Judith Wright - A Life #
Judith Wright was born in 1915, had her first poem published at 25, and her first collection appeared in 1946; she continued to write poems until she was 70 and also wrote children’s books and an autobiography, which she was still working on when she died in 2000.
Her poetry and her championing of the environment and Indigenous rights, both in her creative work and in her activism, made her an inspiring figure many years ahead of her time: for me, reading Judith Wright resonates far more with a sense of Australia than reading Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson.
And she became a shining beacon to younger writers who grew up reading her work: Fiona Capp went on a pilgrimage to the places Wright knew and loved, and wrote a memoir in tribute, My Blood’s Country.
Capp also unearthed a secret love affair. For 25 years, Wright and political guru H.C. “Nugget” Coombs had been partners, but did not reveal their relationship because Coombs didn’t want to put his wife through the strain of divorce. And more controversy surfaced only last year, when Georgina Arnott’s new biography, The Unknown Judith Wright, disturbed some skeletons in the ancestral cupboard.
Wright had written a two-book history of her wealthy pastoral family, the Wyndhams, which described them as “figures of serene achievement”. But Arnott revealed they probably dispossessed the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land where they settled in 1828 and may have taken part in their murder. Moreover, Arnott contended, Wright could have found evidence of such violence in her research.
Did this damage the saintly Judith Wright image? Possibly it just brought things back to earth and helped us to see her as irrevocably a woman of her times. Kevin Brophy examined the book’s allegations in an article for The Conversation, and concluded, “If it makes Judith Wright a more deeply human and humanly flawed presence for us, it’s a book to be grateful for”.
I’m sad that Wright never won the Nobel, although she certainly had plenty of Australian accolades. But then for women of her era it was an almost unheard-of honour. Of the 114 laureates, only 14 have been women, beginning with Selma Lagerlof in 1909. The most recent winner was Svetlana Alexievich in 2015.
But what a legacy Wright has left us, and what power her poetry still unleashes. As fellow poet Mark O’Connor has said, her environmental poems “are today stopping more bulldozers than any environmental activists”.