It began on July 23 1892, when a 25-year old Henry Lawson published a short story called ‘The Drover’s Wife’ in The Bulletin. It is a sketch of a woman and her children, left in an outback station. Her husband is away droving sheep. An incident occurs one evening when a snake enters and menaces the household. The story was subsequently republished in two collections by Lawson; in Short stories in prose and verse (1894), and then in When the Billy Boils (1896), with this latter work securing Lawson’s place in the Australian literary imagination.

Russel Drysdale’s painting, titled the drover’s wife, appeared in 1945, although he claimed there was no connection between his painting and Lawson’s story. And it may have ended there if not for Murray Bail publishing a short story in the collection Tabloid Story in 1975, which brought together in a single vision the Drysdale painting and the Lawson story, forever fusing the two works.

Then, in 1980, to mark the centenary of The Bulletin, Frank Moorhouse built on Bail’s idea. His retelling of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ was published in the magazine in January; in December of that year a version by Barbara Jeffries appeared. Since then many Australian writers have retold ‘The Drover’s Wife’, including Anne Gambling (1986), Kate Jennings (1996), Mandy Sayers (1996), and David Ireland (1997).

Some of these authors consciously grapple with previous retellings of the story, while others respond directly to the original. Each new version adds to a body of work that is engaging imaginatively with, and keeping alive, Lawson’s story. ‘The Drover’s Wife’ has also migrated to other artistic forms, including film, orchestral arrangements, opera, dance, and theatre. There has even been a five-month long university course dedicated to examining all of these different versions of the story at the University of Texas.

Why does this particular story resonate so deeply in our collective imagination? Last year Frank Moorhouse set out to try to answer this question. He brought together many versions of Lawson’s story in a book titled The Drover’s Wife: a celebration of a great Australian love affair (2017). That in itself is a worthy public service, as these stories were scattered in magazines and journals, some obscure, some now defunct. But what makes this book indispensible are the accompanying essays by Moorhouse, in which, with a scholar’s eye and an artist’s soul, he examines the record and provides context regarding Henry Lawson. He covers Lawson’s life, his gender identity and nonconformity to the masculine culture of the late nineteenth century that he wrote so well about. There is an essay devoted to the composition and publication history of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ and a discussion of the way the story gave artistic voice to the author’s mother, Louisa Lawson’s, and in particular,  the ideas about the fate and burden of colonial women explored in her 1889 article, ‘The Australian Bush Woman’ (included in Moorhouse’s book). Moorhouse broaches the tradition ‘The Drover’s Wife’ has unintentionally spawned (‘a phenomenon unique in the Australian artistic imagination’) and finally, the very nature and purpose of literary history in shaping our understanding of Australia.

‘I see the story as an allegorical telling of the first white Australian settlers in a harsh land,’ Moorhouse writes. Later he observes that it describes ‘a growing consciousness of the fundamental, inescapable tragedy of our uncomfortable presence on this continent.’ Widening this circle of concern again, Moorhouse argues that the story can also be read as ‘a symbolic representation of the immigrant and the refugee experience.’ A point he immediately clarifies:

I stress symbolic since, in reality, the journey of these immigrant and refugee generations has often been due to extreme distress, both war-made and economic, in their countries of origins. After their arrival in Australia, a place of refuge, they have been confronted with the struggle to create a home, to acclimatise to an often radically different culture … to find security within a not-always-welcoming, sometimes bigoted community.

Beneath all of this, however, and holding it all together, ‘The Drover’s Wife’ also points to fables and myths that dwell beneath and animate all narrative fiction, that help us make sense of human isolation and abandonment, the indeterminate nature of social roles, and a pervading sense of the tragic aspects of human life. As Alain Touraine has pointed out, the opposite of mythos is not logos, but dogma. It is the purpose of narrative fiction to question and broaden and complicate the simple dogmas of our political and historical narratives, and to always keep open other possibilities. It is its protean form that allows Lawson’s story to constantly evolve and to be adapted to our current needs.

Tragedy, of course, is inseparable from comedy, and although humour is a trait that is often associated with the Australian character, one of our greatest delusions is that we can laugh at ourselves. We cannot. Otherwise we would take our comics and our comic writers more seriously. Moorhouse’s 1980 version of ‘The Drover’s Wife’, for example, is a comic tour de force, written in the form of an academic paper presented at a conference by an Italian student, Franco Casamaggiore. It is a satire, not just on the three extant drover’s wives – by Lawson, Drysdale, Bail – but also on academic writing and literary theory, as well as Australian (masculine) culture in general.

Another author that Moorhouse has included in his edited volume on Lawson’s story is Ryan O’Neill. I view O’Neill as the literary heir to Frank Moorhouse, not just in terms of their shared comic sensibility, but in scope, inventiveness, and literary craftsmanship. In his latest collection, The Drover’s Wives (2018), O’Neill pushes the game to its furthest reaches, with 99 – yes, 99 – reinterpretations of Henry Lawson’s classic story.

O’Neill has dedicated his book to Henry Lawson and Raymond Queneau. The Drover’s Wives is a clear homage to Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947) – in which the same vignette is retold in 99 different literary styles – except that O’Neill has expanded the scope to include contemporary and non-literary styles and genres of communication. He retells ‘The Drover’s Wife’ in the style of Hemingway, McCarthy, Joyce, and Lovecraft; in Glaswegian and Ocker Australian dialects; but also in the form of editorial comments, sporting commentary, gossip column, school play, a dance, various games (hangman, cards, fill in the blanks, trivia questions, etc), a Twitter thread, emojis, an Amazon book review, an RSPCA report, an insurance claim, a real estate advertisement, a TV guide, spam email, a bar graph; as well as comic strips, mix tapes, horoscopes, a 1980s computer game; and so on, and on. My favourites include ‘A Question Asked by an Audience Member at a Writers’ Festival’ and ‘Punctuation’ (which is a single page that includes no words, only the punctuation marks from the original Lawson story).

Punctuation’, from The Drover’s Wives by Ryan O’Neill (Brio Books, 2018).

O’Neill captures the tone and texture of each of these genres. By applying these often banal modes of communication to the same literary story, the absurdity of these modes is brought to the foreground. And as our daily lives are inundated by various partisan news and social media, commercial, advertorial, and bureaucratic forms of communication, the cumulative effect of O’Neill’s book is one of momentary liberation from socially discursive constraints.

O’Neill’s book also has an important literary point to make, and that is to remind us of the distinction between story and narrative; how the substance and meaning of a story is never fixed, and that the meaning of what is told is always shifting, that it always depends as much on style and form as it does on content. Moorhouse’s book suggests a similar conclusion, especially with regards to the question of race in Lawson’s original story. Picking through the different published versions of ‘The Drover’s Wife’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Moorhouse traces the revisions that occured around the depiction of Aboriginal characters in the story, from the more dignified representations, which capitalise the word ‘Black’, to the more ‘coarsened’ versions that revert to the lowercase ‘black’ and add one-dimensional, racial caricatures in the background. Moorhouse speculates on the reason for these changes – commercial imperatives, perhaps – but does not excuse them.

The Bulletin, which originally published Lawson’s story, carried at the time the motto, ‘Australia for the White Man – China for the Chow’, with this second clause dropped in the 1950s, which only made the racism of its motto more general and less specific. Donald Horne, when he became editor in 1960, removed the motto entirely, and fashioned the magazine into a more progressive publication, at least for its time. Moorhouse shows how, in later retellings of the story, the racism is either omitted or confronted – without damaging the story.

O’Neill also points to the racism of the original story – in ‘Lecture Slides’, for example, which retells the story in a series of Power Point slides, there is a slide titled ‘Problematic depiction of Indigenous Characters’. In ‘Editorial Comments’, which is a list of editor notes directed to Lawson reimagined as a twenty-first-century author, a couple of notes draw attention to the racism in the story, suggesting changes: ‘It won’t be a problem, of course, if you intend to submit only to Quadrant.’

Moorhouse incorporates such awareness into his argument as to the importance of the deeper narrative structure of the story. ‘I see the story as an allegorical telling of the first white Australian settlers in a harsh land… and the threats they faced, some of which they brought on themselves through their treatment of Aboriginal Australians.’ It is an allegory that is also open to retelling from an Aboriginal perspective. To this end, Moorhouse includes in his book the writer and director notes from Leah Purcell’s multi-award winning play, The Drover’s Wife (2016). Purcell outlines the original story, which she grew up with. She recalls her mother reading it to her as a child but now declares: ‘This is not my version of ‘The Drover’s Wife’.’ She continues:

I was heavily influenced by the original story. But I’ve activated all the characters. In my version, I have brought them to life for the stage and reinvented the conversations and action that might have taken place. Weaving my great-grandfather’s story through the play has given it its Aboriginality so to speak, and I’ve embellished the story to give more depth and drama for the stage…. In Henry Lawson’s story, the black man is painted as the antagonist. I thought I would turn that around in my play and have our black man as the hero.

As Leticia Cáceres writes, in her director’s notes: ‘Leah unapologetically claimed this much-loved frontier narrative and infused it with First Nations and Women’s history, calling into question the shameful treatment endured by both at the hands of white men.’

Moorhouse and O’Neill show in their respective books that this embellishing and unapologetic reclamation of the original story, this constant shaping and questioning of our understanding of Australia, animated by the distinction between story and narrative, is the very nature and purpose of narrative fiction. In ‘Lecture Slides’, O’Neill includes, in a slide titled ‘The Drover’s Wife: Legacy’, some of the previous versions of the story, and ends with a note on both Leah Purcell’s play (2016) and Frank Moorhouse’s edited collection.

Each year in Grenfell, NSW – the birthplace of Henry Lawson –the Henry Lawson Festival takes place and includes a Verse and Story Competition. I suggest that an additional literary prize be created, called the Drover’s Wife Award. Writers could submit their own retelling of ‘The Drover’s Wife’. Leah Purcell, Frank Moorhouse, and Ryan O’Neill could be the inaugural judges. This would be one way to show that literature is not about conforming to the strictures of some original text, that literary works need not be reduced to narrow political dictates – but rather than we can rework and retell the same stories in different ways, each time with the goal of unsettling who we take ourselves to be.