I have just been an article by Kerrie Davies’ about her new book A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson (UQP) and I find myself asking the question, ‘Is the work of a writer of genius worth any less because of flaws in his or her character?’
We know that many of our most famous writers were flawed human beings (as indeed we all are in some way). Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter and many others were notoriously alcoholics, manic depressives or just plain grumpy. George Robinson of Angus and Robinson, Henry Lawson’s publisher, is quoted as saying ‘I knew Henry even then (before he married Bertha) was a confirmed drinker: had at times a nasty temper, and all the other things that go to make a genius hard to live with.’ However, is it not because of their tortured souls that their writing is so powerful and speaks so directly to us.
It appears that Bertha was given plenty of warnings, but went ahead and married Henry in secret, in defiance of her mother, George Robinson and other colleagues. It is pointless ask ‘Why did she do it?’ She was in love with him, and he with her. They were consenting adults. Even after the marriage had broken down irretrievably Bertha would not malign Henry, especially in front of their two children. She never remarried and asked left instructions that she was to be buried in the same plot as he was, thirty five years after he died.
Although they never met the two women, Bertha Lawson and Clara Saunders, have much in common. The Lawsons were married in 1896 when Bertha was nineteen and Henry twenty eight. Clara married Arthur Williams in 1894 when she was sixteen and he was twenty eight. Both women died in 1957, having outlived their husbands by many years and brought up their children, single handedly, in extremely difficult times. There were no social security benefits to help them and they relied solely on their own intelligence and a lot of hard work. Henry Lawson and Clara’s friend, Dryblower Murphy, were contemporaries, competing for places in the newspapers and anthologies being published at that time. Dryblower Murphy was the most famous of the Coolgardie bush poets and Clara was a great fan of the poems and stories of both men.
I’m sure that if Clara and Bertha had ever met they would have had a lot to talk about.