State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002

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From the Editorial Chair

Henry Lawson lived most of his life in Sydney and it was there that most of his work was written and published. The Melbourne publisher, T.C. Lothian, has the distinction of being the only Australian publisher outside Sydney to have published books by Lawson in his lifetime. It was not a happy association between the young publisher, just starting to build up his list to which he hoped to add the name of Australia's best-known writer, and the famous but distressed writer, then going through one of the darkest periods of his life. In this issue of The La Trobe Journal Cecily Close describes Lothian's publishing activities over the period of the association, providing a context for John Arnold's detailed account of what happened between the signing of the initial contract in 1907 and the appearance in 1913 of the two volumes, Triangles of Life and Other Stories and For Australia and Other Poems.
The archives of publishers, which are historically very interesting — as well as being very revealing of human nature! — are not always preserved. Fortunately, Thomas Lothian did preserve the records of his firm's activities, and had the foresight to deposit them in the State Library. The very circumstances that made Lawson so ‘difficult’ — in Lothian's eyes — produced a mass of Lawson items which are of great interest. Instead of the completed manuscripts ready for copy editing which Lothian was expecting, Lawson sent his publisher a disordered mass of manuscripts, some no more than scraps or rough notes, mixed up with personal papers, including letters from his estranged wife and receipts for alimony that he had paid. This material was unknown to Lawson scholars until the 30-year restriction, which Lothian had requested, ended in the mid-1970s.
In October 1981 John Arnold and Frances Thorn edited an issue (No. 28) of this journal (then called La Trobe Library Journal) devoted to the Lothian Papers. Along with previously unpublished letters of Bertha Lawson and three prose items by Lawson, the issue contained a detailed checklist of the Lawson material. It was a substantial contribution to the public discussion of Lawson, providing some important biographical detail and drawing attention to unpublished manuscript material, including items thought to have been lost.
The Lothian Papers are an essential source for the study of Lawson. Twenty years after the first occasion on which an issue of this journal was devoted to the collection, we are again focusing on it. With the intention of making it more accessible, and indicating the kind of interest that it holds, we have transcribed several manuscripts, in which the writer can be seen at work. These include the original version of ‘A Child in the Dark, and a Foreign Father', one of Lawson's most memorable stories, and one which occupies a significant place in the course of his writing life. Another item of special interest is the damaged manuscript of ‘Lawson's Fall', which is not only a sad relic of a troubled life but also an insight into the way he tried to deal with the memory of the most desperate act of his life.
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Although much has been written about Lawson, there are still considerable gaps in our knowledge — and even larger gaps in our understanding — of aspects of his life and work. Two items from the Moir Collection have been included here because of their biographical interest. The notes by Lawson's friend and fellow-writer, E.J. Brady, are possibly franker than anything in his published articles on Lawson. The memories of bookman Harry Hodges, a young bookseller who encountered Lawson in his declining years, and the Will Dyson caricature (of which Vane Lindesay writes) show how he struck his younger contemporaries.
Both Brady and Hodges refer to Lawson's Norse origins. In present-day Australia, where multiculturalism is the officially approved national ideal, it is surprising that there has not been more discussion of this biographical fact. My interest was stimulated by first reading the then unpublished ‘A Foreign Father’ and the manuscript of ‘A Child in the Dark, and a Foreign Father’ in the Lothian Papers. Lawson's feeling of sympathy for the ‘foreigner’ goes along with his sympathy for the Aborigines, which Christopher Lee discusses in this issue. Although Lawson wrote little about Aborigines, the existence in the Lothian Papers of the manuscript entitled ‘King Billy', in which he collected autobiographical pieces he had written about Aborigines, suggests that the theme may have had a personal significance for him. Lawson's claim that he was ‘suckled on a black breast’ may be no more than a fancy inspired by feelings of empathy for those he saw as outcasts in society, but given the times in which he lived it is significant that he could make it.
It is nearly a century since Thomas Lothian signed the contract with Lawson that he came so to regret. The changes in Australian life and society have been so great that the world of which Lawson was part now seems very remote. Lawson is still widely read, but there is always a danger that his iconic status as the embodiment of Old Australia will blind readers to the true dimensions of his art, and both Christopher Lee and I have argued for a fresh reading of what he wrote.
As editor I take particular pleasure in this number of The La Trobe Journal. It was through reading the Henry Lawson Number, edited by John Arnold and Frances Thorn, in 1981 that I first became aware of the Lothian Papers, which led me to further study of Lawson. Another result of my reading that number was that I joined the Friends of the La Trobe Library. I should like to think that this second Henry Lawson Number might have a similar effect upon some readers.
John Barnes
A few copies of La Trobe Library Journal No 28, devoted to Henry Lawson, and containing a checklist of the Henry Lawson manuscripts in the Lothian Papers, have been located in the archives of the Foundation. Copies may be purchased on application to the Foundation Office.