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I loved to stroll about the town
With chums at night, and talk of things,
And, though I chanced to wear the crown,
My friends, by intellect, were kings.
– ‘When I Was King’, 1904
The first book
One shilling: that was the price of Henry Lawson’s first published book, Short Stories in Prose & Verse.
Louisa Lawson published it in 1894, having found commercial success with her second project, the women’s paper, Dawn, and used the paper’s press to print her son’s book.
An accident on the way to the binders saw a large number of pages blow out of the printer’s cart into York Street, and only 300 copies were saved. This rare copy is only one of 70 known survivors and now held in the Mitchell Library. Henry Lawson’s inscription to David Scott Mitchell (a noted bibliophile and collector of publishing curiosities) reads:
Dear Mr Mitchell,
This is my first book. Only a few copies were published, fortunately [as] I withdrew the book from publication. The book should be interesting as a curiosity in printing.
The poorly edited volume of 96 pages, printed hurriedly for the Christmas market, brought in little money despite good reviews. But the literary legend of Henry Lawson was gaining momentum.
The bohemian curse
Soon after the publication of his first book, iconic publishers Angus & Robertson contracted Lawson to publish a volume of his poems, In the Days When the World was Wide and Other Verses (1896), followed later that year by a collection of short stories, While the Billy Boils and Other Stories.
Both were critically and commercially successful, and the characters and their dialogue, which Lawson captures so brilliantly in his short stories, are some of the most poignant and captivating contributions to Australian literary history.
His reputation as a writer now established, Lawson took up a bohemian lifestyle that seemed ruled by alcohol and a lack of money. In a desperate moment, Lawson sold his copyright back to the publishers, which meant he received only a limited share of the profits.
Erratic with his writing, he fell into depression when he wasn’t working, and resumed drinking. In 1898 he entered a sanatorium for alcoholics and, on his release, settled back down to writing. Many of Lawson’s Bourke stories were written at this time and appeared in On the Track, published by Angus & Robertson in 1900.
… we nod and smile the social while, and we say we’re doing well,
But we break our hearts, oh, we break our hearts! For the things we must not tell.’
(‘The Things We Dare Not Tell’, 1906)
Literary life - truth and fiction
The first book - trials and tribulations
There’s always been controversy about Australian authors being published abroad, and even Lawson addressed it in 1894 when referring to his first book, Short Stories in Prose & Verse. His stated intention had been to publish ‘a collection of sketches and stories at a time when everything Australian in the shape of a book must bear the imprint of a London publishing firm before our critics will condescend to notice it’.
Years later, the poet and academic John Le Gay Brereton recalled meeting Henry Lawson in George Street on his way to the Public Library (now the State Library) of NSW with two copies of the book for legal deposit. At the time Lawson suggested that as ‘only one copy is really needed … you may as well have the odd one …’ adding that ‘my mother’s the hardest business man I ever met’.
Larrikins and lovers - Lawson’s gift for portraiture
His own home life, his experiences in the city and travelling in the bush, swagging, shearing and sharing stories, gave Henry Lawson a wealth of characters to write about. ‘His Father’s Mate’ and ‘The Drover’s Wife’ are just two such portraits, but the list continues …
‘Ello, Da-a-ave! How’s the fishin’ getting on, Da-a-ve?’
(‘The Loaded Dog’, from Joe Wilson and His Mates, 1901)
It could be one bloke’s comment today, as he ribs his mate about a less-than-brilliant idea involving an exploding cartridge, some appealing fish in a waterhole and a dopey but lovable retriever who chases a bunch of mates around with the lit cartridge in its mouth. The rollicking read is told like a fireside yarn and is a great picture of mateship.
The man in love
Then it dawned on me! I’d forgot all about proposing.
‘Mary,’ I said, ‘would you marry a chap like me?’
And that was all right.
(‘Joe Wilson’s Courtship’, from Joe Wilson and His Mates, 1901)
Lawson’s depiction of the hapless Joe Wilson, trying to court the woman he loves while encouraged and instructed by his frustrated mate, is a charming story, told by the character of the older Wilson, who now, as a married man, ‘knows all about it’. Love, mateship and loyalty are portrayed with sensitivity and humour.
‘Oh, I dreamt I shore in a shearin’ shed, and it was a dream of joy,
For every one of the rouseabouts was a girl dressed up as a boy’
(‘The Shearer’s Dream, 1902)
Shearers appear in many of Lawson’s prose and verse as he captures their lives, laughs, struggles and hopes to perfection. Listen to Australian actor Jack Thompson read Lawon’s poem ‘The Shearer’s Dream’ here.