Monday, 29 June 2015

Book Review - Louisa by Brian Matthews

Louisa by Brian Matthews

Melbourne: McPhee/Gribble, 1988                                             ISBN 0140108645

Other books consulted in the course of writing this review -

The first voice of Australian Feminism : excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 188-1895 by Olive Lawson
Sydney: Simon & Schuster Australia, 1990                                  ISBN 0731801377

Henry Lawson by Stephen Murray-Smith [Australian writers and their works, no. 4]
Melbourne : Lansdowne Press, [1962]

The lonely crossing and other poems by Louisa Lawson
Dubbo, NSW : Review Publications, 1986 (facsimile of first edition published 1905)
                                                                                                    ISBN 0909895600

While Henry Lawson is a household name in Australia due to his poems and stories, it is less well-known that his mother Louisa also wrote and published poetry and prose. She may be slightly more well-known as the publisher of the first Australian magazine to be produced entirely by women, The Dawn. She may be even better remembered as one of the founders of the Women's Suffrage movement in New South Wales. She would be almost unknown as the post-mistress of Eurunderee, whilst at the same time holding a selection of land.

Her story is truly an astounding one - like many other rural women in Australia in the mid to late 1800s, she led a life of poverty, sadness and hardship. Unlike any other woman, when she arrived in Sydney she used her boundless energy to involve herself in many causes, and to set up a magazine that became a beacon for women's issues, and was a successful business until she shut it down in 1905.

Unhappily married to a husband who was eternally hot with Gold Fever, her early married life saw her drift from place to place, wherever the "rush" was on. Even when Peter took a selection of land, his wandering didn't stop, so it was up to Louisa to try and make money, hence her move into the post office, and other schemes that did more-or-less well. What she did do during those years on the selection was a lot of thinking about women and their lot in the way Australia was run, and in how Australians lived.

When the selection finally failed (Louisa ended up giving it away in 2 acre lots as an incentive to subscribe to The Dawn), she moved with her children to Sydney, where she first set up as a boarding-house mistress. She had an interest in literature and spiritualism, and quickly began creating networks within those spheres. Louisa, along with some others, began a newspaper called The Republican, which as its name suggests tapped into the upswell of such feeling in the 1880s. It did not last long, but it was important in several ways - it gave Louisa the knowledge of how, and the confidence to, run her own journal; it gave Henry an outlet for some of his early material and gave him some inspiration in and of itself (The Cambaroora Star is surely based on his printing experiences), and finally it taught Louisa how to run successful campaigns in the press (or at least learn from unsuccessful ones).

In fact Louisa had from an early age, despite the discouragement of her parents, been writing poetry, and many of the pages of The Dawn were written by her. Her views were often forthright, and her actions backed her words too - she faced down the NSW typographical union when it tried to close down her paper by declaring women unable to run printeries - she fought against both government and unions at the same time to support women in their struggle for equality.

Her bad fortune continued along with the good - the struggle for the vote was successful, and The Dawn did well, but, after being knocked over by a tram in 1900 and spending almost a year recuperating (her daughter Gertrude ran The Dawn in her absence), the spark seems to have left her life. In her past, often after childbirth, she descended into what today would be called depression, but after the accident it seems her character changed in a more permanent way. In 1905 she decided to close The Dawn, and she spent the rest of her life in Sydney in straitened circumstances, until developing senility saw her into a mental hospital in her last year. By the time she died she was almost forgotten, with the obituary in The Bulletin stating "Mrs Louisa Lawson, the mother of Harry Lawson, died the other day at the ripe old age of seventy-two. Once upon a time Mrs Lawson edited a paper called The Dawn and took a prominent part in the demand for woman suffrage. Since that day twenty years ago, Mrs Lawson has faded from the public eye."

Her children had battles with their own demons - Peter was hospitalised more than once for mania, as was Charlie, and of course Henry's battles with alcohol have been well documented. Matthews, in Louisa, shows the difficult relationships Louisa had with her children, who all struggled in one way or another under her dominating aura.

In fact Matthews' book is - despite its quirks, which are many - a very good biography, as attested to by it winning both a NSW and Victorian Premier's literary award, among other prizes. He manages to expose all the facets of Louisa's life, except perhaps the personal, with an engaging clarity for most of the time, and manages to get across the bustling purposefulness of her character, which makes her later decline all the sadder.

Matthews' quirks though, I am sure, put many readers off. They do get less instrusive as the text gains momentum, and while they might seem radical, actually get in the way of the book on more than one occasion. The book starts with a beginning entitled "notes on an alternative text", where Matthews chronicles his difficulties dealing with the life material of Louisa, of which much cannot be verified to academic standards. As Matthews is an academic, this issue dogs him, and so he comes up with an 'alter ego', Owen Stevens, who will write about and discuss these parts of Louisa's life, while Matthews 'the biographer' sticks to the facts. This little postmodern trick doesn't really do the book any favours - both the biographer and Owen Stevens end up dealing with the same material, and their voices merge, as the distinction between verifiable fact and hearsay merge in the telling of the life. Matthews obviously has an issue with the idea of a writer of biographies interposing him or herself into the life they are writing, but his approach to the book doesn't solve that problem, and in fact doesn't really answer any questions at all. At one stage he disparages non-academic biographers, but I think if he had gone down the path that such a biographer would have taken with this material the book would have been a little less disjointed in its earlier sections. If Matthews felt he couldn't trust himself to interpret the evidence, both hard and "soft", and create the biography using his critical faculties, why, the reader might ask, did he attempt it in the first place?

Thankfully, after a few frankly silly asides from Owen Stevens (a short story and book of a musical), the 'alter ego' calms down and for most of the middle section of the book the reader would be unaware of the shift in authorial voice if it wasn't marked out in the text. Early in the book Matthews states his aversion to biographies that set the "mood of the times" because they don't have enough personal material to work with, and he is successful in placing Louisa in context without expanding too much into general history. The sections of the book that deal with Louisa's time in Sydney are on the whole better than the earlier section, and this could be due to the fact that Matthews has more "facts" he can draw on in this public phase of Louisa's life.

Matthews does in fact seem reluctant to draw many conclusions from anything other than documented fact or prose writing by Louisa herself. Therefore he has little to say about her personal life. She was estranged from her husband for many years before his death in 1888 (when Louisa was 40), and while Matthews often mentions her striking looks his speculation about her engagements with the opposite sex ends with some remarks about some of her poetry.

He devotes a section of the biography to Louisa's poems, and notes that a true woman poet was a rare thing at the time, and Louisa's verse is no worse than, and quite often much better than, a lot of other verse published at the time. Louisa had corresponded with Henry Kendall until he died (she formed a committee that successfully gathered money for a memorial to him), and much of her verse exhibits a connection to him and his style, and that of much of the early Australian verse tradition. Most of her poetry is in simple metre, ballad form or rhyming couplet. The subject matter though is very much of a piece with the rest of Louisa's life

- careworn unhappy women who would welcome death -

In ground that is hallowed let happy folk lie,
But give me a grave in the bush when I die.
For have I not lived, loved, and suffered alone?
Thus making it meet that my grave be unknown
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
The sound of the stockwhip away on the hill.
Ah God! It is day, and I'm suffering still!
(from Lines written during a night spent in a bush inn)

- Lonely mothers who are the only source of life for their children -

But because thou lovest me,
For thy sake I'll fight us free
From this deadlock of despair,
From this hell, to heav'n, I swear!
(from Light in darkness)

- Reflections on the work for equality -

We lead the way, we lead the way,
We rise alert to meet each day,
We turn the sod, we stir the pool,
We point the way to those who rule.
(from The reformers)

- a mother's love for kin (and Louisa's dislike of tobacco) -

Oh, my boy, come in, do,
You are back at last;
Years since last we saw you -
How the time has passed!
Felt that you were coming,
So I wrote to Bob;
He says things are humming,
And you'll get a job

Now, dear, don't come near me,
You're all over dust;
Can you smoke? Oh, dear me,
If you really must.
(from Back again)

- the lustfulness and mercilessness of men toward women -

I wooed her in delicate fashion,
Then sullied her soul with my lust;
I poisoned her life with my passion,
And murdered her beautiful trust.
(from To a libertine)

- her hatred of alcohol (Louisa promoted and agreed with the aims of the Temperance movement) -

I take from its kind the brightest mind
And make it with idiots link;
And oft I fly on the gallows high
A grim effigy done by Drink

I curse the lives of innocent wives
Who could never know ought of me;
But what care I for their blighted lives
Nor the terrible wrongs I see?
I curse the land, and I curse the sea,
While the poets my praises sing;
And Satan is wrath; he envies me
All the souls of the saints I bring.
(from The song of Bacchus)

- the madness of Gold Fever -

When you have sunk a score of holes,
And drove a hundred more,
And every belssed one has been
Worse than the one before;
(from "Another for the Queen")

- There are some more personal verses too, of love lost perhaps? -

We will part now for every, you and I,
With a frozen smile and a faint good-bye:
We will part just here while our new love dies,
But tho' you are taking all else away
There is one rare jewel must say you nay -
It is mine, all mine; it is mem'ry's prize.
(from "So many a deed of wrong for right is meant.")

I plucked my love while in its virgin beauty
And memorised it, for I was afraid
That it might warm to lust or chill to duty;
Or change to hate, or suffer blight and fade.
(from Renunciation)

But she to the right turned, and he to the left,
Still keeping the course pride and anger had cleft.
Which led o'er the breakers of passion and pain
Far out o'er teh wide sea of "never again,"
(from Divided)

- and sometimes she was writing a nice lyric -

I love at eve to wander
Alone upon the hills
(from Sunset)

You can see from Louisa's verse where and how Henry developed his verses, and perhaps if the times were different in the late 1800s in Australia it would be Louisa rather than her son that we would be celebrating.

Louisa Lawson is an Australian worth knowing more about - Louisa is a good place to start.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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