First appearing in The Bulletin in 1892, Henry Lawson's short story 'The Drovers Wife' is today regarded as a seminal work in the Australian literary tradition. Noted for it's depiction of the bush as harsh, potentially threatening and both isolated and isolating, the story opens with a simple enough premise: an aggressive--and presumably deadly--snake disrupts the working life of a bushwoman and her young children. Brave but cautious, the woman resolves to protect her children since her husband is, characteristically, away from home and of no help.
As time passes within the story, tension builds, and the snake's symbolic threat takes on layers of meaning as the sleepless heroine recalls previous challenges she faced while her husband was away. A series of flashbacks and recollections propel the story through the single night over which it takes place, and by the time the climax arrives--the confrontation with the snake--readers have learned much about the heroine's strengths and fears, most of the latter involving the loss of children and dark figures who encroach upon her small, vulnerable homestead. To be sure, this "darkness" is highly symbolic, and Lawson's use of imagery invokes Western notions of good and evil as well as gendered and racial stereotypes.
'It is a simple story about a drover's wife, left alone with her four children for months on end while her husband is droving.
'Her only protection is her stout spirit and her cattle dog, Alligator.
'The story opens when, late one day, she sees a venomous snake disappear under the hut's bedroom floor. She goes into the kitchen, where there is a dirt floor–the bedroom has a slab floor with cracks a snake could slide through.
'The wife beds the children down on the table, builds up the fire in the stove, and with Alligator, a snake-killing cattle dog, keeps vigil through the night, waiting for the snake.
'As she sits by the fire she thinks, in filmed flashbacks, of what her life has been since she married.
'Eventually, in the early morning, the snake appears, she kills it, and life goes on again without drama.'
'Killing a Snake with Conviction', Australian Women's Weekly, 18 September 1968
'If anyone can write a full-throttle drama of our colonial past, it’s the indomitable Leah Purcell.
'We all know Henry Lawson’s story of the Drover’s Wife. Her stoic silhouette against an unforgiving landscape, her staring down of the serpent; it’s the frontier myth captured in a few pages. In Leah’s new play the old story gets a very fresh rewrite. Once again the Drover’s Wife is confronted by a threat in her yard, but now it’s a man. He’s bleeding, he’s got secrets, and he’s black. She knows there’s a fugitive wanted for killing whites, and the district is thick with troopers, but something’s holding the Drover’s Wife back from turning this fella in…
'A taut thriller of our pioneering past, with a black sting to the tail, The Drover’s Wife reaches from our nation’s infancy into our complicated present. And best of all, Leah’s playing the Wife herself.' (Publication summary)
'In 1790, Watkin Tench, the first officer with the First Fleet and a member of the fledgling British colony, stood on what we now know to be “The Heads” of Sydney, hungry and pining for news of England ...' (Introduction)
'Since Henry Lawson wrote his story The Drover’s Wife in 1892, Australian writers, painters, performers, and photographers have created a wonderful tradition of Drover’s Wife works, stories, and images.
'The Russell Drysdale painting from 1945 has become an Australian icon.
'Other versions of the Lawson story have been written by Murray Bail, Frank Moorhouse, Barbara Jefferis, Mandy Sayer, David Ireland and others, up to the present including Ryan O’Neill’s graphic novel.
'Moorhouse has examined our ongoing fascination with this story, collected some of the best pieces of writing on the subject, adding commentary on each piece, and created a remarkable, gorgeous book.' (Publication Summary)