Australian Women's Book Review

ISSN 1033-9434    
Editor:  Barbara Brook
Contributing Assistant Editor:  Katie Hughes
Photomontage:  Set in Stone, Adele Flood
Volume 12, 2000

Transcending Womanliness

Half a Lifetime by Judith Wright
, Text Publishing, 1999, pb., $25.19 296 pp.

Reviewed by Sylvia Martin

Judith Wright, whose poems taught us how to see and understand this country, died in June aged eighty-five, just a few months after the publication of Half a Lifetime. Tantalising excerpts from an “Autobiography: unpublished manuscript in Wright's possession” appeared in Veronica Brady's 1998 biography of the poet, South of My Days. At Wright's request, historian Patricia Clarke edited that manuscript, together with other autobiographical pieces written over a number of years, and Half a Lifetime is the result of her painstaking endeavour. Each chapter is prefaced by a poem chosen by Wright's daughter Meredith McKinney, for whom the edited collection was initially undertaken.

In her “editor's note” to the book, Clarke wrote that she hoped its publication would encourage Wright “to think about completing the story of her life”. Yet, in a sense, it is the editor herself who has imposed the notion of completion onto the series of pieces of autobiographical fragment, memoir, and essay that make up Half a Lifetime. By organising them chronologically into an appearance of seamless autobiographical coherence, it could be said that she has done Wright something of a disservice. Having created that expectation in the reader, the shifting tones in the writing are sometimes confusing and the gaps in the account jarring (most noticeably towards the end when the narrative jumps from 1955 to after Jack McKinney's death in 1966).

Judith Wright herself acknowledges that she is not at ease in her role as “autobiographer”. “Autobiography is not what I want to write. It forces the writer into far too much introversion or into arrogance”, she says at the outset. Later, in the essay “Second Speaker”, she muses on the difficulties of writing in a genre in which, unlike poetry, the author is her own subject. Knowing that “[h]er time is nearly over”, she says she has had to choose which of the “succession of personas” she has constructed in her life “she will speak as and for”. Rather than being an “incomplete” autobiography, the various sections are written in different styles and for different purposes, some more self-contained and polished pieces of writing than others. So, contrary to the book's title and organisation, they do not make up a whole or even half a lifetime in the manner of a conventional autobiography.

Having said that, Half a Lifetime contains numerous and generous rewards for the reader. Complementing the poems (many of which like “South of My Days” are for ever ingrained in the minds of those schooled in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century), it adds another perspective to our knowledge of this extraordinary writer as it details her childhood in the “clean, lean, hungry country” of the New England region of northern New South Wales. Wright relates her story with honesty, dry humour and compassion, without false modesty but also without any trace of the hubris - the “arrogance” she deplores - that is so common in the memoirs of public figures. “I was tongue-tied and spotty and beginning to bulge, but I knew I would be a poet”, she says of herself at fourteen.

In the sections about her growing up, the poet employs what Drusilla Modjeska has called “the double vision of the best memoirs”*. Here, Wright's childhood memories as a pastoralist's daughter and member of the well-known family that came to be known as the Wright dynasty are overlaid with the older woman's knowledge of the devastating consequences of the settler farmers' practices, both to the region's indigenous inhabitants and to the land itself. Brought up on her father's station, Wallamumbi, about fifty kilometres from Armidale, she comments dryly that as a child she was made to feel that “everyone in New England was somehow related to me, with the exception of course of the labouring classes and the Aborigines”. It was not until much later that she learnt “that no more than a couple of generations of occupation stood between me and the days when Aborigines still held the country I knew as mine”.

Although she belonged to the landed gentry, we learn that Wright's childhood was anything but luxurious. Like many New England houses, the homestead was cold and dark, built facing south-east as though still in the northern hemisphere, thus receiving the full blast of the cold winds of the Northern Tablelands as well as letting in little natural light. Sunshine never warmed the rooms and fires were lit only sparingly. No wonder the young Wright preferred Outside to Inside, often retreating “with the current book to the hidden corner of a tankstand” where she wouldn't be accused of ”not doing anything”. She soon learned, however, not only that Inside was the domain reserved for women but also that even that space would never be rightfully hers and that to marry into a suitably landed family was her expected feminine destiny.

Judith Wright became one of Australia's most highly regarded poets in spite of the fact that poetry, of all the literary forms, has traditionally been the most difficult for a woman to succeed in. Indeed, in a now infamous comment made in the 1950s (one that appears on English examination papers with the command, “Discuss”), critic Vincent Buckley observed of her that when she was content to be a woman she was a very fine poet, but when she attempted to “transcend her womanliness” and be “a bard, commentator or prophet” she became “a bit of a shrew”. One of the threads running through Half a Lifetime is Wright's awareness of the limitations placed by society on women and her quiet resistance to them.

Inspired as a young girl by Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (even though she says she doesn't know how such a book entered her “respectable household”), she took Sybylla, the girl who refused to get married and became a writer, as her model. When in 1929, at the late age of thirteen, she was sent as a boarder to New England Girls' School (NEGS) in Armidale, she found it bizarre that it was modelled on British boys' “public schools”, inculcating masculine values and making the pupils sing “incomprehensible and masculine” school songs. While such schools encouraged independence and intellectual prowess in their students, ironically, on leaving school, NEGS girls were still pressured to find suitable husbands and become grazier's wives.

Wright put off such a fate by studying Arts at Sydney University, but then had to take up a series of clerical positions to make a living, moving to Brisbane in 1943 to work for the Universities Commission. There she met two men who were to be significant in her life: Clem Christesen who founded The Meanjin Papers and who published her first volume of poetry, The Moving Image, in 1946, and the self-made philosopher twenty-four years her senior who was to become her life partner, Jack McKinney. Wright is uncharacteristically severe on Christesen, finding about him a “combative peevishness” that she says she did not much like. (Even of the stepmother who took her beloved mother's place when she was in her teens, she simply remarks that they were “not compatible”). In Jack McKinney, on the other hand, she found someone different from her experience of Australian men, one who treated her on an equal basis and who “shared his enthusiasms as though I was an authority”.

Avoiding the dangers she sees in “too much introversion”, Wright's autobiographical writing lacks the interiority we have come to expect from recent memoirs more influenced by postmodern concerns about the nature of the self (even if she does gesture towards these in “Second Speaker”). The self or “persona” that relates her meeting and subsequent life with Jack McKinney is not concerned with bringing alive what Modjeska calls “the tiny moments that live on in the psyche, the most intimate flickerings” of memoir. Rather, she is writing an account of her relationship with McKinney to pass on to their daughter, Meredith, who was born in 1950. Central to this account is the man himself and his ideas (“I was in love - in love with a man and a mind”) and Wright does not allow us the “double vision” of the earlier sections of the book. The poet supported her lover financially and intellectually during their early life together in the small cottage they named Quantum on Tamborine Mountain outside Brisbane; Veronica Brady says in her biography that some of the women of Wright's family did not always approve of the way “Judith seemed to dance attention on Jack”. But what does come through clearly in this account is their immense compatibility, particularly their shared intellectual integrity, and the fact that Wright's relationship with McKinney was crucial to her development as a poet. Both in many ways unworldly “outsiders” (they were for years unmarried, Judith becoming increasingly deaf, Jack always fragile in health), they lived frugally but productively at Quantum and later at Calanthe and Melaleuca.

Towards the end of Half a Lifetime Wright identifies the “two threads” of her life as “the love of the land itself and the deep unease over the fate of its original people”. Writing of her return to New England from Sydney to help her father during the war years, she says she found that the train journey “had a new tang to it - a sense of belonging”. Acutely aware that a white person's sense of belonging is always contingent in this country, her final essay is called “Apology to the Koori and Murri People”. It concludes with a passionate plea for forgiveness that should be read by all white Australians, particularly our politicians.

As she looked out onto the drought-stricken landscape on that train journey towards Armidale through the foothills of the Moonbis in 1942, Wright says she became “sharply aware of it as 'my country'”. I was reminded on reading this of the passage in her poem “Train Journey”, published in The Gateway in 1953, where she writes, “I looked and saw under the moon's cold sheet/ your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart”. Could one of our male poets (A. D. Hope, for example) have written with such tenderness of the harsh yet fragile Australian landscape? I think not. Far from needing to “transcend her womanliness” (whatever that means), Judith Wright brought to Australian poetry a vision and understanding of her country and its peoples that is unique, one enriched by her woman's perspective. That vision far transcends her own self-effacing assessment of her life in Half a Lifetime, that “in many ways, perhaps, it's been an interesting life in an interesting time”.

*'A Writ Served', The Australian's Review of Books, July 2000.

Sylvia Martin is a NSW biographer and critic.


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