This article is an edited extract from the new book, The Unknown Judith Wright.
It was in 1936, at the age of twenty-one, that Judith Wright was given the job of writing ‘Quadrangles’, a social column for the student newspaper, Honi Soit. Judith, a talented and suitably determined writer, was in her final year of arts at the University of Sydney. She recalled later that the role, given to her by male editors, was a form of ‘shunting’. Social editresses typically reported on overseas voyages, engagements and children’s births, and always in a jolly fashion. When Judith became editor, its tone changed markedly. Her first column began:
One of the science lads was hanging over the bar explaining to the barmaid with excited fervour the intricacies of the functions of a complex variable. When he had finished, the barmaid nodded her approval and said: ‘I used to arithmetic, too, when I was at school.’ (True story).
‘Quadrangles’ was going somewhere it had not been before, and was being taken there by a young woman who would become one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. Judith would not be shunted.
Despite her prominence, and unlike so many of her male counterparts, Judith’s early adult years, that make-or-break period in so many writer’s lives, have not been closely examined, leading critics to imagine that she emerged suddenly, ‘out of the obscurity of the private realm’, as Brigid Rooney has observed.
There is very little documentation, almost nothing, from Judith’s early adult years. This makes the discovery of thirteen ‘Quadrangles’ columns especially valuable. They animate her in ways that have not been visible before and allow us to witness something of her intellectual and creative development. They point to talents she already had. Confidence, originality and ability were on full display in the columns, qualities which many thought came later, after returning to New England in World War II, working for Meanjin in its early Brisbane days, meeting her husband, Jack McKinney, and around the time her first collection of poetry, The Moving Image, was published in 1946. Many thought Judith’s relationship with Jack prompted her to write about sex from a woman’s point of view in that ground-breaking second collection, Woman to Man (1949), but these columns, like that poetry Judith wrote at university uncovered in this book, show that Judith was a provocateur from way back.
Honi Soit writers liked to make fun of someone. The goal was to be cute and witty in one’s disparagement. The trick was to appear unbothered either way. Earnestness was a no-no. Judith found a new subject to mock. Her first column included an original poem describing ‘the perfect student’.
No. 1: The Perfect Student
A lousy frowsy dastard
With a self-contented kink:
Whose head is stuffed with paper
And whose humour smells of ink.
He works and sports and frivols
In an ostentatious way.
He’s aware of current happenings
And discusses them all day.
He’s a very model student,
But whatever he may think,
He’s a lousy frowsy dastard
With a self-contented kink.
Like other poems published in Australian magazines at the time, ‘University Specimens’ was critical of the superficiality and self-centredness which some characterised as ‘modern’. But at the surface level, at least, Judith was, according to her own definition, ‘a very model student’. In the succeeding twelve columns she exhibited many of his characteristics.
Her target, in three consecutive issues, was the University Settlement. The Settlement was a charitable organisation founded in 1908 which followed the example of the nineteenth-century English Settlement movement in believing that poverty would only be eradicated when educated people respectfully interacted with the poor. It organised social events and charitable donations. In ‘Quadrangles’ Judith described recipients of their charity as ‘settlement scavengers’. They were, humorously, so hungry they got excited by a hat in the shape of pie.
Public opinion has at last prevailed and John Neil’s hat has again resumed normal proportions – or is he afraid that a ‘pork pie’ might prove irresistible to the Settlement Scavengers?
Describing a football match that was intended to bring undergraduates into contact with the poor, Judith wrote: ‘we hear that one prominent football player overwhelmed the Settlement scavengers the other day by handing over three trunkfuls of cast-offs’. The worst of the Depression had passed but unemployment in Sydney hovered around 10 per cent throughout the 1930s. Judith joked that a solution to the ‘unemployment problem’ could be found in the University erecting gates that impeded the progress of the ‘free-born College man’ getting to and from class. He would ‘naturally’ knock over the gate and, ‘like a patient ant’, a university employee would put it back.
If it was parody, there was little to indicate it. Judith expertly mocked those who were too unsophisticated or too poor to behave as she did. She snickered at students who ate their lunch out of brown paper bags. She swaggered in her privilege:
And while we are feeling in such a good mood, isn’t it nearly time somebody died and left the University enough money to build a bridge and tidy up the University Park generally? We dislike these heaps of oddments lying about the lake: in fact we consider the whole thing a blot on the fair face of the University.
Yes it was performance that bordered on caricature, but unlike genuine satire nothing in the columns acknowledged the darker reality; that, for others, such attitudes had a real life force. For they helped maintain the class structure of Australian society, which in turn justified a disparity in wages and other inequalities, such as the inaccessibility of tertiary education for most of the Australian population.
Judith’s columns do, however, reveal an unmistakable dissidence, not regarding privilege per se, but the conventions that go with it. Whereas the tone of previous ‘Quadrangles’ had been all good table manners, Judith elbowed her fellow diners. And she seemed to be the life of the party. It is easy to imagine that she was becoming ‘if not well known, at least familiar to the mighty of more senior years and a habitué of the Quad’, as she later recalled.
Her brazenness extended to reporting that one ‘highly respectable personage, with his hat over his eyes and his coat collar turned up’ was seen entering the University Hotel, a notorious drinking venue, with ‘a gleam in his eye and sixpence clutched in his hot little hand’. Typically mischievous, she wrote: ‘we are not sure, however, that we believe this story, so we had better leave him in anonymity’. In one short column Judith referred to daytime drinking and smacking; she mentioned an ‘orgy’, ‘profane horseplay’, and paused to reflect on the ‘hot blood stirring’ within all who were touched by spring. Earlier in The Unknown Judith Wright, Judith’s strategy for attracting men was described: make friends with the beautiful women; pick up their ‘male crumbs’. Here, in a 1936 issue of Honi Soit, we may have found another.
Like her allusions to sex, these columns were not the output of a ‘respectable’ woman.
There must be someone, somewhere, under some obscure bushel, who doesn’t merely creep about this bright, young University, blinking like an earthworm dragged from its hole and carrying Aristotle’s Ethics under its paralytic arm.
Judith might be remembered for her earnestness, but it was not always so. She lamented that no student had made ‘a little printable whoopee’; that they seemed all so frustratingly serious.
It would be a great thing not only for the Personal Editor but for the University as a whole, if someone threw a beer party in Fisher instead of hibernating there, or heckled a lecturer instead of taking all his words for gospel truth and writing them neatly in a black folder, or did anything instead of talking about doing it.
‘Deeds, not words, are wanted’, Judith wrote, in a challenge to her mostly male prankster colleagues. Parties, and their inevitable heavy drinking, she reported with relish. Of the Honi Soit annual dinner, Judith testified that ‘four editors added dignity to the crowd – well, three did, anyway. The fourth compensated, however, by knowing three verses of “Grads and Undergrads”’. After this, Judith noted, there took place ‘a large number of confused speeches and toasts’ before the party reconvened elsewhere.
Behaving well – listening at lectures, getting married – was boring. Judith described the marriage of one medical student as a ‘loss’; the engagement of two others as ‘casualties’. Marriages were treated with as much dread as flings were celebrated. Judith reported that one male student, away in Austria, was receiving ‘lessons in German by a very pretty Austrian girl, who speaks nothing but French’, before being seen dancing with another woman in Cambridge.
It was not just niceties that Judith wanted to be done away with; these columns show that she was, at times, discontent with the treatment of women on campus too. In one column Judith referred to a long-standing advertisement in Honi Soit which featured an attractive woman smiling. These words were printed above her head: ‘I’m so glad I bought a Remington Portable’.
Have you noticed the way Honi Soit has been brightening up its advertisements lately? These beautiful women who are all so glad that they bought a Remington Portable, for instance – a different one every week, at that.
In previous ‘Quadrangles’, and in advertising lingo at the time, the word ‘brightening’ tended to be used in connection with tennis parties, laundry detergents and ladies’ hats. In Judith’s hands it became syrupy and sarcastic. But even if this were just another instance of Judith indulging in Honi Soit’s nudge-nudge wink-wink humour, on this occasion she was also making a serious point. She ridiculed the increasingly prevalent practice of using young, beautiful women to sell products. She drew attention to a fundamental deceit: that women were so stupid that they got euphoric about typewriters.
In her second last ‘Quadrangles’, Judith showed that her most keen desire, at this stage of her life, was to be witty and well regarded by her fellow students. She concluded the column with a statement from her ‘Special Correspondent from the Medical School’:
Something has to be done about women students knitting during lectures. One professor I know of in the Faculty of Medicine put a stop to it by producing halfway through a lecture, his own work, and paced up and down the rostrum knitting defiantly at the women students.
Over the preceding years there had been complaints that women students knitted in lectures so vigorously, and so loudly, that the lecture could not be heard. The accusation suggested that women were not engaged by the subject matter of university courses, but attended simply to fill in their time while looking for a husband. Judith’s correspondent explained the situation with mock disquiet.
Previously I had approached one of these female offenders and asked her did she get very much out of her lectures. She replied that in second term she had produced three jumpers, two scarves, and a pullover during Physiology alone, and was now starting a pair of bed socks for her fiancé, as she found his feet got so very cold at night.
It was witty for sure. But Judith was not quite the victim of sexism – that country woman who was ‘shunted on the social column’ – that she had told us about in her memoir, Half a Lifetime. In fact these columns are more suggestive of a woman comfortable amongst the literary crowd rather than of one who was ‘upstaged’ by it. She was clearly trying to fit in, and in doing so adopted a recklessness towards society. It was not apathy, altogether, but an attitude which indicated that she had little to fear, personally, from changes or problems within society. All this would change.
The Unknown Judith Wright will be launched by Emily Bitto in Melbourne next Thursday (6 October) at Hill of Content (86 Bourke Street, Melbourne). From 6 pm. For more details.