Biography of a Book: Henry Lawson's While the Billy Boils/While the Billy Boils: The Original Newspaper Versions

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Biography of a Book: Henry Lawson's While the Billy Boils, by Paul Eggert. New South Wales: Sydney University Press, 2013, 428 pp. ISBN: 9781743320129 (pbk) $AUD 35.00 http://purl.library.usyd.edu.au/sup/9781743320143

While the Billy Boils: The Original Newspaper Versions, Ed. Paul Eggert with explanatory notes by Elizabeth Webby. New South Wales: Sydney University Press, 2013, 450 pp. ISBN: 9781743320099 (Pbk) $AUD 25.00 http://fmx01.ucc.usyd.edu.au/jspcart/cart/Product.jsp?&nCategoryID=1&nID=838

One of Australia's greatest works of fiction, Henry Lawson's While the Billy Boils, has a chequered and curious history that both precedes its publication as a book on 29 August 1896, then stretches forth into the present, through many different editions and changes of critical fortune for its author. The writing, publication, distribution and reception of Lawson's short story collection are the subject of a pair of new books. The first of these (and the first to be considered here) is While the Billy Boils: The Original Newspaper Versions, edited by one of Australia's leading textual scholars, Paul Eggert, with explanatory notes by Elizabeth Webby. The companion volume is Eggert's Biography of a Book: Henry Lawson's While the Billy Boils, whose subject is 'the life of an Australian literary classic' (ix). Eggert's intention is to show 'that it can be productive, as a form of literary study, to follow the lives of works over time, both at the hands of the author and of his or her collaborators in publication, and in the reception of readers' (9).

In his edition of the fifty two stories in While the Billy Boils, Eggert does something radical, simple and revealing. Instead of following 'the blended sequencing of the stories and sketches that was finalised in early 1896 ... a straightforward chronological sequence by first newspaper publication has been adopted' (xix). Thus the edition begins with 'His Father's Mate', which first appeared in the Bulletin on 22 December 1888 and concludes with two stories from manuscript, 'For Auld Lang Syne' and 'The Geological Speiler'. This means that, except for the last two instances, the newspaper versions were Eggert's copy texts. He reckons, next, with the nature and reasons for the hundreds of changes made by the Angus & Robertson publisher's editor, Arthur Jose (and in some cases perhaps by George Robertson himself), to the stories that were collected as While the Billy Boils. Fortuitously, as Eggert notes, the printer's copy of the book has survived, even if-predictably-there is no holograph manuscript of stories and sketches.

In 1892, the population of Sydney was approximately 400,000, sufficient to support ten metropolitan weeklies and another ten metropolitan fortnightlies and monthlies, let alone daily newspapers. The stories gathered in While the Billy Boils were originally published in disparate places. Some were published in the New Zealand Mail. New Zealand was a country Lawson visited before his marriage in 1895, and where he would fail to settle after it. Other sites of publication were the Antipodean (where 'The Bush Undertaker' first appeared), the Boomerang, the Patriot, the Pahiatua Herald, the Truth and the Worker. Lawson's relations with colleagues at the latter deteriorated after one of his stories, 'Baldy Thompson. A Sketch of a Squatter' (13 October 1894), published after the shearers' strike, was deemed too sympathetic to the squatter who is its main character. Then, of course, there was the Bulletin, with which-perhaps-Lawson's name should not be so straightforwardly and indelibly linked. Of the fifty two stories in While the Billy Boils, 23 (less than half) were first published in the Bulletin.

As noted earlier, the first of them had been. 'His Father's Mate,' the longest story in the book, comprises six short chapters that strike chords that resound through much of what follows. The story begins with a lament for what has already been lost, from a wider historical and social field, then narrows to a particular and personal tragedy. …