Henry Lawson’s context
Before reading Lawson’s work, it is imperative to understand the world he lived in and the effect that his life experiences had on his writing. Many of Lawson’s characters had their basis in reality or contained aspects of Lawson’s personality. For example, Lawson claimed that the heroine of one of his most iconic stories, ‘The Drover’s Wife’, was based on his aunt, and that many of the incidents in this story had happened to his mother.
In addition, Lawson often used quite idiomatic Australianisms in his writing, and some of his phrases have found their way into popular usage – for example, note his use of the word ‘bogan’ in his 1897 story ‘The Blindness of One-eyed Bogan‘.
When Henry Lawson was born, there was no railway line linking the major cities in Australia. Australia existed as separate colonies rather than as a nation. There was no national flag or anthem, women could not vote and there were few laws protecting workers’ rights. Most people living in Australia saw themselves as British. Students need to understand how instrumental Lawson’s writings were in shaping our emerging sense of national identity.
Resources on Lawson’s life include:
- the Australian Dictionary of Biography, an online resource that can be used to explore Lawson’ s life
- ‘Henry Lawson – The People’s Poet‘, an article which traces Lawson’s political life
Timeline: Students can construct a timeline with important dates and events – these dates might go beyond Lawson’s lifetime if necessary. The timeline of Henry Lawson’s life that appears in the Australian Geographic magazine with associated articles can be used as a comparison.
Ten-dollar note: Students can find an image of the first ten-dollar note and consider what aspects of Lawson’s life and work it depicted and why his image would have been chosen for this honour.
On the current ten-dollar note there is an image of Lawson’s contemporary, Dame Mary Gilmore (1865–1962), the poet and socialist. Although famous in her lifetime and widely studied in schools, Gilmore is rarely mentioned today. Her radical views and her relationship with Henry Lawson have been the subject of much discussion, and students may wish to research her life briefly as it has many parallels to Lawson’s.
Researching the context
Australians have looked back to the end of the nineteenth century and seen it as a period that forged our identity. It was a time of idealism and there were enthusiastic conversations about democracy, equality, women’s rights and federation. It was also a turbulent time. Years of economic boom were followed by the Great Crash in 1891, which brought with it poverty and industrial unrest. And yet in this dynamic period, the arts flourished.
Fun with context
Students can recreate the vigour of the late nineteenth century. They can work in pairs or groups and conduct research into the following topics to present a one minute ‘sketch’ of their research in a creative format:
- as a poem or short acted presentation
- as a multimedia presentation of sounds and images
- as readings from extracts or inventions of texts of the time to convey the essence of the experience of the period
- as a news report
- as anything else they might like to choose.
- Australia in the late nineteenth century (What was the reaction of the colonists to the harsh landscape? Did much of the population still see themselves as British? What were the issues that concerned Australians at this point in history?)
- The shearers’ strikes of the 1890s (How was Lawson’s interest in the plight of the working class shaped by their reactions to the Depression and difficult industrial conditions?)
- Henry Lawson’s life (Could any of his characters be autobiographical? Where did he live, and how did this shape his understanding of the Bush? What made Lawson an unusual individual, and what challenges did he face throughout his life?)
- The Dawn and Dusk Club (Who did Lawson associate with?)
- The Bulletin (What was the purpose and audience of this publication?)
- Louisa Lawson (How did Henry Lawson’s mother influence his views about society?)
- The Eureka Stockade (What happened in this incident, and what does it tell us about Australians and their attitudes towards the British?)
- Larrikinism (What qualities were admired by Australians? Is there an ‘Australian’ character, and what attributes would such a character have?)
- The tall story and the tradition of storytelling around the campfire.
Personal response on reading the text
While the Billy Boils (first published in 1896) is Lawson’s best-known collection of prose writing, predominantly consisting of short stories and sketches that were originally published in newspapers and periodicals such as The Bulletin.
There are two series of stories/sketches. The first comprises 31 stories and sketches and the second comprises 21 stories and sketches.
Henry Lawson’s short stories are rich in their depictions of the Australian landscape and its people. They have been perennially popular due to their ability to capture rural life at a pivotal point in Australia’s history. The stories are a rich source of information for students because they:
- help define aspects of Australia’s cultural heritage
- use language and images in a descriptive and evocative manner
- provide historically interesting depictions of the Australian bush and its people
- use the conventions of realism (in stark contrast to the often romanticised visions of the land commonly presented in texts from this era)
- demonstrate a sympathy for the plight of the working man in a changing social world
- are written in a realistic and often dry style that came to be seen as quintessentially Australian.
The best way to engage with Lawson’s writing is by listening to a reading, which have to be selected carefully. This interview with Australian actor, Jack Thompson, on the ABC included a reading from ‘The Loaded Dog’, first published in 1901. ‘The Loaded Dog’ is not in the selection in While the Billy Boils, but it is very similar in style and rhythm to the stories to be studied.
- Students can just listen and enjoy the story, or
- after the story they can share with a partner what they liked.
- They can be given a transcript of the story and follow how the punctuation guides the reading.
- Students can practise reading other parts of the story to each other, copying Jack Thompson’s style.
- Students should consider the narrator’s voice and how this guides our understanding of the story. What unusual words or phrases does Lawson use, and how do these make the story uniquely ‘Australian’?
Students should take notes on:
- the vision Lawson gives the reader of the Australian landscape
- the characters’ views about their national identity and their role in society
- the roles of men and women
- the personality traits (for example, stoicism, endurance, independence) which are shown as being admirable, and why Lawson chooses to explore such traits
- the use of dialogue to convey a sense of characterisation and capture the distinctive Australian voice
- examples of Lawson’s use of imagery – look at the adjectives in the stories (there may not be many!) and examine how these images create a sense of atmosphere
- Lawson’s choice of setting – what themes emerge from the setting?
(ACELA1563) (ACELT1643) (EN5-3B)
Outline of key elements of the text
Genre: sketch versus story
Both ‘Stragglers’ and ‘In a Dry Season’ are sketches rather than short stories. The ‘sketch’ enabled Lawson to make the landscape and society the focus of his work, rather than attempting to portray individual characters or incidents.
- How do the sketch texts differ from the other two? What does using this textual form allow him to do?
- What is your response to Lawson’s sketches? Why do you think that Lawson himself declared that the sketch was ‘best of all’ and his favourite way to write?
- What is the purpose of a sketch?
Students should complete the following table (some ideas are included to stimulate discussion):
|Characteristics of a sketch||Characteristics of a short story|
|Often contains a clear climax and resolution|
|Conveys a strong sense of milieu|
|Often takes place over a short time period.|
|May involve characters who are archetypal or stereotypical; could contain brief descriptions of a series of characters|
An interesting sketch to read is ‘A Day on a Selection’. From the first lines (below) we are conscious that this is a sketch and not a story. Why?
The scene is a small New South Wales western selection, the holder whereof is native-English. His wife is native-Irish. Time, Sunday, about 8 a.m. A used-up looking woman comes from the slab-and-bark house, turns her face towards the hillside, and shrieks:
No response, and presently she draws a long breath and screams again:
- What attitude about the woman is Lawson conveying in the opening? Consider the few carefully selected adjectives.
- What comment on Australian life is Lawson making in this sketch?
Lawson’s characters tend to be archetypal in nature – that is, they are stereotypes and are used to explore aspects of the emerging sense of Australian identity. Although protagonists such as the Drover’s Wife appear to be three-dimensional and complex (especially given that their past history is explored through flashbacks), even these characters tend to represent aspects of the Australian psyche.
Given that Lawson’s prose was often first published in popular newspapers such as The Bulletin, students should consider how this would have determined his target audience. Why would the readers of such a publication (often diverse in nature, and often living in the ‘out back’) want to see realistic and often stereotypical characters?
As students read ‘The Drover’s Wife’ and ‘In a Dry Season’, they should consider all the minor characters and fill in the table below – the first example is done for them:
|Name||Occupation (if known)||Description of the character/s||Lawson’s opinion of the character/s (with evidence)||Role the character/s play in the text|
|The shearers (‘In a Dry Season’)||Itinerant workers moving between farms to shear sheep||They show ‘independence’, are friendly in their enquiries about other workers.||Respects their independence.||Presents a contrast to the unemployed labourers (they dress similarly, but demonstrate independence).|
Lawson often demonstrates a great sense of empathy towards the marginalised or impoverished characters in his stories (with the exception of the ‘bush liar’, who is described in a sarcastic tone, and the ‘sundowner’, whose unwillingness to work caused them to be treated with scorn by agricultural labourers). Students should consider how each character helps Lawson to develop a sense of atmosphere and realism.
Lawson as a poet
Students may conduct a search into Lawson’s poetry to see the breadth of his writing. (A good place to start is the Australian Poetry Library.) The poems could be used as a comparison with some of the stories. For example, the poems ‘The Drovers’ and ‘The Drover’s Sweetheart’ could be read against ‘The Drover’s Wife’ to gain a wider perspective of the life of the drover and his wife. Poems about urban life such as ‘Faces in the Street’ could be compared to the rural settings of the stories.
(ACELA1570) (ACELA1571) (ACELT1774) (EN5-3B) (EN5-6C)
Wiki, speed date and reflection
- On a shared wiki site for the class to access, draw a table with six columns.
- The table should have columns listing: title, sketch or story, setting, character, theme, interesting features.
- Assign each student a story or sketch that will not be dealt with in class.
- Students read their story and complete the table online. They then select a page or paragraph of their selected story to read aloud.
- Alternatively, students prepare to share the plots of their stories. Set up a ‘speed date’ where students have to share the plot or read a part of their story aloud to each other.Students sit in pairs and share, then they move on to the next person till they have shared stories with everyone.
The writer’s craft
Although this section refers closely to only four of the stories, the wiki activity in the Initial response section should have extended students’ knowledge of the stories and encouraged them to read more so they are able to gain an understanding of Lawson’s predominant themes and attitudes. While students read other stories and sketches from While the Billy Boils, they could consider the following questions.
- What personality traits does Lawson revere, promote or eulogise in his writing? (Consider stoicism, mateship, courage, endurance.) How does he do this?
- What weaknesses do the male characters often exhibit in their relationships with women? (You may wish to research Henry Lawson’s biography and his own experiences with marriage.) Explain your answer.
- What is ‘masculine’ about the lives of workers in the bush at the turn of the century? What image does Lawson wish to give the reader of Australian men, and why?
- How are issues relating to poverty or social class dealt with in Lawson’s writings? Who does he sympathise with, and how do we know?
- Does he make any negative comments about the land or people of Australia, and if so, what do you think the purpose of these comments is?
Setting and the effects of the landscape
A picture may be worth a thousand words . . . but Lawson could create images using only a few words!
Students should read through ‘In a Dry Season’ and draw the typical ‘railway town’ described by Lawson, based on the images in his prose. (The sketch actually begins with an instruction to ‘Draw a wire fence and a few ragged gums’!) Students can sketch some of the archetypal characters in the story, and label each character to explain the uniquely Australian aspects of their personality.
The short stories encompass a variety of rural settings.
- An isolated bush hut inhabited by a lone woman and ‘nineteen miles to the nearest civilisation – a shanty on the main road’. (‘The Drover’s Wife’)
- The ‘railway town’ – a small country town dominated by the railway station and pub, and populated by itinerant workers passing through. The town is said to be representative of ‘the bush all along the N.S. Wales Western line from Bathurst on.’ (‘In a Dry Season’)
- A sheep station which ‘belongs to a bank . . . the bank belongs to England’ where the workers live in shearing sheds. (‘Stragglers’)
- ‘His Country – After all’ is technically a dialogue between travellers on a coach in New Zealand. It does, however, present a vividly descriptive and often scathing description of Australia as a ‘big, thirsty, hungry wilderness, with one or two cities for the convenience of foreign speculators . . .’
Impact of the setting
It is interesting to consider each setting as a depiction of the characters’ disempowerment in the face of an overwhelming landscape. As you consider the differences between the bush hut, the railway town and the sheep station, take notes on:
- Who lives or passes through the setting? How long do they stay, and what is their purpose?
- How does Lawson emphasise the isolation of the setting?
- What perils or dangers are presented in the setting?
- What role does the setting or landscape play in the action of the story?
- How does the landscape behave like a character with whom the people in the story must develop a relationship?
- How has Lawson tried to create a realistic atmosphere in the piece you have read?
In his sketches, Lawson often focused on the harsh and inhospitable nature of the Australian landscape. Note his description from ‘In a Dry Season’:
Somebody told me that the country was very dry on the other side of Nevertire. It is. I wouldn’t like to sit down on it anywhere. The least horrible spot in the bush, in a dry season, is where the bush isn’t – where it has been cleared away and a green crop is trying to grow. They talk of settling people on the land! Better settle in it. I’d rather settle on the water; at least, until some gigantic system of irrigation is perfected in the West.
- What mood is created in this excerpt?
- What is wrong with the bush?
- What is the narrator’s attitude towards the land, and why is Lawson so scathing in his descriptions?
- What clues does this passage give about Lawson’s political values?
Language in Lawson’s stories
The scholarly edition of While the Billy Boils (published by Sydney University Press in 2013 and edited by Paul Eggert) notes that Lawson’s stories were often short and self-contained as they needed to be sold to newspapers (p. xxi). Although publishing constraints may have determined the length of Lawson’s pieces of writing, brevity and precision are the determining features of his style.
In While the Billy Boils, Lawson tends to use short, sharp sentences, sparse adjectives and honed-to-the-bone description. His style has often been seen as ‘typically Australian’, with its dry descriptions of the landscape. Looking at a few examples will help students to understand how Lawson develops a sense of tone and conveys attitudes through his writing.
Lawson was conscious of his stories being read aloud, especially the sections of dialogue. Part of his mastery as a storyteller is his ability to capture the spoken word with all its nuances and unusual structures. His sketch ‘Some Day’ is set around the fireplace with two itinerant workers talking. The sketch moves from a description of the two travellers telling yarns to Mitchell ‘in a sentimental mood’, sharing his story of lost love. His mate’s interjection leads him to share a heartfelt list of the trials of the life of an itinerant worker, offering a moment for Lawson to reveal his political views about the difficulties of workers.
‘I suppose,’ said Mitchell’s mate, as they drank their tea, ‘I suppose you’ll go back and marry her some day?’
‘Some day! That’s it; it looks like it, doesn’t it? We all say, “Some day.” I used to say it ten years ago, and look at me now . . .’
- Why is dialogue an effective way of conveying this strongly political perspective about work?
- Look at the way the comment of the mate is picked up by Mitchell. He moves from the pronoun I to we fluently. How do the different pronouns affect the argument he is making?
- How does Lawson use idiomatic dialogue to convey a sense of an Australian character/identity? (In other words, what is ‘Australian’ about the way that Lawson’s characters speak, and what does the reader learn about them from their interactions with other characters?)
Writing: Write your own dialogue, about a real or imagined event you regret.
Performance: ‘Mitchell: a character sketch’ is another sketch based primarily on dialogue. Students can work in threes, each taking a role (manager, Mitchell, cook), and read this aloud. They can then reflect on how the character’s status, personality and values emerge through the dialogue.
(ACELA1563) (ACELA1569) (ACELA1570) (ACELA1571) (EN5-3B)
Lawson’s use of language was for a uniquely Australian audience. Phrases in ‘The Drover’s Wife’ such as ‘blackfellow’, ‘swagman’, ‘shanty’ and ‘new-chum’ are all unique to Australia. Lawson’s prose thus helps to present a national language.
The celebration of stoicism and survival in a harsh, barren and desolate landscape: the inhospitable country in ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is described through sparse but vivid adjectives such as ‘stunted’ and ‘rotten’, and even the ‘ragged, dried-up-looking children’ are shown to be almost a product of the land. Flashbacks demonstrate the hardships in the wife’s life and her tenacious endurance.
Text and meaning
Humour in Lawson’s stories
Despite his seemingly negative tone, Lawson’s writing is also notable for its stoic and humorous attitude to life in the Bush. One of his most well-known stories, ‘The Loaded Dog‘ (first published in 1901 after While the Billy Boils), uses elements of farce in its portrayal of a dog whose natural desire to fetch objects results in chaos when he retrieves a loaded bomb cartridge and attempts to return it to his owners, chasing them around playfully as they flee in fear. (Read ‘That There Dog ‘o Mine’ in While the Billy Boils for another humorous sketch involving a dog – this time with a darkly ironic and grotesque twist at the end of the story.)
Lawson delighted in presenting his readers with eccentric characters whose long residence in the isolated Bush has allowed them to develop odd or unbalanced personalities. One peculiar character is portrayed in ‘The Bush Undertaker’ – a man whose curiosity about a dead body leads him to take human bones home and give them a rather unconventional funeral. Lawson often portrays the darkly comic consequences of loneliness and isolation through sketches which highlight the absurdities of rural life.
- Students should look for elements of humour and discuss how the humour is created: through the language, the characterisation or the circumstance.
Close reading: ‘The Drover’s Wife’
To undertake a detailed examination of one of Lawson’s stories from While the Billy Boils (‘The Drover’s Wife’) undertake a this close reading exercise.
It is a welcome if rare event to see poetry on prime television. The ABC’s Bush Slam is an attempt to put poetry front and centre in the Australian consciousness. If we believe that 19th century poets such as Henry Lawson and A.B. (Banjo) Paterson were representative of a golden age of wordsmiths then Bush Slam at least gives nerds an opportunity to enter our living rooms. And don’t we need it?
‘Absence of verse disrupts our rhythm’ The Australian. 2010
An event inspired by Lawson and Paterson was the Bush Slam competition filmed by ABC TV. Each episode was set in a different town with poets demonstrating the way they gained inspiration from the Australian bush. Lawson’s stories and poetry have also given inspiration to songwriters.
In this adaptation of a Bush Slam students have a choice to:
- adapt a story to a poem and recite it
- read an extract from a story or sketch as a performance
- write an original song or sketch (perhaps including aspects of Lawson’s life) and present this to the class
- explore a theme or issue which is presented in different Lawson stories and write a dialogue between two of Lawson’s characters (they can be from different stories), reflecting on their responses to this issue.
Students should first view an episode from the ABC series, discuss this and then work on their performances. All poetry slams have a voting sheet so students should develop their own set of criteria for marking. One of the criteria could include being true to the spirit of Lawson’s work.
(ACELY1754) (ACELY1756) (ACELY1776) (EN5-2A) (EN5-1A)
Ways of reading the text
Australia was still a series of colonies when Henry Lawson was born. While the Billy Boils was first published in 1896, shortly before Federation. Paul Eggert’s Biography of a Book (Sydney University Press, 2013) traces the history of its publication and is well worth a read if wishing to develop an understanding of the Australian publishing industry in Lawson’s time and the iconic nature of the collection.
Although the Eureka Stockade of 1854 – a significant act of rebellion against British imperialism – took place over a decade before Lawson’s birth, he was very conscious of its implications. In addition, Lawson and his mother Louisa (a remarkable writer in her own right) edited The Republican in 1877. This newspaper was strongly republican and pro-Federation, as was Lawson himself. (Louisa also edited a feminist publication, The Dawn, and its emphasis on the working classes and on women’s suffrage is interesting. Her views may have influenced Henry, who frequently demonstrates a sense of sympathy for the less fortunate members of his society. The Dawn is available on Trove, an online resource for Australian literature.)
Comparison with other texts
The tone of Lawson’s work is vastly different from the romanticised visions of Australia presented in other texts from the period.
Consider Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’ (printed on pamphlets which were distributed to the ANZAC soldiers to remind them fondly of home), a poem written while in England. Compare this to the grudgingly patriotic voice in ‘His Country – After All’. How does Lawson’s harshly masculine and realist vision of Australia contrast to Mackellar’s lyrical and emotive imagery?
Lawson was not afraid to vividly depict bush life as dreary, monotonous and perilous at times. You may wish to look at Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies (available on Project Gutenberg and first published in 1902, a teaching unit for which is also available here in Reading Australia). Her feminine voice and depiction of the hardships of bush life for women offers both similar insights and an alternative voice to Lawson. Both composers were contributors to The Bulletin and aimed to depict the hardships of bush life.
Evaluation of the text
The Bulletin debate
The differences in literary approaches to the bush were crystallised in the debate between Lawson and Paterson in The Bulletin, an argument consisting of duelling poems.
In 1892 Lawson walked from Bourke to Hungerford and back and it was then that he became very conscious of the hardships of bush life. On 9 July 1892, he published a poem in The Bulletin entitled ‘Up The Country’ (originally titled ‘Borderland’). In this poem Lawson attacked the typical ‘romanticised view’ of bush life, promoted by Paterson, beginning with the line ‘I am back from up the country – very sorry that I went . . .’
On 23 July 1892, Paterson published his reply to Lawson, entitled ‘In Defence of the Bush’. While Lawson had accused writers such as Paterson of being ‘city bushmen’, Paterson had countered by claiming that Lawson’s view was full of ‘doom and gloom’.
Students can work in pairs to find three examples of Lawson’s realism from his short stories and describe the same scene or situation from a romantic perspective. They can use lines or images from other texts they have found or write from their experience to counter Lawson’s view. They are then to share these with the class.
Lawson and patriotism
A British reviewer in the 1890s presented a negative view of The Bulletin, a magazine in which many of the stories in While the Billy Boils were originally published:
The delusion these writers labour under is trying to be too exclusively Australian, by which they come merely provincial. That a man’s lot should be cast in the wilds of Australia is no reason that his whole inner life should be taken up with the glorification of shearers or the ridicule of jackaroos. And a genuine Australian poetry can only arise when such matters fall into their true place and assume their relatively small artistic importance.
(The Australian Government’s cultural portal article on Henry Lawson)
How was Lawson’s depiction of country life an expression of Australian nationalism? The criticism of provincialism (implying that these works were only relevant to the people they described) is an interesting one.
An early Australian prime minister, William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes, once referred to Lawson as the ‘minstrel of the people’. How does the piece you have read relate to the concerns or interests of ordinary Australians in the time when Lawson was writing?
An Australian writer
This segment will refer to ‘The Drover’s Wife’ as an example of Lawson as an Australian writer, but students are encouraged to locate similar themes and ideas in the other stories.
A sense of identity
Characters define themselves as ‘Australian’ for perhaps the first time in history. ‘The Drover’s Wife’ originally contained the sentence, ‘Her husband is a native, and so is she’. The word ‘Australian’ was later substituted for ‘native’. Why do you think this change was made?
Surprisingly, Lawson was not always popular with Australian readers. In 1950, 28 years after his death, an article appeared in which his widow attacked Australian publishers and stated that the Russians were more generous about him. Some of the text appears below.
Widow of Henry Lawson attacks publishers
In a slashing attack on Australian publishers and booksellers, Mrs Lawson said that while her husband’s complete works could not be bought in Sydney ‘for love nor money,’ Russia was translating and publishing them.
Why might Lawson be aligned to communism and why might this have affected his reputation in the post-war period? (Consider his attitude towards the working classes, his sympathy with the unemployed and his willingness to advocate for the common people in his writing.)
Rich assessment tasks
Task 1: Modern appropriations
Women in Lawson’s stories
Note: This rich task can be used alongside the Close Reading of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ (PDF, 161KB) that appears in the Close Study section of this resource.
An interesting theme to trace through Lawson’s stories is the portrayal of women. ‘Henry Lawson – The People’s Poet‘ by Kay Schaffer gives a thorough background into this for more advanced consideration. In this task students consider the impact of Lawson by tracing the different iterations of one of his stories, ‘The Drover’s Wife’.
This story has inspired much creativity. Some of the appropriations and transformations of the story with the same name are:
- ‘The Drover’s Wife’: a painting by Russell Drysdale, c.1945
- ‘The Drover’s Wife’: a short story by Barbara Jeffries, 1988
- ‘The Drover’s Wife’: a short story by Murray Bail, Text Publishing, 1998
- ‘The Drover’s Wives’: a short film directed by Sally Richardson, 2008
- ‘The Drover’s Wife’: a short story by Mandy Sayer, 2008
- ‘The Drover’s Wife’: a song by Luke O’Shea, 2012
Students can trace the different appropriations of the story and reflect on how the story has influenced other people. They should consider to what degree the changing contexts have affected the way the character is read and understood.
Task 2: Class debate
Continue the debate between Paterson and Lawson over the romantic versus the realist view of the bush.
The class should divide into two, with half arguing Lawson’s images of the bush are too negative and full of ‘doom and gloom’, while the other half counters this, saying he offers realist portraits of a country struggling towards self-realisation.
Rich assessment tasks
As indicated in the ‘Unit suitable for’ section for this unit, activities are targeted at Year 10 students; however, they could also be used for Year 11 Unit 1 English if so desired. Each of the tasks below includes outcomes for both Year 10 and Year 11 Australian Curriculum: English courses.
Task 1: A scholarly opinion
You are a university scholar who has been asked to write an opinion column on the following topic: Which writer has made the most significant contribution to our understanding of Australian life in the late nineteenth century?
You have chosen to write about Henry Lawson, with close reference to two of his short texts from While the Billy Boils. The purpose of your response will be to persuade your audience that Lawson was the greatest of the early Australian writers and that his work is a rich source of information on colonial Australia.
In your work you may wish to discuss:
- Lawson’s realistic depiction of rural settings
- the importance of the sketch story and its ability to examine a ‘slice of life’
- the archetypal characters in Lawson’s stories and their uniquely ‘Australian’ characteristics
- Lawson’s use of Australianisms and the realistic tone of his dialogue (perhaps focusing on his unique use of idiom)
- the way that Lawson focuses on the hardships experienced by ordinary settlers as they struggle to survive in harsh conditions.
Remember that you will use persuasive language and techniques in your column, and should focus on a detailed analysis of Lawson’s merit as a writer. You should discuss Lawson’s continuing relevance for contemporary readers and the reasons behind his enduring appeal.
Task 2: A documentary script
Your task is to write the script for a documentary exploring Lawson’s portrayal of life in rural Australia in the late nineteenth century. The documentary will be part of a series called Australia’s cultural history: Learning from the past, and the target audience of your documentary will be senior high school students. As this is a task which is both analytical and creative, you are permitted to be slightly anachronistic in your response and include ‘archival footage’ from the 1890s. This footage could be imaginative in nature and demonstrate your understanding of the texts.
You should choose two texts as the focus for your response. Your response will be between 1000–1500 words in total.
The title of your documentary is Henry Lawson: Teller of truths. You will focus on how Lawson’s prose writing allows us to understand the making of modern Australia and its cultural history. The purpose of your documentary is to convince your audience of the importance of Lawson’s work.
Your script might include:
- short interviews with individuals who have read and enjoyed Lawson’s work
- descriptions of images of the outback, juxtaposed with a voice-over reading excerpts from Lawson’s stories
- a narrator of the documentary who has studied Lawson in depth
- excerpts from your chosen stories with an explanation of why they are significant.
Your script should include at least one of the following segments, which act as subheadings for you to arrange your information:
- The Australian people: heroes, pioneers and larrikins. (This segment would concentrate on Lawson’s use of characterisation and his focus on the Australian identity.)
- A barren wasteland of realism. (This segment would focus on Lawson’s realistic depiction of the harsh and forbidding Australian countryside. You may wish to describe a montage of images which link to Lawson’s use of setting.)
- Australian patriotism. (This segment could discuss the way that Lawson’s characters see their country and their grudging affection for it.)
You should set your task out using the conventions of a television script. The first lines of the documentary are provided for you:
FADE IN to a shot of wind blowing dust around a deserted landscape. CUT to a portrait of Henry Lawson.
NARRATOR: Welcome to our series on Australia’s Cultural History. Today, we discuss the work of Henry Lawson, the man whose honest depictions of life in country Australia at the turn of the century have . . .