The Unknown Judith Wright by Georgina Arnott was launched by Stella Prize-winning author Emily Bitto at Hill of Content Bookshop on Wednesday 6 October. Read her speech below.
Since Romanticism, at least, the dominant myth of the genius artist is that he (and, historically speaking, it is usually a ‘he’) is born rather than made. Born different; born special. He may be the black sheep of the family or the lone voice in the crowd urging change.
Because it does often seem unaccountable that this single individual should be immune to majority thinking, and often to social censure, it is easy to accept this myth as true. In addition, artists often cultivate this aspect of their personal mythologies because it serves them to do so, perhaps adding to their mystique or hiding a less extraordinary past self who might emerge with a little digging.
Once an artist is established, it takes a brave researcher to challenge what has become the accepted narrative, or to delve into periods the artist has deliberately avoided discussing. But this is just what Georgina Arnott has done in this bold, fascinating, and impeccably researched study of the early life of Judith Wright, undoubtedly one of the giants of Australian literature and intellectual culture.
Arnott takes as her starting point the realisation that, although there has been a lot written on Judith Wright, including a full-length biography as well as Wright’s own memoir, Half A Lifetime, there are in fact some startlingly obvious gaps in the narrative of her early life, in particular.
I found this compelling from the start. If this was America or the UK; if the poet under discussion was, say, Ted Hughes, the archive would have been scraped raw long ago.
And a thrilling provocation such as Wright’s, in a 1988 interview, that she had published early poetry under a pseudonym, but would not reveal it even if, “wild horses were harnessed to me,” would have sent a host of acolytes and literary sleuths into the archive for the possibility of finding such a rare treasure as previously undiscovered poetry.
Why has this not been the case for Judith Wright before now? Perhaps it is a combination of a lack of interest in our own literary and cultural history, as well as a certain reticence, especially in such a small literary community, which Arnott discusses in her introduction, when it comes to contradicting a writer’ s own telling of their history, or to ignoring their statements that a particular period in their life was not significant to their development and is therefore unworthy of discussion.
This is certainly the situation Arnott faced in relation to Judith Wright. Arnott has been researching Judith Wright’ s life and writing for many years now. She was awarded a PhD for her doctoral studies on Wright from the University of Melbourne in 2013. And in the course of her research, she states in her introduction, she came upon facts that, to her astonishment, seemed to challenge the accepted, published account of Wright’s family past, which Wright herself wrote about in not one but two separate works of family history.
“What’s more,” Arnott observes, “there seemed a significant absence in almost all accounts: Judith’ s undergraduate career at the University of Sydney in the mid 1930s.”
“In biographies of writers,” Arnott continues, “authors tend to dwell on academic years, in the belief that such periods are intellectually formative, and that first encounters with other writers and publishing enterprises usually shape the writer’ s work. But in the public telling of Judith’ s life these years had been left almost completely unexamined”.
During this period, as Arnott knew, Wright moved from her rural family home and began a very different life as an independent, modern woman in a big city. She also encountered, through her studies, a number of the leading figures of Australian intellectual culture, across the fields of Literary Studies, History, Philosophy, Psychology and Anthropology. And she was introduced to Modernist literature, which undoubtedly shaped her future poetic output, and without the influence of which she may have continued to write in the sentimental Victorian style that characterises her known juvenilia.
Why, then, have Wright and her biographers viewed this period as essentially insignificant in her personal, intellectual and creative development? Arnott considers a number of explanations, perhaps the most convincing being that, by the time Wright’s biography was recorded in any real detail, she was in her 70s and 80s, and, understandably, looked back on the years of her late teens and early twenties as a period of undeveloped naivety that had little to do with the person she was now. Furthermore, Wright’s express purpose in speaking publicly in her later years was to draw attention to the issues of ecological destruction and Indigenous land rights, about which she felt so passionate that she had given up poetry to dedicate herself solely to activism. From this vantage point, questions about what lectures she took and her involvement in the student journal seemed inconsequential to her.
But if we are to take our own intellectual history seriously, these are not at all inconsequential questions. In fact, it is imperative to redress the shameful paucity of deep archival research into Wright’s early life and intellectual formation.
And that is exactly what Georgina Arnott has one with The Unknown Judith Wright. Over 8 chapters, Arnott re-examines Wright’ s family history, her childhood, and her University days in Sydney. This work is meticulous, scholarly, but also incredibly engaging. It introduces us to a new, very human side of Judith Wright. Always with utmost respect, Arnott introduces us to what is, as the title suggests, an unknown Judith, a young woman who was trying out different ways of being, relishing in her freedom, enraptured by her discovery of sex and sensuality, experimenting with new forms of poetry, and beginning to think deeply about Australian history, particularly the pastoral history of her own family, which she had, it appears, previously taken more or less for granted.
Finally, and thrillingly, Arnott includes and analyses eleven poems published in student publications from this era, which she convincingly attributes to Judith Wright.
For any serious lovers of poetry, this is an absolute coup! Not all of these poems are particularly original, and in fact one can see why Wright may have felt embarrassed about having some of them brought to light. And yet, they are of incredible value and importance in revealing the early development of Wright’s voice, preoccupations, and the early building blocks of her distinctive cosmology.
It gives me great pleasure to launch this work of stunning intellectual history, and a book that I have no doubt will become one of the foundational texts on Judith Wright. Please join me in congratulating Georgina on the launch of The Unknown Judith Wright.