Letters of love and fury

  • Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney (eds): With Love and Fury: Selected Letters of Judith Wright (National Library of Australia, ISBN 0642276250, $39.95)
  • Bryony Cosgrove (ed.): Portrait of a Friendship: The Letters of Barbara Blackman and Judith Wright 1950-2000 (Miegunyah Press, ISBN 0522853552, $59.95)

In a letter to friend and fellow-conservationist Kathleen McArthur, Judith Wright lamented that for all their hard work nothing seemed to have been conserved except, oddly, the stories of their attempts to conserve them. By the mid-1990s, theses were being written on the early days of “Oz conservation” but new environmental threats were still emerging, leading Wright to exclaim: “maybe the stories will be all that remains!”

Many writers would be content in the knowledge that “the stories” remain. But Wright was not a writer of this kind, rendering the standard description of her as a ‘poet’ inadequate. From the late 1960s until her death in 2000, poetry was something she did occasionally, when she had the time or the inclination. She believed the problems of society demanded direct intervention. Wright staffed environmental offices, edited news bulletins, wrote letters to politicians and newspapers, attended activist meetings, participated in fundraising efforts, worked on independent research submissions and government reports, went on speaking tours, wrote books on the environment and then, in the 1970s, redirected this energy towards achieving justice for Aboriginal people. Late in life she told biographer Veronica Brady that her aim was to “change the way people think and live and the motives they act from, and to save what I could of the lovely world before it is entirely ruined”.

Wright died before she had the opportunity to complete her autobiography. These two large collections of her letters (one of which is exclusively made up of her correspondence with Barbara Blackman), together with the collection of letters between her and her husband Jack McKinney, The Equal Heart and Mind (2004), might form the comprehensive statement by Wright on her own life. Despite her belief that – to put it crudely – society and the physical world mattered more than culture, Wright never underestimated the power of story telling. It is fascinating to read here of her attempts to direct Brady’s biography. To one relation she wrote, “don’t let her run away with the idea that I’m a potential Saint Judith!”

With Love and Fury reveals a passionate and remarkably determined woman, never intimidated by power. In 1985 she wrote to the Chancellor of the University of Queensland to resign her honorary doctorate after a similar honour was conferred on Joh Bjelke-Petersen. A letter to John Howard, dated Australia Day 1997, begins “your government has been both weak and corrupt”. She was direct and untiring in explaining where she thought others had gone wrong – in 1980 she conducted a heated exchange with Les Murray over his representation of Aboriginal culture – even when those ‘others’ had been allies. A great frustration throughout the later part of Wright’s life was the way that the conservation movement, wary of supporting land rights, took what seemed to her a neo-colonialist stance. Time and time again she told her conservationist friends and associates, “considering how we have treated Aborigines … we have no business preaching to [them] over anything”. At the suggestion by one Australian Conservation Foundation worker that “the whites may be approaching a turning point”, Wright countered that this was a “pipedream”. But, as these letters show, her typically no-nonsense and sometimes forceful tone could be tempered by emotional tact, revealing a loyal and loving spirit.

This spirit is especially evident in the forty-year correspondence between Wright and Blackman, documented in Portrait of a Friendship. They met in the 1940s in Brisbane, where Blackman was involved with the Barjais, a literary circle of under twenty-one-year-olds, in which Barbara also met her husband, the painter Charles Blackman. The two couples – Judith and Jack, Barbara and Charles – spent many long weekends together, discussing poetry and philosophy. Jack, by all accounts a great talker and teacher, is described as Barbara’s “father figure” in the book’s dedication. The postscript declares Barbara will always remember Wright “above all” as “Mrs Mac”, a humbling but perhaps diminutive reference to one of Australia’s greatest twentieth-century intellectuals.

Blackman’s letters tell the story of a young bohemian couple whose lives traversed a period of significant cultural change. Charles’ prominent place within Australian cultural life and the success of his painting career meant that their lives remained largely untouched by material exigencies. The Blackmans helped form a community of Australian artists in London, including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Charles Osborne and Barry Humphries. Barbara greatly assisted Charles’ career, organising exhibitions and liaising with agents and buyers; hers was the necessarily practical life of an artist’s partner.

She yearned however to be recognised as something other than a famous artist’s wife. In her early years she had several poems and short stories published. These were followed by her book of biographical essays, Certain Chairs (1968), and a regular 1970s Woman’s Day column. She had gone blind but bristled at being asked to write from the “perspective of a blind woman”, even when offers to write and encouragement were, for great stretches of time, unforthcoming. When Charles left her for a nineteen-year-old schoolmate of their daughter, Barbara was devastated. She emerged not bitter but more determined to be known as an intellectual in her own right.

Yet the time to sit down and write seemed forever delayed. Her long, stream-of-consciousness-style letters tell of endless relocations and distractions. Blackman embarked on various forms of spiritual enlightenment, including “Aboriginal Dreaming” and Sufi training camps, and fell in love with fellow spiritual searcher Marcel. The couple broke away from Sydney in the 1980s, overseeing the building of their rural house-cum-arts-centre. In 1997 Blackman finally achieved real recognition: the success of her autobiography Glass After Glass prompted Penguin to republish Certain Chairs.

Though they were both writers, Blackman’s and Wright’s lives became increasingly incomprehensible to one other. Into her fifties, Wright was always conscious of her limited time and was determined to do with it what would most benefit society. She gave lectures on poetry only if they would lead to greater political awareness or raise money she could donate. When Blackman proposed a “study weekend” for a dozen friends – the subject being Wright herself – Wright made it clear she regarded this as self-indulgent and irrelevant. Admonishing Wright for her boycott of the Bicentenary, Blackman writes: “it seems to me, Judith, that you – in your public utterances rather than in your poetry – view the Australian situation politically rather than spiritually”. Blackman seemed to yearn for an earlier Wright, though the younger poet was never only interested in personal discovery. In a rare outburst, Wright observes: “you seem to believe that things happen of themselves, but of course a very great deal of hard behind-the-scenes work and determination go into any change in the public attitude … one really can’t sit back and think all is changing of its own accord”.

Because many of the letters between Blackman and Wright have been lost, there is not as much correspondence in the true sense as one would hope for, especially in the 1950s and 1990s. Ellipses are not noted and the extent to which Blackman was involved in selecting and editing the letters also remains unclear. This, alongside several punctuation and typesetting errors, lends the collection a slightly unprofessional feel, despite its stately hardback and warm jacket design by Mary Callahan. Conversely, With Love and Fury is meticulously produced, with letters carefully placed. It includes useful explanatory footnotes and a nice selection of photos. Lacunae in the correspondence are indicated by a tantalising ‘…’. Section introductions by Meredith McKinney provide the reader with useful and necessary context, helping give greater meaning to the letters.

Wright became depressed about the state of the world in her later years – she saw the rise of Howard and Hanson as symptomatic of the “evil” side of Australian society – yet her final major outing, a reconciliation march on a shockingly cold day, at age eighty-five, testified to some remaining hopefulness. Small, sweet letters to friends, to nieces and to the children of the men she loved (one of which asks “what’s to forgive?”), written in her final decade, provide a poignant, meditative bookend to a vibrant and energetic life. Despite the forcefulness with which she sought to stamp a positive impact on the world, Wright’s letters suggest she treated those around her with kindness and generosity. And she was always grateful for the efforts of others. In his final years, for instance, she wrote to former Overland editor Barrett Reid: “bless you and Overland″.

Georgie Arnott’s PhD is an intellectual biography of Judith Wright. She welcomes correspondence from those who came into contact with Wright, and can be emailed at georgina.arnott@postgrad.unimelb.edu.au
© Georgie Arnott
Overland 188 – spring 2007, pp. 84–85

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