Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2019

The Unknown Judith Wright (2016), by Georgina Arnott

Settle back with a nice cup of coffee and something to nibble on: this is a long post, but the book deserves it.

Judith Wright (1915-2000) was an award-winning and much-loved Australian poet, author, environmental activist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights.  In my battered copy of The 1972 Penguin Book of Australian Verse edited by Harry Heseltine editor, she is described as

…one of the few writers to enjoy unchallenged pre-eminence in contemporary Australian poetry.  Since the appearance of her first book, The Moving Image, in 1946, she has been recognised, both at home and abroad, as a poet of great accomplishments.  Born in the New England area of New South wales, for may years she lived with her family at Mt Tamborine, Queensland. (p.15)

At the time Heseltine was writing, Judith Wright was almost sixty, and living in a bush shack outside Canberra.

I bought Georgina Arnott’s  bio of Judith Wright at the Williamstown Literary Festival in 2017 to complement Fiona Capp’s My Blood’s Country: In the footsteps of Judith Wright, which I reviewed here.  There are also other books about her life, notably South of My Days (1998) by Veronica Brady, and there is also her autobiography Half a Lifetime (Text Publishing, 2001).  But as Arnott explained at the festival, these works don’t adequately interrogate the contradictions in Judith Wright’s life.  Her parents weren’t just wealthy pastoralists, they were from the squattocracy, and the mythology about their lives and achievements shaped the poet’s life more than she wanted to acknowledge.

This is the blurb from Fishpond:

Judith Wright (1915-2000) remains a giant figure within Australian art, culture and politics. Her 1946 collection of poetry, The Moving Image, revolutionised Australian poetry. She helped to establish the modern Australian environmental movement and was a key player in early campaigns for Aboriginal land rights. A friend and confidante of artists, writers, scholars, activists and policy makers – she remains an inspiration to many. And yet, as Georgina Arnott is able to show in this major new work, the biographical picture we have had of this renowned poet-activist has been very much a partial one. This book presents a more human figure than we have previously seen, and concentrates on Wright’s younger years. New material allows us to hear, directly, thrillingly, the feisty voice of a young Judith Wright and forces us to reconsider the woman we thought we knew.

The biographical picture we have had isn’t just a partial one, it’s also somewhat skewed by taking for granted what Wright had to say about herself, particularly with regard to the influence of her parents.  Drawing on her autobiographical writings, biographers have tended to take at face value that her early life in a wealthy pastoral family served only as a launching pad for rebellion.  Arnott’s research shows that this is not the whole picture. In particular, Arnott’s thesis is that Wright didn’t fully acknowledge that her family was complicit in the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous people from the land that became the Hunter Valley, nor that her university years had influenced her thinking.

Along the way, I learned some interesting aspects of history. The early chapters of The Unknown Judith Wright are an interesting introduction to squatter history in New South Wales, and the domestic sphere in particular:

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the home increasingly figured as a private sphere governed by women.  In her account of the ideology informing the architecture of the modern Australian home, Kerreen Reiger describes the early century, middle-class ideal of ‘a peaceful home in which a clear-cut sexual division of labour existed between husband and wife [and where the] children were orderly, “well-governed”‘.  In the Wright household Ethel [Judith’s mother] spent almost her entire time inside the house and Phillip spent most of his time outside it, including at Country Party meetings.  This Judith registered to the extent that all of her childhood memories were arranged accordingly.  ‘I find it all falls into inside and outside for me.  Inside was women…My brothers used to follow the male side,’ which I always thought of internally as the outside.’ (p.78)

The etiquette for the squattocracy meant that Ethel had a lonely time when she became chronically ill.

Though Ethel lived amongst many people, including male and female servants, and farmers on small neighbouring plots, none were considered appropriate social companions.  Her social milieu was made up of large land-owning families of New South Wales and Queensland who were, by dint of their land, set at great distances apart from each other.  Judith observed that ‘one of the chief factors in the loneliness of the women of the “New England aristocracy’ was just this refusal to admit any outsider even to afternoon tea.” She explained, “my mother spent much of her time in solitude. It was not done to talk to the house “girls” and a housewife who was not well enough to do much work about the hosue or in the garden was doubly isolated.” (p.77-78)

For reasons I don’t need to explain, I don’t usually have much sympathy for pastoralists, but this image of a sick woman marooned for years in loneliness by the snobberies of her class is poignant.

And then there was the impact on Judith: then as now, it was expected that the female child of the family would adopt a nurturing role to care for her ailing mother.  Judith resented this, and then she felt guilty about her resentment…

Arnott explores Wright’s lack of acknowledgement of her university years in depth.  Most of us who’ve been to university—at least in the Arts faculty—would acknowledge, I am sure, that our lecturers and the people we met, influenced us in various ways.  But Judith Wright apparently denied that she was influenced by her academic studies at all.  Arnott’s investigations into this part of Judith’s life covers two whole chapters called ‘The Shaping of an Intellect’ and ‘Campus Literary Discussion’, which contradict the view of her biographer Veronica Brady in South of My Days (1998) that Judith’s innate abilities led her to critique conservative aspects of her university curriculum.  Arnott writes that there is scant evidence that Judith did question it. Brady’s claim is not supported by an examination of the university course Judith was taking or by a close reading of her early poetry.  Of course, by the time Judith came to write her autobiography Judith’s own interests lay in social change rather than in lectures that took place fifty years before.  But though the point is made politely, Arnott notes that Brady’s depiction of Judith’s lecturers relies almost completely on Judith’s unchecked recollections. [1] And what Brady failed to unearth (or to acknowledge?) was that the subject Judith failed was Australian history, because she didn’t sit the exam.

Why not? Well, it was taught by Professor Stephen Roberts whose field of research presented an unflattering analysis of inequality within early colonial society and the rapacious behaviour of squatter families like Judith’s.  (His stance was not at all commensurate with Judith’s 1959 history The Generations of Men.) Likewise, Judith’s antipathy towards Roberts later expressed itself in a misleading representation of his treatment of Aborigines in his books.  Like most historians of the period he was remiss, but he did acknowledge that the land was occupied rather than terra nullius, and that the Aborigines did not cede their sovereignty.   I think that a contemporary author fictionalising Judith Wright’s life could write a very interesting chapter about this hostility to Stephen Roberts!

What was also interesting to me in the chapter called ‘Becoming Modern’ was that Judith was very quickly transplanted from her lodgings outside the university into the University of Sydney’s Women’s College, after her father deputed a friend to investigate her risqué living arrangements. Apparently, in 1934, when Wright was admitted to university, it was unusual for women to live by themselves, and the university imposed restrictions on its students’ living arrangements:

…stating that ‘no student shall be allowed to attend the lectures of classes of the university unless he dwells’ with a parent or guardian, a relative who has been approved by the University, in an educational establishment such as a college, or in a boarding house licensed by the university.  Judith was probably risking her place at the University by staying at the Glebe house. (p.114)

Can you imagine any university trying to control student living arrangements these days??

What’s more, it appears that Judith’s admission may have been partly due to her parents’ money and influence.  The College at that time, under the Principal Susannah Williams, was trying to transition from being a social conduit which enabled the children of wealthy families to meet, to an atmosphere of ‘intellectual enquiry’. But it was an uphill battle to reduce the number of unmatriculated female student admissions and to insist that residents had to pass their university subjects. Judith, when she was forced by her father into the respectable environment of the college, had neither matriculated nor passed all her subjects, and it’s not clear why she was admitted there in the first place.   However, Arnott’s research into Wright’ academic record shows that she became a more serious student in her final two years due in part to the mentorship of the incoming new Principal Camilla Wedgwood. [Why the ADB has a photo of Wedgwood in uniform when her war service was only a year of a life full of other much more significant achievements I do not know.]

The main part of this book explores the ways in which Judith engaged (if at all) with radical ideas at university, how she was changed intellectually by her time there, and ultimately whether she was ‘born’ or ‘made’.  In ‘A Very Model Student’ Arnott explores the differences between her research into the roles women had at the student newspaper Honi Soit and Judith’s not entirely warranted scorn for the limited opportunities that were there. Of course it was not progressive by today’s standards, but that it published both feminist and patriarchal views wasn’t acknowledged by Wright, writing her autobiography many years later, and she was not as powerless as she made out because in 1936 she was a committee member of The Arts Journal. 

The idea that she spent years working on the newspaper with no recognition is an overreach. (p.135)

I was also very interested in the chapter which explored the university curriculum because it offers insight into Australia’s cultural history.  Judith was a student during the development of modernism and the emergence of nationalism in Australian literature, and Arnott’s thorough research shows that her time at Sydney University gave her access to what were then élite ideas about what Australian literature could be.

The chapter which analyses early anonymous poems and those with pseudonyms is an indication of how exhaustive Arnott’s research was.  Arnott’s analysis shows that some of Judith’s writing in this period mocked those less well-off or less sophisticated than she was.  There are possible reasons for this: not wanting to appear too earnest, or wanting to fit in, or even intended as sarcasm or parody.  A teenage poem, ‘A Call to Arms’ was described by Veronica Brady as ‘for once’ succumbing to imperial feeling, but the identification of an anonymous ‘Poem 2’ shows that ‘A Call to Arms’ was not the sole poem on this theme.  Rather, it extends the notion of public duty and self-sacrifice in war service to include settler hardships.  It’s obvious why Judith might not have wanted to revisit these early written pieces when she was older and lionised for her left-wing attitudes.  The point is that the image most of us have of Judith Wright and her politics is not the whole story.

This a more scholarly version of Wright’s life than Fiona Capp’s My Blood’s Country I’ve read, and there’s a lot to take in, but it’s an intriguing adjunct to what I’ve read before. For me, it raises once again the thorny issues surrounding whether it’s ever actually possible to condense a life within the pages of a book, and how much of an autobiography can ever really be ‘true’.

[1] To be fair to Veronica Brady, in an undated article at the NLA, she acknowledged that

Truth in biography – and even more in autobiography on which I rely a good deal – is not synonymous with mere fact.

If the 2019 VCE literature text list is any guide, students don’t read Wright’s poetry these days, but you can read some of her poems here.

For another review see John Kinsella at the SMH.

Author: Georgina Arnott
Title: The Unknown Judith Wright
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2016, 293 pages
ISBN: 9781742588216
Source: Personal library, purchased at the 2017 Williamstown Literary Festival, $30

Available from Fishpond: The Unknown Judith Wright


  1. I have a copy of Judith Wright’s ‘Collected Poems’ on the bookshelf behind me. I first read her poetry at high school, and like to dip into it again from time to time. Of course I will have to read this book. Of course ;-) Thank you for another wonderful review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks:)
      I was worried it was too long, but I couldn’t see how to do it in any other way…


      • I think the length is necessary for explanation. Can we ever get a complete picture of such a complex, layered person as Judith Wright?


        • Or anyone, really!
          I mean, we all consciously edit our lives, and we forget things, and remember them differently to other people who were there at the same time…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Australians unwillingness to subject the squattocracy to class analysis has long been a problem. So thank you for your interesting review of what is obviously a thoughtful biography. I have Generations of Men near the top of the pile at home and this gives me a context in which to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a copy of TGOM too, but I’ve never read it. In a way, I wish I’d read it before this, because I know I’ll read it differently now…


  3. Thanks for that extensive review. I have read Veronica Brady’s biography and this latest will be an interesting contrast. I have always enjoyed Judith’s poetry but mindful of her privileged position. I believe I started TGOM but never completed it. And yes a class analysis is well overdue. They seem to be the untouchables.


    • Thanks, Fay:)
      I’ll have a hunt around at Honest history to see if they’ve reviewed any histories of the squattocracy…


  4. […] The Unknown Judith Wright, by Georgina Arnott […]


  5. […] The Unknown Judith Wright, by Georgina Arnott […]


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