Henry Lawson’s first publication was “A Song of the Republic,” which appeared in the Bulletin in 1887 and began his long relationship with that publication. His stories focus on a drought-stricken and desperate rural landscape, alleviated only by the solidarity and sense of bush honor of his male characters, illustrated most famously in “The Bush Undertaker” and “The Union Buries Its Dead.” This landscape is “no place for a woman” (the title of a Lawson story): Lawson’s female characters are frequently deserted by their husbands, who are forced to seek seasonal shift work, or who disappear on alcoholic binges. Necessity breeds female resourcefulness, Lawson spoke of the courage of women in the “land where gaunt and haggard women live alone and work like men,” but it also leads to unhappiness and even madness. His famous story “The Drover’s Wife,” in which a young woman defends her children against a snake, can be juxtaposed with the later “Water Them Geraniums,” in which desertion, isolation, and desperate poverty finally drive Mrs. Spicer to her death. These stories epitomize his style: realistic and born of experience rather than imagination, laconic and spare, and something like a “yarn” but also redolent of a cynical humor and a quiet pathos which seem to coexist in his stories.
In his lifetime Lawson was claimed by A. G. Stephens as “the voice of the bush, and the bush is the heart of Australia,” and his stories were immensely popular. Although Lawson’s adoption of the short story coincided with the flowering of the short story in England and Europe in the 1890’s, the movements do not seem to have been connected. Nevertheless, the interest in the short story indicates a desire to move away from the nineteenth century domestic novel, which had become the measure of literature during this period, with its emphasis on narrative causation reflecting a continuous and stable culture. For an Australian writer, in particular, the desire to deviate from a European literary model and establish a distinct voice and style would have pointed to the use of an alternative literary structure such as the short story.