Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris


page 117


Not much can be said with certainty about what other work Lawson wrote at Mangamaunu. By date or signature at the end of the manuscript or first printing, six poems can be assigned there: 'The Dry Country' ('ML Sept 97'), 'Written Afterwards' ('Mangamauna NZ'), 'The Lights of Cobb and Co.' ('written at the "Native School in N.Z'), 'Ports of the Open Sea' ('ML Sept '97'), 'The Old Mile Tree' ('M L Sep 97') and 'The Writer's Dream' written on or after 1 September 1897.28 To these one can add, on Gertrude O'Connor's authority, 'Sydney Side', and on Bertha's, some of the poems in Verses Popular and Humorous. The manuscript titled 'The Uncultured Rhymer to his Cultured Critics' is editorially marked 'Paid 15/- 17/2/97', and so was written before Lawson left Sydney for New Zealand, and 'The Vagabond' according to Mrs O'Connor was written on the voyage across.29

It has been traditional to take Joe Wilson and his Mates as having been written in Mangamaunu. But there is evidence against. All Bertha Lawson says in her first memoir is that 'all of Joe Wilson's Mates' was written at Mangamaunu-the second part of the volume. It was Will Lawson, ghosting her second memoir, who changed the title. Joe Wilson itself-the first part of the volume-is generally accepted as autobiographical, and if so it takes Lawson beyond the point in his life that he had reached in 1897. Joe has a son Jim, born about two years after marriage as Lawson's son 'Jim' was; the accounts of Jim's illnesses in 'Brighten's Sister-in-law' read like a father's actual experience; in this story Jim is 'turning three' which would bring Lawson to 1901 and London.

Cecil Mann, who accepts Mangamaunu as the place of composition of the Joe Wilson stories, provides the hint of a solution to the difficulty.30 Commenting on the intermittent stiffness of style he suggests that Lawson wrote them with an English readership in mind or that they were revised by Blackwood.31 The first suggestion would be less likely unless Lawson was already in England when he wrote them and knew how his colloquial Australian idiom might be misunderstood. The revision is a possibility. Lawson told George Robertson in 1917 that 'an educated young Australian friend' in London had spent days and nights 'correcting and restoring' the text page 118of While the Billy Boils for the selection published by Blackwood, The Country I Come From.32 It is possible that Lawson took the advice of this same young man with the manuscript of Joe Wilson, also published by Blackwood.

The argument is inconclusive. It is possible to find another reason for the stiffness of style: that Lawson was imaginatively examining and restoring his own faltering marriage, and that it was not Lawson's gift to submit himself and his relations with people to the kind of self-analysis demanded. It does not help the dating of Joe Wilson to cite Lawson's statement to David Scott Mitchell, 'I was ill and nearly mad with worry all the time I was writing it', since this might have applied equally to Bertha's 'very long and severe' illness in London or to the tensions of Mangamaunu.33

But there is a clue in the report in the Federalist (Launceston) of 22 October 1898 that Lawson 'is engaged on a long novel which it is rumoured he will carry to London for publication'. Joe Wilson is not a 'long novel', but it comes closer to the description than any other work of Lawson's, and may have been conceived as such. It is probable that at this date he had only begun Joe Wilson-the date came early in a long spell of teetotalism and continuous writing that he mentioned in letters written in January 1900 to Bland Holt and Jack Louisson.34

Much of his writing time must have been occupied with the play that the producer Bland Holt commissioned and paid an advance of £35 for.35 This play, based on the story 'The Hero of Redclay', Bertha called Ruth and Lawson titled Pinter's Son Jim. It occupies four exercise-books, held in the Mitchell Library, and according to James Tyrrell (quoted by Denton Prout) it originally occupied six.36 Lawson finished the play in Wellington and Holt rejected it because of its length.

Most of the play and some at least of the stories in On the Track and Over the Sliprails were written at Mangamaunu, possibly including such longer un-Bulletin-like pieces as 'The Selector's Daughter' and 'The Hero of Redclay' (which must have been written before Pinter's Son Jim). These two volumes (of thirty-five stories) contain at least nine stories published before March 1897 and at least eleven published between July 1897 and the end of 1899, one of which was certainly written at Mangamaunu. It is 'A Daughter of Maoriland' itself.