Hazel de Berg, Dame Mary Gilmore and ‘The Drover’s Wife’

March 22nd, 2020 | Henry Lawson, Mary Ann Cameron, Mary Gilmore, The Drover's Wife, Uncategorized

A recent conversation prompted me to check out the Oral History section of the National Library website. I have always loved oral history, and I suppose I should have done this a long time ago. It appears to be dominated by two collectors, the second of which I am familiar with, especially after reading his biography by Keith McKenry: ‘More than a Life – John Meredith, and the Fight for Australian Tradition.’

What I was not familiar with, and was not certainly not expecting, was the work of a collector even more prolific than Meredith – an Australian woman by the name of Hazel de Berg. Born Hazel Holland in Deniliquin, NSW, in 1913, she married a Lithuanian Jew, Woolf de Berg, in Sydney in May 1941. Hazel originally trained as a photographer, but engaged in a multitude of activities after her children had grown up, including voluntary work for the blind. The Australian Dictionary of Biography tells the story as follows:

“Hazel de Berg first used a tape recorder in 1957, when she undertook voluntary work for the Blind Book Society. She persuaded Dame Mary Gilmore to make some introductory comments about her book ‘Old Days, Old Ways’ (1934), and this recording, lasting 1 minute 26 seconds, marked the beginning of de Berg’s extraordinary career as a recorder of life histories. In the next three years, encouraged by the writers Douglas Stewart and John Thompson, she recorded about seventy poets, as well as novelists and playwrights. In 1960 she turned to artists and…eventually recorded about 250 painters and sculptors.

“Over a period of twenty-seven years she recorded 1290 individuals.”

I was very surprised to discover this connection between Hazel de Berg and Dame Mary Gilmore. I am rather attuned to the work of Mary Gilmore at present, as my friend Maggie Somerville has recently released an album of Gilmore’s poems that she has set to music.

The Forest Prayed

Hazel herself told the story this way when she was interviewed by Tom Jacobs on the occasion Mary Gilmore’s 95th birthday, 16th August, 1960.

“Well as a matter of fact, I think I’ve always loved poetry. I think all of us are rather keen on verse, but to me it has always been a very living thing, and then one day, Kenneth Bruce, blind man who started the Blind Books Society, asked me if I would read a book for them, and I thought that it would be rather nice, as I knew Dame Mary Gilmore, that I should read her ‘Old Days, Old Ways’. So I went up to her flat at Kings Cross, and I said, “Now, I think it would be rather nice if you were to say something in the front of this for the blind people, and she said, “Well, supposing you announce me,” and I said, “Oh, no. You announce yourself.” So she said, “Well, this is Mary Gilmore. I wrote ‘Old Days, Old Ways.’

“I am quite sure that, in the way that Dame Mary has helped me, you could multiply that by, I am quite sure, thousands, because everybody says that she has one very great virtue, along with her own personality and her ability, and that is that she does encourage other people…she has backed women to an extraordinary extent.”

Hazel de Berg interviewed Gilmore on four occasions. On one of these, she talked about her relationship with Henry Lawson.

“I put him on his feet.”

Gilmore quotes Lawson as having said, “If it hadn’t been for Mary Gilmore the world would never have heard of Henry Lawson.”

Gilmore again: “I gave him the information. Any number of his stories…are my stories. I told him. ‘Water Them Geraniums’…they were our geraniums…’The Drover’s Wife’..that was our story. I was the little girl that watched the baby, and my brother, next to me…I was about seven…I might have been eight, yes, the baby was born in 1870…I’d be about six, not quite seven, or perhaps seven, and my brother climbed to my mother’s skirt after the snake was killed, and he said “Mama (we always said, ‘mama’, you see), when I’m grown up, I’m not going away…I’m not going away building, and I’ll stay home and take care of you.” You see, and I told Henry Lawson that, and he turned it into a little rougha speech…what the drover’s child said, you see.”

‘The Drover’s Wife’, before we proceed any further, is one of Lawson’s two most popular short stories (the other being ‘The Loaded Dog’), and is also one of Australia’s best known and loved stories. It tells the simple tale of a woman on a small, lonely, outback station, defending her four children (and the family dog) from a large snake that has crept under the floorboards while her husband is away droving. Mary Gilmore is effectively telling us that the drover’s wife was her mother.

I don’t find this hard to believe. Many, many years ago I purchased a vinyl LP with the title “Some Arrived To Stay” (Pumphandle Productions, 1979). The album consists of a number of spoken word pieces performed by actor Beverley Dunn, outlining Australia’s early immigrant story.

https://www.discogs.com/Beverley-Dunn-Some-Arrived-To-Stay/release/10696133

The standout track for me was ‘Fire – An Outback Story’ by Mary Gilmore. It tells the story of a woman on a small, lonely, outback station defending her children from a bush fire while her husband is away. (He has travelled in to town with the horse and dray to purchases supplies – a four day journey.) For years, the story felt eerily familiar for reasons I could not put my finger on. Now that I understand Gilmore’s connection with ‘The Drover’s Wife’, it makes more sense – though Gilmore makes it clear that her story is about the family of a man who worked for her father, and is not her own family. As Gilmore also says, it was common in the early days of European settlement for women to have to defend their children and property against a range of challenges while their husbands were absent.

There are important differences between Mary Gilmore’s family and the family in ‘The Drover’s Wife’. To some extent, it would appear also that Gilmore’s memory is playing tricks on her, and she is confusing her own history with Lawson’s fictionalised version. For example, there is no mention of “the little girl that watched the baby” in ‘The Drover’s Wife.’ We are told there are four children, one of whom is a baby, but only two are named, Tommy and Jacky. A fifth has died some time earlier. Mary was the oldest child in her family. There was no older brother. It is almost as though she has been written OUT of the story.

Interestingly, mention is made in ‘The Drover’s Wife’ of an earlier episode, again while her husband is away, when she saves the family from a bush fire. In this version, she is saved at the last minute by four bushmen. There are no bushmen rushing to her assistance in ‘Fire – An Outback Story’, however. She saves the family by herself. There is a clear bias against women evident here, though this is not news to anybody, and is consistent with the standards of the day.

Mary Gimore’s father was a carpenter, and quite possibly did spend a good deal of his time working away from home. Lawson’s decision to make the father a drover rather than a builder was a wise one, of course, as it sounds much more romantic. (I am struggling to imagine an iconic Australian story with the title ‘The Builder’s Wife.’)

‘The Drover’s Wife’ does indeed finish, as Gilmore suggests, with a scene involving young Jacky and his mother.

“”Mother, I won’t never go droving’; blast me if I do”

“And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him, and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.”

Mary Gilmore’s mother, Mary Ann Beattie, was born in Australia. Her husband, Donald Cameron, was born in Inverness, Scotland. The two grew up on adjoining properties. Gilmore, once revered as the “Queen of Literature, as far as the Commonwealth is concerned” (to quote both Tom Jacobs and Hazel de Berg) is now all but forgotten. Her mother has never held a place in the sun. Perhaps it is time they were both better remembered and celebrated, especially Mary Ann Cameron…’The Drover’s Wife.’

(Photo courtesy the National Library of Australia)