I think that the happiest time in a man’s life is when he’s courting a girl and finds out for sure that she loves him and hasn’t a thought for any one else.
– ‘Joe Wilson’s Courtship’, from Joe Wilson and His Mates, 1901
Romance vs reality
What was Henry Lawson like as a young man? Tall, slender and good looking with remarkable eyes – and although he was shy, lacking in self-confidence and very sensitive, he still had considerable powers of attraction.
In 1895 he’d met Bertha Marie Louise Bredt, the daughter of radical feminist and boarding house proprietor Matilda (Bertha) Bredt and step-daughter of W.H. McNamara, owner of a well-known socialist bookshop in Castlereagh Street, as well as the sister-in-law of politician Jack Lang. Their courtship was short and intense, and even though Bertha had been warned about Lawson’s drinking habits, they married impulsively on 15 April 1896.
But Lawson’s money problems only increased with marriage and, as he continued his carousing ways, he failed to keep publishing commitments and was forced to live on his meagre earnings from selling stories and poems to the Bulletin.
Wedded bliss was short-lived and Bertha tried to get her husband away from his bohemian companions. The couple went to Western Australia and then to New Zealand, where their son, Joseph (Jim), was born on 16 February 1898. The New Zealand move was not a success and the pair returned to Sydney, where Lawson resumed his old ways. Their daughter, Bertha Louisa, was born two years later, on 11 February 1900.
After 12 years of working as a writer in Australia, Lawson claimed he’d only earned £700 in total.
In ‘Pursuing Literature in Australia’, an article published in the Bulletin in 1899, Lawson blamed the small Australian market, which he felt had denied him the chance of living by his writing alone. Believing London could offer that chance, Lawson sought help to raise the fare from two high-profile public benefactors – Earl Beauchamp, the Governor of NSW, and book collector David Scott Mitchell. On 20 April 1900, he left for England with Bertha and their two children.
He had some literary success – Blackwood & Sons took two books, The Country I Came From and Joe Wilson and his Mates, and Methuen & Company published a book of prose and verse, Children of the Bush.
But it wasn’t the dream they’d imagined. Lawson soon began drinking again and Bertha became seriously ill, so the children were placed in temporary foster care while she was hospitalised. Barely able to pay the bills, Lawson was writing under duress.
By the time the family returned to Australia in mid 1902, the marriage was over and, in March 1903, Bertha Lawson obtained a legal separation from her husband.
Lawson started writing his autobiography in 1903, and while his recollections are invaluable, it was a difficult time to be reminiscing. Lawson was only 36, yet his literary failure in London was a setback from which the author never fully recovered.
When I have served the selfish turn
Of some all-worldly few,
And Folly’s lamps have ceased to burn,
Then I’ll come back to you.
[‘The Way of the World’, 1900]
Marriage, money and moving around - the author’s struggle
London and Sydney - the trouble with money
Lawson’s appeals to Earl Beauchamp, Governor of NSW, and book collector David Scott Mitchell for his fare to London were not his only applications to acquaintances and friends for money.
After his return to Sydney in 1903, Lawson spent time in and out of Darlinghurst Gaol over the next several years, applying frequently to others for loans or requesting payment of debts.
Son of the South - ‘A fragment of autobiography’
Between 1903 and 1908, Henry Lawson wrote parts of his autobiography in a two-volume manuscript, ‘A fragment of autobiography’, which is now held in the Mitchell Library. The narrative begins with his earliest memories and goes on to discuss his first publishing experience. It’s an honest and fascinating insight into the troubled writer’s life.