Paul Genoni reviews 'The Drover's Wife' edited by Frank Moorhouse

Paul Genoni reviews 'The Drover's Wife' edited by Frank Moorhouse

The Drover's Wife

edited by Frank Moorhouse

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.

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Published in March 2018, no. 399
Paul Genoni

Paul Genoni

Paul Genoni is an Associate Professor with the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University. He is a former President of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and author of Subverting the Empire: Explorers and Exploration in Australian Fiction (2004). With Tanya Dalziell (University of Western Australia) he is currently writing a social history of the expatriate community on Hydra during the time George Johnston and Charmian Cliftlived on the island (1955-1964).