The Drover's Wife
Knopf, $34.99 hb, 381 pp, 9780143784821
In this collection of more than thirty pieces of fiction, journalism, criticism, academic papers, and ephemera (acceptance speeches, parliamentary questions, university course outlines), Frank Moorhouse gives evidence of, and attempts to explain, the durability of Henry Lawson’s classic short story ‘The Drover’s Wife’ in Australian cultural life. Moorhouse’s interest encompasses not only the persistence of Lawson’s story, but also the many ways in which it has lingered by being constantly reinvented – both reverently and otherwise – to the point where he declares that it has become ‘a phenomenon unique in the Australian artistic imagination’.
Leaving aside Moorhouse’s calculated overstatement, we can accept that from its publication in 1892 ‘The Drover’s Wife’ was destined to be more than a straightforward condensation of Bulletin-era realism or a frequently anthologised utterance from Australia’s bard. Lawson’s story ticked an unreasonable number of boxes in terms of making literature from the Australian uncanny. It describes distance without end, days without change, and isolation without relief. It deals with a woman’s lot, an absent father, perishing dreams, violent death, the Indigenous ‘other’, a dog called Alligator, and the most Freudian of snakes. This is a load for any 3,000-word fiction to carry, but even today (or perhaps more so today) the reader is struck by the story’s remarkable economy. It conveys the themes with an efficiency that can seem almost inconceivable at a time when these themes come burdened with the accretion of over a century of theory, appropriation, disputation, and fashion.