Monday, August 03, 2015

For Deborah Tree - a guided introduction to Judith Wright and the Wright Family

Back in July 2015 Deborah Tree wrote in a comment on a post I had written in January 2007, Poetry's Decline and the Sound of Words:
Hello Jim I have just discovered the poems of Judith Wright - a friend gave me her "Collected Poems" yesterday and already I've learned the first verse of "South of my Days" mainly because it was the favourite of my friend. As I learn the words and say them out loud, the poem changes for me; I become enchanted by the sound of the words (as you said) and the way Judith has woven them like a rose brier hedge, an enduring essence of a distant, simpler life of survival through hardship. There is romance in that, and in her love of country. I have a Wright journey ahead of me. Cheers Deborah
The photo shows Judith Wright in 1946.

I promised to bring up a consolidated post that might assist Deborah in her journey. This is that post. Because of the scale of the task, I am going to have to let the post evolve.


Judith Wright was born on 31 May 1915. From then until her death on 25 June 2000, her life and career went through a number of stages.As she went through those stages, her attitudes and interests changed.  “You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?” she wrote in Skins when she was sixty-six.. “They dropped off several incarnations back.”

My primary interest in lies in her connection with Northern New South Wales, the broader New England that is the subject of my main historical work. I am interested in her as a New England writer and as a member of a family that played a significant role in New England history.

To my mind, Judith remained a quintessentially New England writer. That was where her views were first formed, although her later experiences and especially her relationship with the older novelist and philosopher Jack McKinney would exercise a powerful influence over her. Judith met Jack McKinney when she moved to Brisbane. He was a much older man, some twenty four years her senior, only two years younger than her father. They fell in love, moving to Mount Tamborine in 1950; daughter Meredith was born in that year. In 1962, Jack and Judith finally married. Four years later Jack died, leaving a hole in Judith’s life.

Jack McKinney was the second of three powerful men in Judith Wright’s life. The first was her father, Phillip Arundell Wright, with whom she shared a middle name. The third was H C “Nugget” Coombs, a noted Australian economist and public servant, with whom she had a twenty five year love affair. Coombs was again an older man, in this case by nine years. Both were major public figures. Judith was a widow, Coombs long separated from his wife. Both shared common interests, including Aboriginal advancement and the environment. Judith moved to Braidwood to be closer to the Canberra based Coombs, but the affair was kept secret, if open to their friends and the Canberra network within which they moved.

Each man had a powerful impact on Judith, but I think that it was the father that formed her core views. It was he that gave her that love of the environment and of the country. It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letters between them. This image is one of  W E Pidgeon's (WEPs') portrait of Judith's father.

 I knew her father as a much older man. PA, we all spoke of him as PA, was my grandfather’s friend; my grandfather was godfather to his son who bore the same first name; my copy of Generations of Men carries my grandfather’s signature, bought in the year the book first came out. To me, PA was a somewhat remote figure. I saw him at events and at the New England New State Movement Executive meetings that he sometimes chaired. I and my fellow students at the University of New England where he was chancellor poked gentle fun at him for his sometimes mangled English. It would be a number of years before I came to properly understand his contribution to Northern life and the causes he supported. .

Judith loved her father, she loved the Falls country in which she grew up, she loved the life on the family properties. Her earlier works reflect that love, and then the joy she found in her relationship with Jack McKinney. Later, there would come a darkening of spirit, erosion in optimism, a rejection of elements of her past. 

Judith had the misfortune to be born a girl in an age when men inherited. Especially after the death of PA, she became separated from the properties and life she had loved, although the family ties remained close. Towards the end of her life, she saw the end of the Wright family empire that had been carefully built by her grandparents and especially grandmother May Wright. The ABC TV Dynasties program recorded the event in this rather dramatic way:

By December 2000, he (brother David) had lost it all – his properties, his cattle and his wife to cancer. His sister, the poet Judith Wright, watched in despair and died soon after.

That’s dramatic, but the loss was a profound one. Generations of Men is dedicated to the children of May and Albert, to her father and his brothers and sisters. The phrase generations of men comes from Blake’s Milton; the verse is quoted on the book’s title page:

The generations of men run on in the tide of time
But their destn’d lineaments permanent for ever and ever.

If you look at those words, you can get a feel for Judith’s subsequent sense of loss.

Six years after Judith’s death, David died suddenly. It was a shock. On his death, University of New England Professor Bernie Bindon described David as one of the pioneers of the scientific research underpinning today's Australian beef industry. "I can't think of a beef industry person” Professor Bindon said, “who's made a bigger contribution to not only the growth of the beef industry but the science that underpins the beef business," 

The Herefords .that formed the base of the V1V and V2V Wright brands began their life at Dalwood. It was Judith’s grandparents, the core characters in Generations of Men, who began the breeding program that created the Wright cattle. PA, then David and other Wright family members carried it through to the end. There is a whole story there.  

So, Deborah, you have begun a journey that can not only gratify in terms of the poetry, but which can carry you through into many aspects of Australian life.It's also a story that is sufficiently well documented for you to get to know the people and their connections.  


I will break the remaining post into three parts:
  • my posts on Judith and the Wrights.
  • the published material, including the locally published material that you might not find unless you know where to look.
  • a short guide to on-line sources that I am aware off.

My posts 

The various posts I have written to this point are set out below. They vary considerably in topic and length. I suggest that you scan quickly, that will give you a feel, and then come back to those that interest you. I welcome comments.

To be continued

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