Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Judith Wright, a quintessentially New England writer

In her own words: Judith Wright's first book of poems, Moving Image published in 1946 included a number of poems that have become New England classics including "South of my Days".This, the third in a series on growing up on the Northern or New England Tablelands, is the first of three on poet and writer Judith Wright
Many parts of Australia claim poet and writer Judith Wright as their own.

In Queensland, the State Government has expropriated her for a performing arts centre. Her New England connection is dismissed in just a few words: “Judith Wright was a Queensland resident for over thirty years. She was born in New England, in regional New South Wales, and came to Brisbane as a young woman”.

Her Wikipedia entry notes that she was born in Armidale, but then says she spent most of her formative years in Brisbane and Sydney. Later, Canberra and Braidwood would claim her too.

In all this, 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.
" It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letters between them."
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.

I think that Judith would accept that conclusion. Whether she would accept my claim that she remained a quintessentially New England writer is more open to question. “You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?” she wrote in Skins. “They dropped off several incarnations back.”

That may be true and there are reasons for it, but her 1999 autobiographical memoir half a lifetime draws out the continuing importance of her early life history. I will look at this in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 11 July 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018 


Johnb said...

The family in their entirety are worth a series Jim given their contribution to society and New England in particular.

Hels said...

I think Judith Wright's long relationship with Coombs must have been kept VERY secret *nod*. After all Coombs filled such important roles and was such a public figure, he must have had security officials, clerical staff and colleagues absolutely everywhere he went.

Nothing wrong with her, a widow, having a relationship. But he was married and had children. So I hope that at least they could share their reading (or whatever they did together) in peace.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree John, on the Wrights. Becky Holland is doing a thesis at the moment on the women in another branch of the family.

I think, Hels, that Coombs had been separated for a considerable time by that point. It's interesting though considering later events. Having worked in Canberra for that period, there were very strong implicit privacy rules in place that provided a protection not available today.