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Literary life

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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.
H. Lawson

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.

Open page of old book with title Short Stories in Prose and Verse by Henry Lawson, price one shilling
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Inside cover page
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932004
Inside cover of a book titled Short Stories in Prose and Verse by Henry Lawson
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Inside cover page
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932006
Inside pages of a book with Content listing of prose and verses
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Content listing
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932007
Open pages in old book with text and heading Preface
Short stories in prose and verse - Preface
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932008
Open pages of old book with one page titled The Young Housewife's lament
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - The Young Housewife's Lament
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932009
Old book with pages open with text titled The Drover's wife
Short stories in prose and verse - The Drover's Wife
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932023
Old book open to pages of text in a book
Short stories in prose and verse/ by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932024
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932025
Old book with open pages of text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson.
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932026
Open pages of an old book containing text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932027
Old book with open pages of text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932028
Old book with pages open to text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932029
Printed image in old book of a lady holding a bowl and pouring water into the bowl whilst it sits on the table
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Woman pouring into bowl
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
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Digital ID: 
a5932059

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’.

Open page of old book with title Short Stories in Prose and Verse by Henry Lawson, price one shilling
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Inside cover page
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932004
Inside cover of a book titled Short Stories in Prose and Verse by Henry Lawson
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Inside cover page
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932006
Inside pages of a book with Content listing of prose and verses
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Content listing
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932007
Open pages in old book with text and heading Preface
Short stories in prose and verse - Preface
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932008
Open pages of old book with one page titled The Young Housewife's lament
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - The Young Housewife's Lament
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932009
Old book with pages open with text titled The Drover's wife
Short stories in prose and verse - The Drover's Wife
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932023
Old book open to pages of text in a book
Short stories in prose and verse/ by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932024
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932025
Old book with open pages of text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson.
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932026
Open pages of an old book containing text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932027
Old book with open pages of text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932028
Old book with pages open to text
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - open pages
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932029
Printed image in old book of a lady holding a bowl and pouring water into the bowl whilst it sits on the table
Short stories in prose and verse / by Henry Lawson - Woman pouring into bowl
Sydney : L. Lawson, [1894]
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a5932059

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 …

The larrikin

‘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.

The shearer

‘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.

This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of Curtis & Massey-Greene Families in recognition of "Faces In The Street" - St Vincent's Urban Mental Health Research Institute