Henry Lawson’s short story, The Drover’s Wife, tells of the hardships regularly endured by the wife and mother of “four ragged, dried-up looking-children” during the one of the routine but protracted absences of her husband, a herder of sheep. Hers is a dismal existence. She and her husband and children live in a shack in the vast, empty expanse of the Australian outback. Lawson’s descriptions of that shack leave no question in the reader’s mind but that the drover and his family are desperately poor. References to “cracks in the slabs” that comprise the shack’s walls and, when applicable, the floors (“the kitchen has no floor – or, rather, an earthen one”) reinforce the impression of a family of little means. The Drover’s Wife also leaves no doubt that this is a woman accustomed to these hardships, but for whom the emotional toll of this existence may reach its limits someday. This existence includes minimal interaction with other human beings save for the occasional visit of a local bushman and the once-a-month visit of her brother-in-law. Protection from potential criminals is limited to the family dog and the broom stick she also uses to protect the chickens from eagles. When a snake crawls under the floorboards, she must protect the children while preserving her sanity. The setting for Lawson’s story is accentuated with telling details such as the following:
“She is not a coward, but recent events have shaken her nerves. A little son of her brother-in-law was lately bitten by a snake, and died. Besides, she has not heard from her husband for six months, and is anxious about him.”
Every facet of the drover’s wife’s life is another experience in deprivation. Two of her children were born “in the bush,” in one instance while her husband attempted to fetch the inebriated local physician. Her hardships included the death of one her children during one of her husband’s many absences. As Lawson describes it, “she rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying the dead child.” This woman has bravely administered the needs of home and family without the benefit of her husband, including enduring a flood and serious illness among the little livestock they still own. In one of the story’s more poignant moments, Lawson describes the wife as her begins to weep from a combination of physical and emotional pain:
“She takes up a handkerchief to wipe the tears away, but pokes her eyes with her bare fingers instead. The handkerchief is full of holes, and she finds that she has put her thumb through one, and her forefinger through another.”
The snake is eventually killed. The elimination of that threat represents merely the requisite activity of any given day in the life of the drover’s wife. She has no option but to continue on this way in perpetuity; such are the requirements of motherhood. She is brave, resourceful, and loving when time permits. One wouldn’t wish her existence on anybody.