A Name and a Voice for the Drover’s Wife

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Australia

Leah Purcell’s novel The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson takes Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story of the same name and infuses it with female wisdom and understanding.

A story originally set in a parched and lifeless terrain is relocated to the fertile country of the Ngarigo people—the high country of the Snowy Mountains. And the ubiquitous ‘wife’ who features in Lawson’s story is, in Purcell’s reimagining, granted a name and a voice and a properly fleshed-out life.

The novel is framed around themes of motherhood, family violence and Aboriginal dispossession  but, as I read, two further underpinnings caught my attentionthe importance of names and the role of storytelling.

 

Names and Naming

Extract from The Bulletin, 23 July 1892

In Lawson’s story, the main character—the drover’s wife—is never named. Her son (Tommy) is named, her dog (Alligator) is named, but she is not.

Lawson’s protagonist is an adjunct to her husband: ‘The drover—an ex-squatter—is away with sheep. His wife and children are left here alone.’

Purcell begins her story with a prelude set in 1913. A thirty-two-year-old man flicks through the pages of a notebook he has kept since boyhood.

Contained between the pages of the old notebook is the story of a great woman, strong, steadfast, reliable and loving: his ma, Molly Johnson, nee Stewart. Daughter of Jock Stewart, Scotsman and jack-of-all-trades.

Lawson offers his 19th century readers a nameless woman with no backstory; Purcell gives her 21st century ones a stoic but tender Molly whose lineage seems to peg her firmly within a man’s world.

  • The female cast

Purcell incorporates a raft of named female characters in her more expansive story.

In the novel, ‘Black Mary—the “whitest” gin in all the land’ from Lawson’s tale, is given a new and proper name (Waraganj). Then there’s Molly’s daughter Delphi, minister’s wife Miss Shirley, social agitator and journal editor Louisa Clintoff, Ngarigo medicine woman Ginny May, various members of the white-settler Edwards family, (Florence, Bertha, Eleanor, Ulla and little Leaellyn), and brothel owner Elpida Sava.

  • The ‘Guugu Yimithirr adopted Ngarigo’ man

But it is not only women who are accorded the honour of a name in the reimagined story. There is Yadaka—Purcell’s equivalent of Lawson’s unnamed ‘stray blackfellow’. Soon after Yadaka and Molly first meet, Yadaka introduces himself:

The Aboriginal man steps forward and offers his hand, saying: ‘Yadaka. Of the Guugu Yimithirr adopted Ngarigo’ … Molly doesn’t take his hand but says, ‘Missus Joe Johnson’.

It is a long time before Molly discloses her first name to Yadaka.

In a pivotal scene, she finally opens up: ‘“Molly, pet name to Mary” … Yadaka catches his breath, shocked she’s offered this piece of personal information … Her name.’

No longer ‘Missus Joe Johnson’, Molly is in the process of becoming and acknowledging her own self. Revealing her name is part of that journey.

 

Storytelling

There are different kinds of stories, and different purposes for storytelling.

In The Drover’s Wife, Molly tells stories to her children to pass the time as they walk, and to fill their long and isolated nights. Yadaka tells his personal story as well as one that has been entrusted to him—a story that ‘someone needs to know’. Louisa Clintoff channels her experiences in a new land into ‘a great story to write home to her parents’. And, as a grown man, Molly’s son Danny retells the story of a childhood at his mother’s side, understanding it as a ‘story of survival’.

  • Molly

Main Range Walk, Snowy Mountains. Etienne Maujean / CC BY

On Sundays, Purcell’s Molly (like Lawson’s drover’s wife) goes walking with her children. The children, says Molly, ‘love our walks. We make up yarns and see who can spin the best story for the longest time.’ The children have heard Molly’s stories many times over but, as she says, ‘that’s what life stories are for: to be told and retold. To remember. The memories livin’ on long after you’re gone. Family history.’

  • Yadaka

Yadaka shares his life story with Molly and then discovers he’s ‘a little embarrassed to have revealed so much of himself. He hasn’t felt safe, ever, to share that story with anyone, until now.’ When Molly asks why he has chosen to tell her, Yadaka replies:

A life’s story untold is a life not lived.

But it’s not only his own story Yadaka has to share. He’s been entrusted with another story by his adopted Ngarigo mother, Ginny May. It’s a story the Ngarigo woman ‘held very dear but was forbidden to share with others in her clan’. When Molly hears the story, she is shocked. Yadaka offers some calming words: ‘It’s the truth, your truth. I was given it by a great woman. Part of my lore—our lore—is to share the stories so we live long into tomorrow and beyond.’

  • Louisa

Towards the end of The Drover’s Wife, Molly Johnson talks with Louisa Clintoff, an Englishwoman newly arrived in the colony. Louisa has accompanied her husband, Sergeant Nathan Clintoff, to the high country. While he enforces British law, she plans to run a newspaper championing women’s rights.

Molly admonishes Louisa for her first journalistic effort: ‘You write from the outside’, observes Molly. Louisa protests that she has been trying to ‘give women a voice’. Molly replies: ‘I could only hear—you’. Suitably chastened, Louisa asks: ‘Can I hear your story, Molly?’ And Molly obliges, ‘for my children’.

  • Danny

Twenty years on, at the novel’s end, Danny looks back over the years since 1893. He stands beside his mantelpiece where an old framed copy of Louisa’s The Dawn rests on the shelf. The journal’s headline reads: ‘The Drover’s Wife: Molly Johnson’s Story’. Surrounded by his own wife and children, Danny says: ‘It’s the story I lived, it’s the story I have told and will retell. The story of survival I will pass down.’

Snowy Mountains as seen from Kosciuszko Lookout. Cimexus from Canberra, Australia / CC BY

The stories of people and places continue being told. From mouth to mouth, from pen to page, from culture to culture.

And thanks to Leah Purcell, Lawson’s unnamed wife now has a story of her own.

 

Background

Leah Purcell. © Marnya Rothe. Used with permission.

Leah Purcell is a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman.

Her play, The Drover’s Wife, opened at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre in September 2016. It won a swag of awards in 2016 and 2017.

Purcell has also written and directed (and starred in) the film The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson. A Bunya Productions/Oombarra Productions collaboration, the film is scheduled for release in 2020.

In a 2018 interview for Screen Australia, Purcell said that her love of storytelling ‘came from her mother reading her “The Drover’s Wife” often when she was a little girl. “It was my favourite and she’d read and recite it to me day after day.”’ It was when Purcell was working on the 2006 film Jindabyne, that she knew ‘the dramatic sweep of the country around the Monaro and the Snowy Mountains was the right place to tell her version of The Drover’s Wife’.

 

Links and Sources

Image credits

Aboriginal Australia map, section showing location of Ngarigo country. The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia. David Horton (ed.)

Neolithic Orkney—Literature on Location

Ring of Brodgar

The forecast was for 11⁰C, but I doubt it rose past 5⁰. The clouds were low; the sleet piercing; the wind penetrating—a perfect day to start exploring Neolithic Orkney.

It was the first time I’d physically set foot on the Orkney island of Mainland, but the almost treeless landscape already felt familiar. My reading had taken me there on several previous occasions.

I often begin to know a place through reading, whether it’s 19th century Dorset in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures or 14th century London in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours or 7th century Northumbria in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

And so, before visiting the Orkneys, I had searched out books that would awaken my senses to place and landscape, climate and peoples. I wanted to reach back into Orkney history. I reached for fiction. ‘Factual’ histories are often rife with gaps and biases; historical fiction operates in time’s spaces and silences. Done well, historical fiction fills the gaps and redresses the biases; it shapes conceivable lives and probable landscapes.

Cover image courtesy of Kelpies

The first book I turned to on my Orkney discovery trail was Kathleen Fidler’s The Boy with the Bronze Axe (originally published in 1968). It introduced me to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar and the burial mound of Maeshowe at a time when each was central to the life of Neolithic human communities.

Fidler, the author of over 80 books for children, prefaces The Boy with the Bronze Axe with some background information. ‘In the winter of 1850’, she writes, ‘a terrible storm struck the coasts of the Orkney Isles’. The storm ‘washed away part of the high sand dunes that fringed the Bay of Skaill and laid bare the ruins of some ancient dwellings’. That much is fact, detailed in historical records. Fidler bookends that 1850  storm with the possibility of another storm, thousands of years earlier, in which the dwellings might, just as suddenly, have been filled ‘by sand dunes moving like the waves of the sea’.

Fidler takes her readers back to the late Stone Age, on the cusp of the Bronze Age. Siblings Kali and Brockan, from the community at Skara Brae, are rescued from a rising tide by an unknown visitor from the south—Tenko, the boy bearing the bronze axe.

House #1, Skara Brae

Fidler uses the outsider’s viewpoint to illuminate life at Skara Brae.

Inside Kali and Brockan’s home, Tenko observes the ‘stone bed like a trough … filled with heather and bracken’, and the ‘stone dresser built of flat slabs resting on pillars of stone’. En route to the Ring of Brodgar, Kali’s father explains to Tenko that the quarry they pass at Bookan is where he ‘split off the great stone’ that will be added to the incomplete Ring.

Maeshowe

And on his first visit to Maeshowe, Tenko marvels at the ‘great green mound … shaped like a cone’, rising high above the surrounding plain’. Proceeding down Maeshowe’s low, narrow tunnel, Tenko catches his breath as he enters the ‘great square chamber’, its ‘stone slabs placed one above the other, with edges projecting to make a beehive roof’.

My reading creates pictures of life at Skara Brae in my mind. I am ready to translate Fidler’s fictional world—replete with flint scrapers, bone needles, broken beads, carved stone balls, and pottery shards—into a physical encounter. When I visit the site in person, the ancient remains are  immediately familiar (and fancifully inhabited).

Of course, I continue to learn.

Standing stone, Stenness

Back home in Australia, I read more. Now—finally—I turn to factual accounts, initially to UNESCO’s World Heritage listing for the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The property’s inscription, dated December 1999, begins: ‘The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney consists of a large chambered tomb (Maeshowe), two ceremonial stone circles (the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar) and a settlement (Skara Brae), together with a number of unexcavated burial, ceremonial and settlement sites … Through the combination of ceremonial, funerary and domestic sites, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition that flourished between about 3000 BC and 2000 BC.’

There are many ways of entering a landscape; of learning a place. As I get to know Neolithic Orkney, I am slowly building layers—just like the slabs that make up the walls of Maeshowe. Layers of fiction and memory and fact. Layers both real and imagined. More strata will be added but, for me, fiction provided a good starting point.

Links and Sources

Standing stones, Stenness, May 2019