His own publisher, George Robertson, described him as having “a very nasty temper”; Norman Lindsay once drew him about to hit a colleague with a cane.
These details and more are found in a new biography called A Wife’s Heart, which focuses on Henry’s wife Bertha – who had to bring up their two children by herself when Henry largely abandoned her.
A great writer and a terrible father, Lawson shows remorse and tenderness through the letters and poems that appear in this book – but also callousness, such as when he describes the women in his life as harpies and hell hags. Ever the poet, Lawson liked his alliteration.
A Wife’s Heart isn’t just about Henry and Bertha, however – it’s also about the author Kerrie Davies, who weaved her own struggles as a single mother into the book after realising just how much Henry’s world overlapped with her own. For example, when Kerrie found herself nude modelling at the National Art School to earn enough to raise her daughter, she couldn’t help but think of how the school used to be Darlinghurst Gaol – where Henry was imprisoned for defaulting on his child support.
Whether or not a biographer should meld their story with their historical subject’s is a bone of contention: some think it’s indulgent while others think it brave. Christopher Kremmer wrote a great piece about this for The Conversation – and since I can’t beat his effort, all I can say is that I personally found that Kerrie’s story helped breathe fresh life into Bertha’s and Henry’s world.
It also made me think about how much my own world connected with Henry’s. There was a time, for example, when I would drink every week at the Edinburgh Castle – not realising this was one of Henry’s favourite haunts.
Then there are Henry’s other favourite pubs that I have downed too many pints in – such as the Paragon at Circular Quay, The Lord Nelson in The Rocks, North Sydney’s The Commodore, as well as what is now The Blues Point Hotel. It was possibly the latter that Lawson referred to when he wrote: “We of the pub are mostly separated from our wives, and anything else (except beer) that makes life interesting. In certain stages of our sprees, which last through weeks, all women are either soulless or fiends with the tongues of hell-hags.”
Perhaps it’s a sign of my white trash upbringing, but I swear that last line could have come from Al Bundy.
Even if you’re not a history buff, single mother, Henry Lawson fan or fit into any other obvious target market for this book, A Wife’s Heart is worth reading. It’s beautifully written, down to earth and surprisingly moving – there were multiple times when I had to put the book down simply to take a breath. And if for some reason you don’t like it, you can always use it to inspire a Henry Lawson pub crawl.
A Wife’s Heart, published by UQP. $29.95.