Life in the Australian outback was an exceedingly bleak experience during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. An enormous, flat expanse of desert, it was not associated with the simple comforts of life most people take for granted. Henry Lawson’s short story “The Drover’s Wife” takes place in this austere environment, amid all the trappings of abject poverty. The “drover” of the title is a once-successful herder who has fallen on hard times (“the drought of 18 ruined him”), and his wife and four young children have had to adapt to this brutal environment without the benefit of his presence. The drover’s efforts at earning a living entail long absences from his family, and that his wife has had to endure these absences and adapt accordingly, while memories of the once-comfortable life they had remain:
“She is used to being left alone. She once lived like this for eighteen months. . . She finds all the excitement and recreation she needs in the Young Ladies' Journal . . .”
“The Drover’s Wife” tells the story of this wife and mother of “four ragged, dried-up-looking children” as they cope with the intrusion into their living space of a snake – a potentially deadly development that augurs ill for a woman who has already buried a child (“One of the children died while she was here alone. She rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying the dead child.”). Hers is a dismal existence. Lawson describes a shack that barely provides shelter, with its “rough slab floor” and “the wind, rushing through the cracks in the slab wall.” The drover’s wife has grown accustomed to this difficult life, but remains perpetually saddened by her fate. She has had to overcome the elements, including a flood that nearly destroyed what little they have and a bushfire that similarly threatened the family’s meager existence.
This brave independent woman has also had to learn how to protect herself and her family from the animals that can pose a threat to their wellbeing, which provides the basis for her measured response to the intrusion of the potentially-poisonous snake:
“. . . she fought a mad bullock that besieged the house for a day. She made bullets and fired at him through cracks in the slabs with an old shot-gun. He was dead in the morning."
In short, the drover’s wife leads a subsistence existence, completely lacking in creature comforts and, with the exception of a monthly visit from a brother-in-law and the occasional visits, sometimes unwanted, from strange passerby or from bushmen seeking work. Her plight has taken a toll on her emotionally, as Lawson makes clear in the following passage:
“She is hurt now, and tears spring to her eyes as she sits down again by the table. 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 here thumb through one, and her forefinger through another.”
Lawson’s protagonist is a sad figure who understands that people depend on her for their survival and that she has no choice but to continue to battle the elements and cope with the unremitting bleakness of her existence. She is brave and resourceful, but worn down and emotionally exhausted. "The Drover's Wife" is a story about human existence under difficult circumstances, and about the will to survive when alternatives may seem attractive.