Henry Lawson, often regarded as Australia’s “quintessential” author, has not been much considered as an “ethnic writer”, as Michael Wilding puts it, though as he and John Barnes have pointed out, Lawson’s writings contain many references to non-English-speaking migrants and to his own Norwegian ancestry. His father, Nils Hertzberg Larsen, came to Australia to the Victorian gold rush and changed his surname to Lawson. In his work Henry sometimes proudly asserted his migrant origins, frequently sympathising with non-Anglo-Saxon settlers, many attracted by the gold rushes. One of his best-known such references is to a sick Afghan in “Send Round the Hat”.
Lawson’s short story “A Child in the Dark and a Foreign Father” has not received much attention. It was first published in the Bulletin and reprinted in Lawson’s final collection of stories, Triangles of Life (1913). This tale, drawing both on memories of his early life and on the unhappiness of his declining years, shows him reconstructing his life in an attempt to find some solace and to regain his storytelling powers, as he does with some success.
Colin Roderick researched the origins and publication details of the story. Lawson had begun it in London as a novel, but it had been “broken off”. He had recommenced the story after returning to Sydney in July 1902. He had second thoughts about what Roderick calls some “self-revealing” passages, submitting it to the Bulletin after editing it lightly to improve spelling and idiom. The title became: “A Child in the Dark: A Bush Sketch” when it appeared as a Christmas story in the Bulletin. In March 1907 Lawson sent a copy of the half-edited manuscript, a new prologue and a copy of the Bulletin text to Lothian publishers in Melbourne for publication in Triangles of Life. Lothian restored the original title and settled for the Bulletin text.
The story concerns a triangular relationship between a father, a working man who returns late at night to his bush dwelling to find it in domestic disorder, the querulous mother sick in bed, and a nervous son. There are two other neglected young children. The story focuses on the eldest, a fretful boy who has done his best to keep the household going, but is sickly and lacking in confidence. The father, after reassuring his son, with whom he has a special bond, setting the house to rights, and feeding the children, leaves for work at dawn the next day, leaving behind a hopeless domestic situation.
The father, the main protagonist, is called “Nils”. Roderick states that it has generally been assumed that the story is “an emotionally overcharged portrait of Lawson’s own childhood”. But while the story does draw on aspects of this time, as sketched in his fragmentary Autobiography, the father-son relationship can be read as combining features of Lawson’s childhood fears with the unhappiness of his later life.
In his Autobiography, Lawson always presented his father as showing kindness, especially to sick people, so in this story the affirming of the bond of protective father and vulnerable son may be read as a version of the way Lawson affectionately remembered his father at a time when he felt his own life was falling apart. He was experiencing marital troubles as well as coping with his own problems as an alcoholic, writing to a friend that he had to see a doctor about getting his wife into an asylum. She was showing mental instability and was worried by the noise of their children. So at the time of writing the story he was coping with his wife’s fragility and his own troubles, including a sense of his failing powers as a writer. The story shows Lawson searching his past to find hope and reassurance. The father in the story is not “Lawson in disguise”, as Roderick suggested, but rather a combination of childhood memory with his unhappy present.
Although Lawson retained “a foreign father” in the title, there is minimal indication in the story that the father is foreign. The main sign is that he is called Nils by the wife. (Puzzlingly, so is the son in a brief reference at the end of the story.) In his Autobiography Lawson briefly recalled his father’s broken English, which he mocked once as a child and later felt guilty about. Perhaps Lawson considered that such a linguistic indication of foreignness would focus too much attention on technicalities of dialogue. As it is, the dialogue, mainly between father and son, is kept to a minimum. Another indication that the father is foreign is a fleeting reference at the beginning of the story: the footsteps of the father returning home in the dark are not “the crunching steps … clod-hopping contentedly home”, a reference to labourers in the village of Charlton, where Lawson lived on his visit to England. Rather the steps are “of one pacing steadily and hopelessly—sorting out the past”. This sense of the father’s burdened past is not explored in this story, which concentrates on a present time of only one night. In his Autobiography Lawson refers to the Pipeclay district (near Mudgee) where he grew up as including many mismatched couples, the result of displaced gold rush men from overseas marrying Anglo-Saxon settler women. This is something he does not bring into this story with its intense focus on one isolated family in which being foreign is not developed. Lawson explored it more in another little-known story, “A Foreign Father”.
The story gets under way with the father, a workman, arriving at his home where the action is to be concentrated, a typical slab hut familiar in Lawson’s stories and described in his Autobiography. It is in two sections, a separate kitchen with open fireplace for cooking, and adjoining sleeping-living quarters. In his depiction, reminiscent of Emile Zola, whose work Lawson knew, he marshals his old skills of compressed, realist description:
The room was nearly as bare as the kitchen. There was a table, covered with cheap American oilcloth, and, on the other side, a sofa on which a straw mattress, a cloudy blanket, and a pillow without a slip had been thrown in a heap. On the floor, between the sofa and the table, lay a boy—child almost—on a similar mattress, with a cover of coarse sacking, and a bundle of dirty clothes for a pillow.
The home not only shows poverty, it is also dirty and neglected, even squalid. (In his Autobiography Lawson referred to the circumstances of his childhood home: there was “sordid hardship and poverty”, and he recalls a violent and painful family scene where he slipped away into the dark outside the house, seeking comfort in a mongrel dog.)
The domestic atmosphere in the story is one of “smothering” (repeated) heat-laden darkness. The initial response of the father is one of angry frustration when he discovers some of his wife’s handwritten verse headed: “Misunderstood” (a heading emphasised by being given a separate line of print). This provokes him to vent his suppressed anger as he crushes a crockery cup in his hand. This is the only crack in the stoicism the father maintains throughout the story. (Barbara Baynton, on the other hand, characteristically shows eruptions of violence as overt and personal.) The father’s anger is curbed by a tender solicitude for his sick son, the main focus of the story, and by forbearance in the face of the “unreasonable” attitude of the wife. She is shown as nagging, self-centred and lying, in a conventional depiction, approaching parody. She is further distanced from the reader’s sympathies because she is mainly heard off-stage, and by references to her as “the woman”, “the mother”; her Christian name of Emma (contrasting to Nils) is sparingly used.
This character was taken by some contemporaries to be based on Lawson’s mother, Louisa, but critics including Roderick have exploded this by pointing rather to his wife, Bertha, whose mental instability was causing Lawson concern at the time. In the manuscript of the story Lawson had emphasised the mother’s disturbed state by having her son ask if she had always been “mad”. Irrationality, if not madness, hovers verbally around her depiction, perhaps indirectly expressing Lawson’s anger at Bertha, as in the father’s initial action of crushing the cup.
Among other emendations to the original manuscript, Lawson changed the book the wife reads in bed, from Jane Eyre—a serious literary novel in which the “mad wife” is named Bertha—to a trashy novel by Marie Corelli called Ardath. This change puts the wife in a pejorative light, and possibly evades any comparison with either Lawson’s mother or wife.
The father-son relationship is depicted with a moving tenderness. The father calms the son’s fears about growing up (fears also expressed by Lawson in his Autobiography) and encourages him to go to sleep, following the son’s efforts in his father’s absence to be the helpful man of the house by cleaning it and doing other chores. The son falls asleep in the candlelight—the only light in the oppressive darkness—holding his father’s “horny” work-roughened hand “as was customary with them”, the father fondly calling him “sonny” (again echoing memories, even words, in the Autobiography): “the child knew he was watching him, and pretended to sleep, and, so pretending, he slept”.
The story is not to conclude on this positive note, however, for the tender interlude gives way to the father returning to work at 4 a.m., while the son milks the cows and attends to orders from his nagging mother. Lawson underlines the precariousness of the happy calm reached by the main characters by twice referring to a new year dawning (including in the heavy-handed last line). The ending, stressing that the unhappiness will continue, echoes Lawson’s depressed state at the time. In the longer term the story, short but complex, shows him calling up supportive memories of his father.
In spite of imperfections, “A Child in the Dark” shows Lawson briefly displaying the strengths of storytelling that made him famous. And the depiction of the central relationship evokes a tenderness and delicacy of feeling that is unusual in his work, sympathetic to his creations as he often is.
Laurie Hergenhan is emeritus professor of English at the University of Queensland.