The Drover's Wives
By Ryan O'Neill
Henry Lawson’s short story, ‘The Drover’s Wife’ was first published in The Bulletin in 1892, and collected in While the Billy Boils in 1896 (you can read it here). Lawson’s unique marriage of style (laconic, minimalist, dry) and subject matter (the ordinary men and women of the Australian bush) was to prove hugely influential to the development of Australian short fiction. ‘The Drover’s Wife’ has inspired short stories by Murray Bail, Frank Moorhouse and Mandy Sayer, as well as a classic painting by Russell Drysdale, and it has also been adapted for theatre and film.
With Lawson inaugurating a tradition of writing which Patrick White criticised as being ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism,’ it is easy to forget that, for his time, Lawson was an experimental writer. Before Lawson, most Australian short-story writers remained wedded to the conventions of the English novel; their characters were robbers, pirates, noble milkmaids – not real people – and their style was florid, stuffy and over-elaborate. Lawson swept all this away to create something new and distinctively Australian; but he was so successful that within a few years Lawson’s conventions had replaced the English ones. The experimental became the traditional.
With ‘The Drover’s Wives’ I wanted to experiment with this iconic Australian short story by retelling it in as many different ways as I could find. I hope that each version of ‘The Drover’s Wives’ finds something new in Lawson’s short story, and while celebrating Lawson’s great contribution to Australian literature, it will also serve as a reminder that literary realism is not the only way to tell Australian stories.
Ryan O’Neill’s short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He has twice won the Hal Porter Award and his collections have been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards. His latest collection The Weight of a Human Heart is published by Black Inc.
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