One fine day, I came across to witness the great portrait of Henry Lawson at the New South Wales Gallery. The portrait held a description box, in which there is a brief mention of the story, The Drover’s Wife, to which I was intrigued to do online research but after my research I was certainly enjoyed and excited to share this classic Aussie novel with you all. Hope you will also enjoy!
“The Drover’s Wife”, the title itself is most interesting part of this post. It is a short, sweet, and lovely story from an Australian writer, Henry Lawson with the story line stating a mother’s commitment and sacrifice in the Australian outback. A nice and feel good story, in which the unrealised heroics of a mother attracts the reader’s bound to the story till end. In this post, I tried to summarize the story and also included some information about the themes used by Henry Lawson to make the story a classic.
The Drover’s Wife from Henry Lawson is a fascinating glimpse of Australian literature into the life of Drover’s wife, who lives in Australian bush in seclusion with her four children in an unforgiving and harsh land while her husband works as a drover away from home.
What is a day in the life of a drover’s wife (Australian Bush woman)? Drover’s wife is the woman and prominent character, whom you are going to meet in the Henry Lawson’s classic tale. Let us take a closer look at the story!
For the first time, the story was published in 23 July 1982 edition of the magazine, The Bulletin. Subsequently, number of prints has been increasing because of its popularity in the public. In addition, The Drover’s Wife was published in several of author’s collection and other anthologies. Also the story was adapted by the Australian Broadcasting Commission into a forty five minute TV version in the year, 1968. Again in 2016, the story was adapted by Leah Purcell as a stage play.
From the narration of the third person in the story, the story sets in an Australian rural outback and follows an Australian bush woman, well-known as drover’s wife instead of her original name. Drover’s wife lives in an isolated, small, wooden, and two-room hut with her four children: two boys and two girls, while her husband has been out on his work as a drover and droving off the sheep for past six months. The two-roomed house is built of round timber split floor slabs, stringy-bark, and slabs included with veranda and a big bark kitchen which seems to appear bigger than the house itself.
What about the bush? Bush is all around the house with no horizon, no undergrowth, and no ranges in a distance and consists of rotten, stunted native apple-trees. Closest civilisation is said to be nineteen miles away from the hut!!
The drover is an ex-squatter away from home on his work, to drive off the sheep for the past six months. His wife and four children are left in the hut alone at the rural outback.
One day, when the sun goes beneath the horizon and while the four children, who looks ragged and dried up, playing around the house, suddenly one of the children yells out, “Mother! Snake! Snake! Here is a snake!” The sun browned and gaunt mother snatches her young baby from the ground, holds on her left hip and dashes from the kitchen while looking for a stick and yelling out, “Where is it!”
As a reply, the eldest boy (sharp face and eleven years old) yells out, “Here! Gone in the wood-heap” followed by “Stop there Mother, I will catch the snake, stand back!”
Meanwhile, Alligator, the woman’s black, big, yellow-eyed dog of all breeds, gets free of his chain and starts chasing the snake, but disappointing the dog, the snake disappears by moving under the hut. How the dog is described? The dog is described as it is a kind of breed that hates all the living beings except the kangaroo like dogs. It attacks every living being from a flea to the bull, attacked several snakes in his lifetime.
Then one of the children yells out “Tommy, come here, or you’ll be bit. Come here at once when I tell you, you little wretch!” Tommy is one of the woman’s children grabs a stick, bigger than himself and tries reluctantly to swing at the snake but the snake misses it narrowly, instead the stick hits the nose of Alligator. The boys club acts immediately and skins the aforesaid nose. After a little struggle the boys struggled and chained up because they doesn’t want to lose him.
Later the drover’s wife asks the children to stand together aside near the dog’s shelter while she watches out for the snake. Also, she arranges a set-up of two saucers of milk by the hole near the wall in order to tempt the snake to come out. After an hour, the snake does not show itself. What does the woman do? Continue reading to know!
The mother realises that it is going to be dark and a thunderstorm is expected and thinks of getting the children inside the house. But at the same time she is also afraid of the snake thinking that it might come out a crack in the rough slab floor and trouble the children during night. So, she decides to carry armfuls of firewood and then takes the children into the kitchen. On the top, the kitchen is not in a good position with no floor and earthen one. It may called as “ground floor”. In the kitchen, there is a roughly-made, large table placed in the centre of the room. She makes some arrangements with the bed sheets and pillows she had to set up a bed type arrangement for the children on the kitchen table. Then, she gave supper to all the children and made all her four children to lay down on the table and sits down beside the children on the table, holding the firewood and close guard the children all night. Also, she keeps an eye on the wall, keeps Alligator beside her, keeps a club beside her, and to be awake whole night, she kept her favourite copy of Young Ladies Journal to read. As her dreams and hopes have been dashed, she founds her happiness and excitement in reading and seeing pictures printed in Young Ladies Journal.
During the night, Tommy suddenly raises a protest and says “he will awake all night and catches the snake with the club he has, which he kept under his bed clothes”. Tommy’s mother agrees to his protest. Meanwhile, the younger daughter starts complaining about the Tommy’s club, which is poking her and occupying her space in the bed while she sleeps.
Then Tommy replies, “Shut up you little –! D’yer want to be bit with the snake?”
Jacky shuts up.
After a pause, Tommy says, “If yer bit,”, “you’ll swell up, a smell, an’ turn red an’ green an’ blue all over till yer bust. Won’t he mother?” Then the mother says, do not frighten the child and asks both the children to go back to sleep.
Later, the two young children goes to sleep and around midnight, Jacky again complains of being squeezed. Here is the conversation between them that happened in that situation.
Jacky: More room is made for him. I am getting squeezed!
Tommy: “Mother! Listen to them (adjective) little possums. I’d like to screw their blanky necks.” While Jacky protests drowsily.
Mother: “There, I told you you’d teach Jacky to swear.” But the remark makes her smile. Jacky goes to sleep.
Tommy: “Mother! Do you think they’ll ever extricate the (adjective) kangaroo?”
Mother: “Lord! How am I to know, child? Go to sleep.”
Tommy: “Will you wake me if the snake comes out?”
Mother: Yes, Go to sleep now!
After sometime the children fell asleep but the mother still keeps on reading journal and sits sewing by turns keeping the dog aside. As the night goes on, she continued to be awake by recalling her past and hardships she faced in her past such as losing a child and carried that dead baby for 19 miles for assistance, time during which she fought a grassfire when her husband was out of home, time fighting a flood, trying to save a dam across the creek by digging a ditch for water to go around it. Her efforts failed, resulting in heartbreak and shame.
Though she is lost in her past, she still takes a glance round the floor and wall plate from time to time and whenever she hears a noise, she reaches for a stick. Meanwhile the thunderstorm hits on and the rushing wind cracks the slab wall, threatening the woman that the candle may blow out. Every flash of lighting resulting from thunderstorm giving the cracks between the slabs a look of polished silver while the thunder rolls and the rain hits the ground in torrents.
What does she do to protect the candle? She places the candle at a sheltered place on the dresser and covers the flame by wrapping the newspaper around it. While awaiting for the snake to emerge, the mother thinks of her past details in between, which includes the times battling cattle flu, uncontrollable crows, bullocks, and eagles, who have a strong intention to poach on her chickens, and also mentions about a drunken swagman who demands to feed him (the woman feeds the swagman and scares him away using her Alligator), how she makes her family look more attractive and then takes them for a ride along the bush track, how she maintains the uniformity of the surroundings in order to make sure her surroundings look same each day.
Basically, she is not a coward but her lifetime experiences and recent hardships shaken her mentally and physically. Presently, she has not heard from her husband since past six months that is the reason she is also worried about him. Now let us know a little about her husband, who is a drover and the couple’s marriage life.
Drover is originally from Australia and by nature, he is careless but a caring husband. He always thinks of his wife to take care of her and keep her like a princess but as he doesn’t have enough means, he couldn’t!! To have enough means, he leaves his house on work and whenever he gets a good amount of money, he use to give it to his wife. Also, he takes his wife on a trip to the nearby city, which he did earlier several times. He use to book railway compartments while travelling to other cities and book best hotels. He even gifted his wife a buggy to carry their young child but they had to sacrifice all of their comforts for being in crisis. What put them in crisis!? Here we go!
Initially, when the couple got married they settled in the rural Australian bush by looking after their remnants of flock. But the sudden calamity and drought drove their happy leading life into big question!! Because the drought changed their lives upside down! The drover had to sacrifice his remnants of flock and chose droving again. But he intends to shift his whole family to the nearest town or city when he earns enough money to settle down in a new place by droving. In the meantime, the drover’s brother, who keeps a shanty on the main roadside and use to offer provisions once in a month. On the other hand, the drover’s wife still maintains a horse, a sheep, and a couple of cows around her house. The brother-in-law (drover’s brother) also keeps these animals for sale one of the latter occasionally to gain some amount in order to satisfy her household needs and for his other provisions. He even never minded to kill those living beings in order to earn some money. In this way, she is being left alone for several times by her husband. Once she was left alone at the home for constant eighteen months. Since she is a girl, she use to have some girlish hopes and desires and built dream houses in the air but finally all her desires have been dead. Presently, she is taking recreation and pleasure that she need from the fashion plates of The Young Ladies Journal.
Coming back to our story, around two o’ clock during night, the candle flame wanes and starts burning slow. Even the Alligator feels sleepy and keeps looking at the wall drowsily by resting his head on his paws. In fact, the outward look of the dog is not that great and on the top the light of the candle is exposing all his hidden old wounds where there is no chance to grow his body hair. He is scared of nothing on the earth and always be on his toes to kill other fellow living beings, especially he hates snakes and killed many snakes earlier. For this reason, it is said that Alligator will be killed one day by the snake like the other snake-dogs end their life.
Now and then, the mother continues to do her routine work and thinks of her past, and watches, and listens. The rain, which is a result of thunderstorm makes the grass grow, seeing the thrived grass, the mother reminds her past gloomy incident happened when she fought with the bush fire. The grass was very dry and long which threatened her to burn out but she beat out the flames using a green bough and by wearing her husband’s trousers. Tommy got amused seeing his mother in his father’s trousers. In fact, he laughed at her mother like anything without learning the seriousness of the fire accident his mother has just gone through. For the children, the mother is harsh and takes her emotions casually because the mother is by nature conservative and does not show her love much on her children and husband though her heart is completely filled with her children’s and husband’s memories and love. As she never showed her love towards her children and husband outwardly, the children thinks that their mother is harsh.
Now she is hurt by remembering her gloomy situations she faced in her lifetime and sobbed by sitting again by the side of the kitchen table. In order to wipe the tears off her face, the mother takes up a hand-kerchief but she pokes her bear fingers into eyes instead as the hand-kerchief is full of holes. She realizes that her thumb finger has gone into one hole and the pointing finger into another. She snorts for her state of being incompetence and laughs for her ridiculous situations to the surprise of dog and even her very keen sense of ridiculous has made the bush men amused with the story.
Here she reminds of her cat who made her laugh! One day, she sits down to have a good cry and besides the old cat is rubbed against her dress and cried too. Looking at the cat, the mother had to laugh.
It is nearing morning, the mother realises that the candle is burning out and she is running out of candles in the house. Then she decides to get some wood to burn from the woodpile. But accidentally, she collapses the woodpile because just a day before she paid to the aboriginal man to construct a woodpile but the man builds the pile hollow, which is easily prone to break. Again she starts crying and tries to wipe her tears away with the same hand kerchief having holes.
Day light is nearing and suddenly the Alligator shows signs of interest (which includes bristling hair at the back of the neck and the battle-light is in his yellow eyes) towards the cracked wall, seeing that the mother understands his reactions and acts immediately to grab a stick.
A black, five feet long snake slithers out of the crack in the partition between the kitchen and the house. The snake moves slowly out of the crack about a foot and moves its head up and down. The dog still remains calm and the mother remains fascinated looking at the moving snake. The snake moves slowly a foot further, the mother slowly lifts her stick up. Alligator jumps over the snake to catch it but it misses, while the snake aware of the danger, sticks his head inside the crack on the other side of the partition and hurries to get its tail round after him. But in the meantime the Alligator acts smartly and snaps around the tail. Finally, he catches the snake and tugs it out eighteen inches. Again the dog gives another pull to bring the snake completely out of the crack. He breaks the snake’s back, crushes the head, and shakes it to death.
Besides, Tommy wakes up by listening the sounds made by the Alligator and soon after tries to help him in killing the snake using his stick which is kept under the bed clothes but Tommy’s mother refuses and holds him back. The snake’s back is broken at many places, head is crushed, and Alligator’s nose skinned again.
Now the mother lifts up the reptile’s carcass on the point of her stick and carries it to the fire and throws it into the fire. Then, piles on the wood and all the three, the mother, the eldest boy, and the dog watches the snake’s carcass burn. After sometime the mother lays her hand on the head of the dog and tries to calm down the angry light filled in its yellow eyes. The young children remains calm and goes to sleep. The dirty legged boy among her children wakes up and stares at the fire burning the snake. He also observes the tears in his mother’s eyes and throws his arms around his mother’s neck, says: “Mother, I won’t never go drovin’ blarst me if I do!”
Tommy’s promise implies that the hardships and difficult times faced by the Australian bush woman’s generation will pay off by fighting with the nature and allows the next generation to build a safe and secure lives for themselves.
The mother hugs Tommy to her worn out chest and give a lot many kisses. They both sit while the daylight breaks over the bush.