson ‘a queer hero for all Australian kids’:
The book was initiated by my curiosity about why, from all Lawson’s writing, it is The Drover’s Wife short story that uniquely survives in our cultural life … However the biggest surprise from my research was to learn of Lawson’s effeminacy, or femininity, which showed in the way he presented himself, and according to some critics, in his writing, and which was seen as a weakness.10
I began researching Bertha Lawson not to pull Henry off his lofty literary—and literal—statue in Sydney’s Domain, but to portray Bertha’s life as a single mother in the early twentieth century. Not knowing much about her, I chose Bertha after I heard by chance that Henry was jailed for non-payment of child support. Her 1903 affidavit alleging domestic violence had been filed away in the archives of history, along with the remembrance of Bertha herself. Reading the official divorce documents, rolled in ribbon and written in calligraphy, revealed the affidavit that contained a surprising story that other biographers had glossed over. In 1978 Manning Clark11 came the closest to recognising that Bertha had more to say. Lucy Sussex and Meg Tasker wrote an empathetic account of the Lawsons, titled after Lawson’s self-described ‘wild run to London’ during which Bertha was hospitalised.12 Her Bethlem Royal Hospital medical notes list ‘lactation and worry’ suggested post-natal depression. Their account concentrated on the Lawsons’ life prior to their separation that sparked the affidavit in 1903 that, unrolled along with her letters, revealed Bertha’s deep unhappiness and her fears for herself and her children.
Alcoholism and larrikinism can be infused into the troubled genius without disturbing goodness, but the revelation of domestic violence rightfully raises doubts about the hero’s good name and all it represents. Anna Makolkin regards the Ukrainian poet’s name Taras Shevchenko as a Ukrainian sign: ‘he is a symbol of Ukrainian national cohesiveness … a name-metaphor which encodes the entire history of the nation,’ as Shakespeare symbolises English culture and Molière, French.13 Extending her idea to Australian heroes, Lawson and the Anzacs are name-metaphors for Australia, and consequently are sensitive biographical subjects.
Lucy Sussex noted when reviewing A Wife’s Heart that the name Lawson is a national icon, and his story is ‘a contested space, Lawson having his partisans’.14 Yet Moorhouse wonders if Lawson is still the hero he once was in the contemporary cultural psyche beyond ‘The Drover’s Wife’:
How do you estimate the Lawson factor—who remembers him? Who wants to remember him? Who cares? I find his fall from the literary and national consciousness rather fascinating. All those streets and parks and plaques and statue and paintings. Even in the 1960s he was described as ‘Australia’s greatest writer’ … The memory is very faded indeed.
Of course, I don’t consider his effeminacy or his speculated homosexuality as challenging his ‘hero’ status. It may give him a minor new status. I think his coarsening into racism in The Drover’s Wife is sad. And of course, his violence towards Bertha.15
The genuinely affronted audience member at the Brisbane Writers Festival wasn’t a partisan of Lawson specifically—he wasn’t on his list—but more broadly one of heroes, and it seemed that he felt he needed to defend all that was represented by the names we’d discussed.
‘People like their heroes clean, untarnished … and once you start to tarnish them, or tell stories that get into people’s sense of the purity of their hero, because they are heroicising them, you are almost getting at the core of their ideas and world view. They do take it to heart,’ Crotty reflected, essentially predicting the walkout.
Perhaps because A Wife’s Heart had initially been turned down by a large publisher’s marketing department that, taking the faded-hero view, felt few would be interested in Henry Lawson’s wife, and because I saw the book as being about single parenting and divorce, I was surprised by those who saw the book as an attack on Henry Lawson and more broadly the white male canon of Australian literature. If Lawson was faded, what he represented was not.
The first indication was just prior to publication, when my doctor asked about my book during a routine visit. ‘Oh,’ he said, momentarily far more concerned about the affidavit than my health. ‘You are going to get a lot of flak for saying that about Henry Lawson.’ Subsequent favourites from comment sections after A Wife’s Heart’s publicity, centring on the affidavit, include:
Clearly the next step is the feminists at Sydney Uni to dig up poor Lawson’s bones, parade them around the quadrangle at lunch time with a big sign ‘wife beater’. Followed by a Lawson book burning outside Fisher then down to the pub for a few celebratory beers.
He was white and male and a respected part of Australian culture, that is all the motivation some people need.
Seems the author is out to crucify her ex using Lawson as the vehicle.
Who thinks Davies looks like Bertha Lawson?
‘When we make heroes of people, part of the process is exaggerating their virtues and achievements, and downplaying their failures,’ Crotty said. ‘Anzacs are no different in this regard to any other heroic figure. Anyone who challenges their place atop that pedestal is quickly shouted down.’
This is particularly so when the hero is dead, and desecration of heroes is a recurring theme in the comments section and across social media in response to ‘corrective’ biographies and history. Heroes’ graves are imbued with national pride and memory, although Lawson’s resting place in Waverley Cemetery is hidden among angels that spread their wings to the clifftop rather than a heroic monument like his bronzing in the Domain. Patrick Deneen describes our response to desecration as ‘one that might be viewed as fundamentally natural to human beings, namely that impulse to accord to our fallen comrades and family the utmost dignity and respect in memory of their life and even hope for life elsewhere.’ Deneen further notes that the language of desecration speaks to a ‘shared sense of violation.’16
It makes sense then that the shared sense of outrage at a revisionist portrayal of a hero is expressed with reference to desecration. After Moorhouse’s extract from his Drover’s Wife collection of essays appeared in the Fairfax weekend papers, the response was largely of intrigue. But sure enough a tweet soon appeared: ‘So now the #yes camp have dragged Henry Lawson’s corpse onto the #LGBTQ brigades team.’ The tweet aligns with the comment complaining that feminists would next ‘dig up poor Lawson’s bones’ and ‘re-inter his body in un-sanctified ground’.
At the extreme are death threats. In 2014, in response to a newspaper op-ed he’d written about the centenary of the First World War, Crotty received a threatening letter, its handwritten menace making it all the more real. It’s enough to make a historian give the hero a miss in future writing, but Crotty, while rattled at the time, is unfazed:
Cutting the legs off people’s armchairs is something we are supposed to do, and as long as it’s done realistically, respectfully, and isn’t iconoclasm for its own sake, then I don’t see an issue. I always tell students that when the emperor hasn’t got any clothes on, someone has to point it out.
Another question: Why sully greatness with a wife’s affidavit of violence, and reminders of his alcoholism? Why show the Anzacs as inglorious men? Why dwell on the darker parts of the hero’s life when there is so much that is celebratory about them? As a Lawson loyalist asked me, ‘Why write about her?’ Cue a post: ‘Henry Lawson was a genius who gave us a poetic snapshot of the lives of ordinary working people around the turn of the century. He also wrote some of the finest verse ever. That is enough.’
Certainly, contemporary cultural debates give space to consider a hero’s contextual canonising. We are moving towards a different understanding of heroes in history, perhaps redefining heroism retrospectively and allowing other voices to be heard beside them. ‘The true heroes are usually pretty silent in history,’ Rebe Taylor said on the Australian Heroes panel. ‘To heroicise is to create a narrative in order for people to have a sense of identity. And we are kind of getting past that. We question it now.’
Bertha’s affidavit now speaks to the wider conversation around transparency and the recognition of single parenting and domestic violence. When Bertha wrote her memoir in 1943,17 mentioning Henry’s alcoholism but not the affidavit, White Ribbon Day was decades away. Biographers, if they even believed her, shied away from delving deeply into the difficult discussion, in spite of the fact that her allegations echoed warnings from George Robertson that Lawson had a ‘nasty temper’18 and Norman Lindsay’s drawing of Lawson with a cane poised over a Bulletin colleague’s head.19 Her post-separation jailing of Henry can be reframed as a question of survival and early divorce law that imprisoned those who defaulted on their child support, rather than a hunt for punishment and vengeance.
Flipping the narrative and gazing at the hero from another point of view creates a range of alternative voices that, in the case of literary heroes, challenge previous dogma of domestic pressures impeding the genius. As Barbara Caine20 and Linda Wagner-Martin21 have discussed, wives are usually cast as witchy, bitchy or tricky, but #thanksfortyping, or in Bertha’s case, scribing as Lawson often dictated his verse or prose to her. Beyond biographical depth, Moorhouse’s view of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ as Henry Lawson articulating his loneliness in his feminine self opens another interpretation of the work, as does Leah Purcell’s acclaimed theatrical reworking of the story.
In the Anzac narrative, it is the voices of the mothers, wives and sisters who cared for traumatised heroes. ‘We need a dose of realism rather than pulling people off their pedestals. What I’m interested in is how they were put up there in the first place,’ Crotty reflected on the panel. ‘Why they were put up on a pedestal? What happens when you try to question it? How is power used to maintain people on a pedestal?’
In the five years writing A Wife’s Heart I often walked past Lawson’s statue on the way to the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool in Sydney. Sculpted in bronze by Charles Lambert, Lawson stands high on a sandstone plinth underneath a gum tree with a mate, a swag and a dog. His hand is extended as if it is reaching for an imaginary billy tea or, I thought, more likely a beer, but apparently it instead represents a frequent gesture of Lawson’s. His plaque is simple: ‘Henry Lawson 1867–1922. Australian poet and story writer.’
The statue became a motif in the book. It embodied his status as one of Australia’s greatest writers but it also emphasised how aloof his heroicising really was from the reality of Bertha’s experience of living with him. I often stopped and looked at his statue, and thought about Bertha as much as Henry.
So far Lawson’s statue has not been included in the ‘statue wars’ that are centred around Lachlan Macquarie and Captain Cook—nor do I want that to happen. I would be distressed if people wanted to take Lawson’s statue down from both an aesthetic and historical perspective. Beyond the aesthetic lens, you can look at Lawson as a writer, father, husband and hero.
Crotty thinks that if alternative biographies serve a pedagogic purpose, it is that heroes aren’t perfect:
Do you think [the Anzacs would] want me to talk honestly about their failings, their shortcomings and their sufferings alongside their achievements and virtues? Or do you think they’d prefer it that I sanitised and whitewashed them and their experiences?
People can still do great things, and be acknowledged for it. That’s inspiration, and it’s a lesson and a gift you can give people. We can’t be too cynical. What statues wouldn’t we pull down if we defined everyone by their failings alone? We don’t need to tear down statues, we just need to understand them.
I wonder sometimes if Bertha would have been a willing subject for the biography. By the time Lawson died in 1922, impoverished and seen as a nuisance rather than the hero he would soon become, his and Bertha’s letters show they had a friendly relationship. Their children had grown up and she had moved on to a career in child welfare. She had re-formed a relationship with another ‘bohemian’, the writer Will Lawson (no relation). Ruth Park, a friend of Bertha’s in later life, observed Will Lawson contentedly curling Bertha’s hair with pegs.
After Henry’s death, Bertha supported his literary lionising. I’ve come to the conclusion that now she was no longer married to him, no longer reliant on him as a husband and father, she, like the rest of Australia, could see him as a hero too. Perhaps she would have been an affronted partisan. But perhaps as Henry was whitewashed, she was muddied, primarily due to Mary Gilmore’s angry memoir of Henry and Bertha written in the months after he died,22 as well as biographers casting Bertha as the vengeful, unstable wife who ruined his career by jailing him. I think she would have been equally affronted by those portrayals and recognised that her voice is now part of the literary hero’s, and the statue’s, story.
‘We’ve moved on from the nineteenth-century idea of heroism,’ Ginn suggested as he closed the panel. ‘That’s the key to the statues war. We don’t necessarily favour statues, we don’t necessarily favour possessive natures of authority and control. People talk about what else goes on.’ Today’s heroes, if they survive social media, are unlikely to be remembered in statues. I’m unsure how we are going to remember them. Hopefully in biographies that allow many voices. •
Kerrie Davies is the author of A Wife’s Heart (UQP, 2017) and is a lecturer at the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW
- Virginia Woolf, ‘The New Biography’, in L. Woolf (ed.), Granite and Rainbow—Essays by Virginia Woolf, Harcourt & Brace & Company, New York, 1958 , pp. 149–155.
- Nigel Hamilton, ‘Biography as Corrective’, in Han Renders, Binne de Hann and Jon Harmsma (eds), (The Biographical Turn ed), Routledge, New York, 2016, pp. 15–30.
- Hamilton., p. 15.
- Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, London, Granta, 2012  p. 9.
- Hamilton, p. 16.
- Hamilton., p. 18.
- Nigel Hamilton, ‘Revisionist Biography Today’, The Biography Society, 2 September 2016,
- State Records and Archives NSW. NRS 13495 Divorce Case Papers #4676 Lawson v. Lawson 1903.
- Frank Moorhouse (ed.), The Drover’s Wife: A celebration of a great Australian love affair, Penguin, Melbourne, 2017.
- Moorhouse, ‘Frank Moorhouse: Henry Lawson could be “a queer hero for all Australian kids”’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 2017, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/writer-frank-moorhouse-on-tracing-henry-lawsons-sexuality-20171023-gz6lam.html>. [extract from above book]
- Manning Clark, In Search of Henry Lawson, MacMillan, Melbourne, 1978.
- Lucy Sussex and Meg Tasker, ‘That Wild Run to London: Henry and Bertha Lawson in England’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 23, no. 2 (2007), pp. 172–84.
- Anna Makolkin, ‘Introducing a name-sign’, in Name, Hero, Icon: Semiotics of Nationalism through Heroic Biography, Mouton De Gruyter, Berlin, 1992, pp. 1–12.
- Lucy Sussex, ‘Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson; Mates that sustained him’, The Australian, 22 April 2017, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/untold-story-of-bertha-and-henry-lawson-mates-that-sustained-him/news-story/6eb4f45b8ec2ab2cf7bcb52aad490ccc>.
- Frank Moorhouse, personal correspondence, November 2017
- Patrick Deneen, ‘Desecration’, in Society, vol. 39, no. 6 (2002), pp. 48–52.
- Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson. Frank Johnston, Sydney, 1943. See also her earlier contribution ‘Memories’ in Bertha Lawson [daughter] and J. Le Gay Brereton (eds), Henry Lawson By His Mates, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1931, pp. 79–120.
- Rebecca Wiley quoting George Robertson appears in Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson: A Life, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1991, p. 147. Roderick cites the original source in private possession.
- Norman Lindsay, Bohemians of the Bulletin, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1977 .
- Barbara Caine, Biography and History, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010.
- Linda Wagner-Martin, Telling Women’s Lives, Rutgers University Press, New York, 1994.
- Mary Gilmore, ‘Personal History, Henry Lawson and I’ (1922), State Library of NSW, A 329, Dame Mary Gilmore Papers 1911–1954.