Inside Story

The mystery of Judith Wright

Books | A new biography explores the ambivalent legacy of being “born of the conquerors”

Susan Lever 11 November 2016 1646 words

Lifelong struggle: Judith Wright in 1998. Mike Bowers/SMH

The Unknown Judith Wright
By Georgina Arnott | UWA Publishing | $29.99

After Judith Wright’s death in 2000, a celebration of her life was held at Old Parliament House, Canberra. People travelled from far and wide to express their love for a revered poet, often one they first read as teenagers. Many of the speakers and readers had never met Wright; some had corresponded with her and treasured her replies. A few had more intimate knowledge and could recount stories that revealed a sense of fun that could easily be missed in the public figure. It was clear that Wright meant a great deal more to people than even her wide range of commitments – as a poet, environmental activist, promoter of Aboriginal rights, historian and critic – might suggest.

It is difficult to know whether Wright would have been pleased by this adulation. In life, she often bemoaned the popularity of her early poems as school texts, but she also tried to control the public memory by keeping a close eye on her approved biographer, Veronica Brady, and publishing her own account of her life, Half a Lifetime, a year before she died. Brady’s biography was hampered by its apparent reliance on its subject’s faulty memory. In 2010, Fiona Capp’s My Blood’s Country retrieved the situation to a degree by presenting a personal and affectionate account of Wright’s life, based on the various places where she lived and exploring the background to some of her closest relationships.

Now Georgina Arnott offers us the results of her research into Wright’s family background and the first twenty-one years of her life, including her years as a student at the University of Sydney. She identifies a dozen previously unknown poems published in student magazines mainly under pseudonyms, and she argues that Wright had established her poetic voice before she was thirty. She argues that these student poems form the basis for those in Wright’s first book, The Moving Image, published in 1946 when Wright was just thirty-one years old. It contains some of Wright’s best-known poems, “Bullocky,” “South of My Days,” “The Trains” and “Bora Ring.” No wonder that the elderly Wright felt some frustration that her fame relied on her youthful poetry rather than her lifetime of activism. Yet she clearly understood that this fame gave her the platform to speak on the other issues she cared about.

Arnott frequently notes the inadequacies in Brady’s biography, perhaps overstating its authority as the “official” account of Wright’s life. She also finds considerable evasion in Wright’s own accounts of her family background and her beginnings as a poet. As Tom Griffiths notes in his recent book, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft, Wright was a historian as well as a poet, publishing two different accounts of her family’s pioneering experience in New South Wales and Queensland. The first, The Generations of Men, a semi-fictional family history, was based on her grandfather’s diaries and completed as early as 1950 (though published in 1959). More than thirty years later, the second, The Cry for the Dead, drew on a range of public and private material exposed by other historians in the intervening years and recognised the complicity of her forebears in land-taking and the destruction of Aboriginal lives.

Arnott takes a closer look at the history of Wright’s ancestors, the Wyndham family, and finds them part of a determined exercise in land-grabbing and consequent killing of Indigenous owners. George Wyndham was the typical younger son of English landed gentry financed by the family to seek a new fortune as a colonial pastoralist. His intimacy with Robert Scott, the leader of the Hunter River Black Association formed to assist the Myall Creek massacre defendants, suggests that he was more than a “tolerant” bystander in the murders of local Wonnarua people. Where Wright’s histories concentrate on the violence against Aboriginal people on the Queensland frontier, Arnott finds that the family was implicated in these activities a generation earlier in the Hunter region and the Liverpool Plains, when family letters referred to George “shooting the unhappy blacks.”

She also explicates the political commitments of Judith’s father, Phillip, in the twentieth century. Phillip Wright was a founding member of the Country Party and president of the New States movement that campaigned for New England to become a seventh state in the 1950s. Wright remained close to her father, returning for a time to help him on the family property during the second world war, but it is difficult to know how much she was influenced by his political views. In Half a Lifetime, Wright tells us that her period back on Wallamumbi with her father gave her a new identification with the land and its people that changed her poetry. Her poem, “Nigger’s Leap, New England,” was based on her father’s story about the driving of Aboriginal people over a cliff opposite Point Lookout, revealed by later histories as a documented event. Arnott finds Wright’s poem “abstract and a-historicised,” more interested in conforming to the generic demands of Victorian Gothicism, than historical fact. She insists that this “Victorianism” was a legacy of the tastes of Judith’s mother, Ethel, who kept a scrapbook of sentimental verse, one of the few sources of poetry for the child poet.

Through this argument, Arnott tries to correct what she perceives as a postcolonial admiration for Wright’s poetry that absolves it from the tradition of the “Last of His Tribe” lament – a tradition evident in the white Australian poetry from the early nineteenth century that indulged in sadness at the “inevitable” passing of a race. Those of us who remember that Wright’s poetry was regularly derided as “strident” by the New Critics of the 1960s may feel an urge to defend her on historical grounds: by the 1940s, the massacre history of Australia was almost forgotten, and her poem and her attempt to write her family’s history provided timely reminders, even when they softened the narrative.

Readers will be most grateful to Arnott for retrieving some of the missing fifteen years of Wright’s life, in which she travelled to Europe and studied as a non-degree student at Sydney University. She enjoyed several love affairs while travelling and returned to Sydney determined to live beyond family surveillance. She wrote satirical social comments for Honi Soit and published the poems reprinted in Arnott’s appendix in Hermes and other student magazines. She attended lectures by the philosopher John Anderson, the literary critic Arthur Waldock and the historian Stephen Roberts, but later dismissed Roberts’s histories for reasons that Arnott finds unjust. English literature was Wright’s best subject, though she abandoned Honours because of an excess of Beowulf.

This is important background for Wright’s emergence as a literary critic in the 1950s. Her Preoccupations in Australian Poetry remains a foundational text for the discussion of Australian poetry, just as The Generations of Men and The Cry for the Dead are significant interventions in Australian history. As her career progressed, Wright influenced changes in Australian attitudes and was changed herself by those shifts. She also managed to do this while remaining outside the universities that she continued to regard with suspicion.

Arnott’s research adds to our knowledge of an important Australian figure, but she tends to exaggerate the significance of her discoveries. These early poems are the work of a talented young writer, but the shifts in approach and skill evident in the poems published in The Moving Image are considerable. Arnott tells us that she sees herself as a historian rather than a literary critic, which is evident in her positioning of Wright’s early poetry under the vague, simplifying heading “Victorianism” and her lack of concern for the context of other Australian poetry of the 1930s and 1940s. Her book has the merit of opening other questions about how Wright’s attitudes and experiences compare to those of the other writers (most notably Patrick White) who emerged from pastoral families in the twentieth century, or the more difficult literary careers of other women poets, like Gwen Harwood. She notices Wright’s delight in Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career, but leaves me wondering whether Wright might have read Franklin’s later novels of pioneering Australia. All That Swagger would make an interesting comparison to The Generations of Men. It is to be hoped that other critics and biographers may follow some of the leads that Arnott gives.

The mystery of Wright’s career – how a woman poet came to such longstanding prominence in Australia – remains unsolved. As Arnott notes, the noblesse oblige confidence provided by a squatting background and family financial support help to explain Wright’s determination to become a writer and to speak out on public issues. The ambivalent legacy of being “born of the conquerors” (to use Wright’s own phrase) also became a lifelong struggle that can be traced through the activism, the histories, the essays and the poetry. If “Bora Ring,” “Bullocky” and “Nigger’s Leap, New England” suggest a writer ready to ameliorate the past, then “For a Pastoral Family” (published in 1985) reveals Wright’s continuing engagement with her family’s past – her acknowledgement of a continuing bond with her kin and an awareness of their place in white Australian exploitation of Aboriginal people and the land. •