Water Them Geraniums by Henry Lawson, 1901

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by Henry Lawson, 1901

Australia's best-known short story writer, Henry Lawson, included "Water Them Geraniums" in his fifth collection, Joe Wilson and His Mates (1901). The collection consisted of four Joe Wilson stories, including "Water Them Geraniums," and 14 other tales. In the years between 1899 and 1901 Lawson had produced close to a dozen stories loosely focused on the character of Joe Wilson. They represented an attempt on the part of an author habituated to the journalistic sketch to approximate at least some of the formal elements of the novel.

In fact, however, the Joe Wilson sequence scarcely adds up to a novel. Rather, individual tales present discontinuous elements of a longer whole, the married life of Joe and Mary, who are poor smallholders, or "selectors," scratching out a living from the hard country of western New South Wales, the land Lawson knew well from his boyhood in Mudgee and Gulgong.

Joe purports to be based on an acquaintance of the author's ("I know Joe Wilson very well… I met him in Sydney the other day"). He began, Lawson said, as a "strong character," but he developed a "natural sentimental selfishness, good-nature, "softness, or weakness." In short, he came to resemble Lawson himself, while Mary quickly became, as the author acknowledged, a portrait of Bertha, Lawson's wife. This meant that the chain of stories could be seen as a way of grappling, through the medium of fiction, with the difficulties of an actual marriage.

The sequence tells of Joe and Mary's courtship, the sickness of a child, the momentous family decision to invest in a double buggy, a trip to Sydney that may involve infidelity on the husband's part, and the family's settlement at Lahey's Creek. All is told with the touch of pathos appropriate to the impending breakdown of a marriage, the "drifting apart" of a once close couple. In "Water Them Geraniums" we see Joe and Mary traveling to Lahey's Creek, attempting to set up a home in the wilderness, and, above all, meeting their neighbor Mrs. Spicer.

This last is at the heart of "Water Them Geraniums," which is not to say that the story is about her. Rather, its underlying concern is with the theme of drifting apart. Mrs. Spicer's role is to show how a woman may be destroyed by a life of frontier hardship. This in turn prompts the question of domestic guilt, prevalent in Lawson's fiction and in his own married life. To what extent is the male to be held responsible? In "Water Them Geraniums" the question takes the form of whether or not in due course young Mary will come to resemble Mrs. Spicer.

Not that Mrs. Spicer is an unattractive character. Far from it. She embodies those frontier, or "bush," virtues so regularly extolled by Lawson and other authors of the Australian 1890s. In fact, she represents a return to the frontier female icon found in the earlier story "The Drover's Wife." Like this prototype Mrs. Spicer lives without her husband, who is mostly away shearing sheep or working on distant stations when he is not "duffing," or rustling. She lives in the utmost poverty and has a great many ragged but lovable brats, a backbreaking workload, and a great deal of tragic humanity. The pathos of her situation is her pride, her desire to do the best by her children in impossible circumstances. She is also generous, and she has a type of stoic frontier endurance that destroys something within her, reducing her to a silent despair, "past carin'."

The geraniums that must be watered at all costs—it is Mrs. Spicer's dying request to her daughter—grow beside a crude hut, a sad and impotent marker of civilization. Joe sees Mrs. Spicer laboring in the summer heat, keeping starving stock alive in drought, or getting covered in mud under a downpour. She somehow maintains a sense of humor. When a heifer down with the "ploorer" (pleuropneumonia) rises inexplicably to chase her into the house, she says, "I had to pick up me skirts an' run! Wasn't it redic'lus?" But bush suffering brings on "the dismals" as well, and Mrs. Spicer's repertoire of stories includes a fair share of tales of horror and suicide. Mary Wilson's reaction is to ask Joe to take her away from the bush.

There is no escape from poverty and a disintegrating marriage, however. Mrs. Spicer dies, and Joe and Mary are left to ponder her fate and their own future. We are brought back to the beginning of "Water Them Geraniums," with its account of the couple's arrival at the desolation that is Lahey's Creek, their bleak first evening at the new home—a miserable wooden hut—and their quarrel that prompts Joe to walk out into the bush, where he hears Mrs. Spicer's nagging cry in the darkness, "Didn't I tell yer to water them geraniums!"

It is a powerful story. With the earlier While the Billy Boils collection, the Joe Wilson sequence is generally regarded as Lawson's best work. It is interesting to note that the sequence was put together while the author was in London seeking to achieve the success he felt had been denied him in Australia.

—Livio A. C. Dobrez