Henry Lawson's softer side and his surprising love

While working on The Drover's Wife book I discovered, and I continue to feel, empathies with Henry Lawson as a person and as a writer, through parallels between his and my life which surprised me when they emerged as I researched the book.

I am not the first writer to ???nd parallels in his life with Lawson and to claim him as something of a soulmate (I do not quite see him as a soulmate) - Frank Hardy (1917-1994) stands out for having embraced Lawson as a personal socialist comrade. However, I want strongly to stress that these emotional parallels with Lawson did not motivate the creation of my book - the book was initiated by my curiosity about why, from all of Lawson's writing, it is The Drover's Wife short story that uniquely survives in our cultural life.

Well into the 20th century, Lawson was frequently proclaimed as our greatest writer and his face was on the first decimal $10 banknote and on a stamp and his name on parks and streets throughout Australia,

However, the biggest surprise from my research was to learn of Lawson's effeminacy, or feminity, which showed in the way he presented himself and, according to some critics, in his writing, and which was seen as a weakness. In his diary, unpublished in his lifetime, he identified this effeminacy in himself and his contemporaries confirmed it in published commentary at the time. One of his aunts said that because of his sensitive and delicate nature he "should've been born a girl". The abundant evidence about his effeminate nature is recorded in my book.

It was a stark departure from the image of Lawson which had come to many of us as the bushman, the celebrator of a rugged Australian bush mateship (but he was never comfortable in the company of the shearers and drovers he wrote about) and the public image of a man with an exaggerated, almost theatrically masculine, moustache.

It led me to wonder if this ever expressed itself homosexually.

I know of no suggestion or record - nor would I expect to ???nd it, given the inhibitions of the times - of Lawson having a homosexual life; that is, of having had sex with males or wishing to have sex with males. I am resistant to Manning (oh, oh the name) Clark's view of mateship as a form of "sublimated homosexuality". I do not accept the term "sublimated" and "repressed homosexuality", unless these terms are used by the person who feels that they are "sublimating" or "repressing", and a person's perceived gender characterisation often confounds lazy expectations: there are effeminate straight men and non-effeminate gay men.

But how did Lawson personally experience mateship?

Lawson had at least four romantically signi???cant but dif???cult relationships with women (but remember, some so-called effeminate men have heterosexual relationships with women). When young, there was the poet Mary Gilmore, who for a short time assumed they were engaged; a woman called Hannah Thorburn who Lawson romanticised as his "spirit girl" and to whom he wrote a poem; his wife, Bertha, who divorced him after six years; and, after his marriage had failed, Lawson found some stability in a dependent relationship, on and off until his death at 55, with Isabel Byers who was 20 years older, and supported him in many ways.

I was, then, happily intrigued by the appearance of Professor Gregory Bryan's recent book Mates: The Friendship that Sustained Henry Lawson. Until Bryan's book, no deep, close relationship of Lawson with a male had come to my attention.

Bryan establishes that Lawson, aged 25, found a singularly intense bond with the 17-year-old Jim Gordon, a relationship which stands out from the other relationships Lawson had with any male friends or mates.

Even if the face-to-face relationship covered only ???ve years of their lives, divided into two parts, it was perhaps the most intense bonding Lawson had with another person.

The relationship between Jim Gordon and Lawson began in 1892, when Lawson travelled to Bourke for the Bulletin magazine and met Jim. Jim described the meeting this way: "I had noticed this long-necked, ???at-chested stripling eyeing me off each time we passed and I noticed too that he had the most beautiful and remarkable eyes I have ever seen on a human being ... soft as velvet and of a depth of brownness that is indescribable ... Lawson eventually said, 'Hullo' and introduced himself."

Jim says they quickly found empathy. Jim was on the track looking for work many miles from home, and was, at the time, he said, "as homesick as a motherless calf". "Where are you staying?" Lawson asked. Jim told him he was, "living at a hotel but that my sugar bag was running low ... " "Lawson became animated ... and gripped my hand and said, 'Come and camp with me'."

Lawson and Jim "humped their blueys" together on the track between Hungerford and Bourke, about 450 kilometres. The walk should have taken them three weeks; it took them three months as they stopped at sheep stations and worked as rouseabouts.

From what I have read of their descriptions, this trek was for Lawson and Jim emotionally the most important time in their lives. I know that male life and trekking, sleeping together under the stars, can be especially bonding. However, later, back in Bourke after the trek, Lawson abruptly left Jim and went to Sydney.

There is no information on why they parted, but Lawson had other abrupt breaks throughout his life, a pattern of ???eeing from the demands of emotional relationships. They did, however, live in each other's minds, and in their writing (mentored by Lawson, Jim became a published writer too). Three years after their separation, Lawson wrote a poem called To an Old Mate which the evidence shows was written for Jim: "You may think for a while, and with reason, / Though still with a kindly regret, / That I've left it full late in the season / ... I can still feel the spirit that bore us ... / When the tracks lay divided before us ... / You will ???nd in these pages a trace of / That side of our past which was bright, / I send them along in the place of / The letters I promised to write."

"I can still feel the spirit that bore us" - they were not to meet again for 23 years. Given the evidence of Lawson's sexual attraction to women, if he did have a sexual relationship with Jim, he would today be described as bisexual, or perhaps bi-gendered (are we all bi-gendered to a certain degree?)

Both went on to marry and to father children. Jim's marriage seems to have been happy enough, and it survived; Lawson's did not.

In 1916, when Lawson was 49 and struggling with life, he was given a house and income in Leeton through the assistance of friends and the NSW government. Lawson had been given what we would now call a residency-fellowship to write about the great agricultural experiment with irrigation in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area of NSW (the MIA). Isabel Byers accompanied him.

It turned out that Jim was also in Leeton with his family, trying to make a go of a government-allotted, irrigated farm. Jim read of Lawson's arrival in the Murrumbidgee Irrigator. He sought him out and they met. They immediately bonded again as mates - Lawson used the expression "re-mated". Each day they spent more and more time with each other, camping together for days, away from their homes, on the Murrumbidgee River. Jim records that they spent their time talking and drinking. Jim's wife, Daisy, became jealous, but their kids loved Lawson.

Living with Isabel had also become acrimonious. Perhaps she, too, was jealous of Jim. After a year and a half, Henry could no longer stand small-town Leeton (and its alcohol prohibition) or the publicity work he was expected to do. Lawson abruptly left for Sydney; he didn't even pack his things or say goodbye to Jim. Another abrupt departure.

I talked with Bryan about the physical nature of their relationship. Jim recalled that they "talked and talked", and that Henry and he would walk arm in arm or "holding hands". Sometimes they walked and talked in the moonlight. They were "loath to part" at the end of each day. Bryan quotes Jim's poem When Lawson Walked with Me: "Henry gripped my ???ngers tight" and "linked arms with me".

Lawson wrote that the pet name he used to call Jim from the days of the trek, "surprised and disturbed" and caused "distress and pain" to Jim's wife Daisy. I would love to know what the name was. Bryan said to me that he found a line in By the Banks of the Murrumbidgee, written by Lawson shortly after the 1916 reunion in Leeton, particularly thought-provoking: "We first met in Bourke some 25 years ago, and thus we share two pasts, so as to speak; but we were very young men then, those pasts are boys' pasts; and being but recently re-mated we haven't got to speak of those pasts yet. There's a certain shyness about the matter, if you understand, which may or may not deepen as those 25 year pasts are cleared up".

The story Bryan tells is one of deep male bonding and of what seems to be the happiest relationship Lawson ever found. Lawson's daughter, Barta (originally Bertha), said that, "Dad loved Jim very much. And Jim loved him ... Dad said, 'After all, I think he's about the best thing I ever did'."

If he were alive today, Lawson may not be as destructively con???icted about, and disturbed by, his effeminacy and may be bolder in his assertion of implied self which it might have expressed. Lawson's moustache may have, to his surprise, made him more attractive to some gay men.

Who knows: he may yet become a hero to all Australian queer kids, or the broader LGBTQI movement. I argue that Lawson belongs just as much with this movement as with any of the sentimental nationalist and political movements which have, over the years, claimed him.

I, too, had a crucial bonding with an older man, which began when I was 17 and he 27. From the beginning, the relationship was sexual - my ???rst - initiated by me. We lived together for a few years and he was an important mentor and our relationship continued on and off through my life for 50 years. We both went on to marry; in his case, he had children and his marriage has lasted. My only legal marriage, to my high-school girlfriend, was unsuccessful although we have remained in contact.

Back in Sydney when he returned from Leeton, Lawson was repeatedly hospitalised for alcoholism and mental illness, and, at times, he left Isabel and became a street itinerant. Jim and Lawson kept in contact by letter and Jim would visit him in Sydney, where they would go on drinking sprees. Jim visited Lawson in hospital after he had had a stroke and brought him his favourite foods. In 1922 Lawson returned to Isabel and died in her home in Abbotsford, aged 55.

After Lawson's death, Jim wrote: "The stars have never seemed so bright / Since Lawson walked with me."

On the evidence, Lawson struggled with the conventional masculine role and, I believe, the unresolvable inner tensions of his sexuality. I speculate that his effeminate personality contributed to his abuse of alcohol, which can be both a relief from and, a form of, emotional absence within a relationship.

Some inklings of this were in Lawson's poem The Wander-Light, written in his diary in 1905, when he was 38: "For my ways are strange ways and new ways and old ways / And deep ways and steep ways and high ways and low; / I'm at home and at ease on a track that I know not, And restless and lost on a road that I know."

I think Lawson was saying that he was very much alone, inside his femininity and the solitary, isolated inner life of writing even when there was public acclaim. I even speculate that Henry Lawson was the drover's wife who lived in her own isolation surrounded by threat.

Maybe he was also af???rming his exceptionalism. The words were addressed to his conventional world and expressed, in a defensively superior way, his separateness.

And, in our history and literature, Lawson is exceptional.

This is an extract from The Drover's Wife edited by Frank Moorhouse which is published by Knopf on Monday at RRP $34.99.

This story Henry Lawson's softer side and his surprising love first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.