GEORGINA ARNOTT The Unknown Judith Wright. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
Arnott reveals the literary growth of an important Australian artist, bringing to life a complex, contradictory human being.
Georgina Arnott was surprised to realise that existing biographies, autobiographical works and critical studies of Judith Wright merely skimmed over her childhood and years at the University of Sydney. After all, these are formative years for anyone, and Wright – poet and environmental activist – is one of Australia’s most significant literary figures.
Arnott sums up her significance by referring to Wright’s first two collections, The Moving Image (1946) and Woman to Man (1949):
[they] … broke new ground in Australia … Here was a woman writing, with skill and assurance, of distinctly Australian themes in a modern diction.
But Wright had resisted any investigation of her youthful endeavours: ‘she preferred that early poetry was not discussed’. In this meticulous and respectful study, Arnott fills this gap, careful not to criticise earlier biographers, nor to accuse Wright of wilfully manipulating her life story. Using an extensive range of primary sources, Arnott traces Wright’s styles and themes through materials such as scrapbooks of juvenilia, and her columns in the University of Sydney student magazine Honi Soit. Importantly, the student literary publication Hermes reveals new works potentially by Wright: 11 poems published under pseudonyms during the years that Wright was a student. (In an oral history, Wright’s ‘amusement’ about her pseudonyms is ‘audible’.) The tentative attributions are included in this book, along with Arnott’s analysis of their links to poems in The Moving Image.
The result is scholarly but very readable, suggesting that competing human impulses are part of the ‘social composition of selfhood’, as Arnott puts it. Inevitably, these impulses complicate writing biography. Arnott admirably resists tidying up any messy contradictions, instead celebrating complexity as a crucial part of the story.
One of the most compelling aspects of the book is Wright’s family history, which was both a source for her work and an unresolved conundrum. Born in 1915, Wright came from a New England pastoral family. Earlier biographies describe young Judith as an anomaly in her family. Her father was deeply involved with the Country Party, the conservative values of which are diametrically opposed to Wright’s eventual advocacy of Indigenous land rights and environmentalism. Arnott shows both the differences and, importantly, the connections between Wright and her family.
The Wright family’s colonial history began with George and Margaret Wyndham, well-off settlers who arrived in Australia in 1827. Arnott tracks their story and that of subsequent generations, unravelling the family’s ‘enduring and very powerful mythology’, as well as the ways that Wright responded to it.
Arnott acknowledges Wright as a ‘rigorous’ historian, noting that the poet’s process of researching settler violence against Indigenous peoples changed her attitude towards her forebears. The Generations of Men, her 1959 biography of her grandparents in New England, paid little attention to Indigenous displacement, but later she attempted to ‘make amends’ with The Cry for the Dead (1981), a further historical biography about the family’s activities in Central Queensland.
Nevertheless, Arnott argues, there were limits to her insight:
Judith did not shy away from the horrors that followed the pastoral invasion of New South Wales, but she did not seem able to forensically examine her family’s role within them.
Arnott’s own research establishes the Wyndhams’ complicity by locating them at places and times of great violence against Aboriginal people. Furthermore, one of Wright’s great-great-grandfather’s closest friends, magistrate Robert Scott, ‘oversaw the murder of eighteen Aboriginal people in revenge for the death of two European men’. There was a formal investigation – but Scott was one of the investigators.
But despite the limits of Wright’s assessment of her forebears’ involvement in violence and dispossession, Arnott credits her with influencing ‘discussion of Australian colonialism in the 1980s’, producing ‘complex results’:
The point of this [discussion] is not to undermine Judith … Where family loyalty influenced her interpretation, it was not conscious … it was simply Judith’s attempt to synthesise two different versions of history that had influenced her life and thinking.
The first of these ‘versions of history’ was the family mythology; the second took root while Wright studied at University of Sydney. Wright was 19 when she became a student in the Depression year of 1934. Her grandmother May had left her money for education, possibly as a consolation: Wright’s brothers would inherit the family’s land. Among her favourite subjects were anthropology, taught by AP Elkin, and philosophy, taught by firebrand John Anderson. Arnott constructs a detailed picture of her intellectual and cultural milieu, drawing, for example, on published lectures by Wright’s university teachers.
She also vividly describes Wright’s friendships, love affairs, college life and a short period living in a dingy Balmain boarding house. This creates a rare glimpse into the privileged life of a female university student – one of the few – during the 1930s, when the homeless numbered 33 000 and shanty towns housed a further 400 000 people. But Sydney was also a bustling metropolis, offering exciting new experiences for a modern young woman. Arnott writes: ‘Judith was changed by Sydney because it made change possible.’
Arnott believes that looking at these years of Wright’s life and her earliest published writing offers valuable insights into the poet’s creative processes:
If we accept that these were the poems that came before The Moving Image (1946), then they can be seen to show, most obviously, the length of time it took to create that first collection. A decade before it was published, Judith was experimenting with phrases and images she would use for it.
In this book, Arnott reveals the literary growth of an important Australian artist, and the contexts that supported her, as well as convincingly bringing Wright to life as a complex, contradictory human being.
Georgina Arnott The Unknown Judith Wright UWA Publishing 2016 PB 294pp $29.99
Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.
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