Patricia Wrightson was born in 1921 and grew up between the two World Wars of the 20th century. Publisher Mark Macleod points to her childhood in the 1930s as setting the context for her relationship to indigenous culture. The interwar years saw Australia disillusioned by the sacrifices of the First World War and turning away from ‘Old Europe’ towards the cultures of its own continent: ‘This was the Australia that Patricia Wrightson grew up in: with some sense of loss of its connection with Europe, and some sense of impending loss of its Indigenous culture and the need to ‘save’ it.
‘The devastating loss of young Australian lives in a war that had no geographical imperative for us, but was wholly motivated by the political connection with the UK, and the resulting destruction of European society on a massive scale produced a turning-away from Europe by many Australian artists. It seemed to many that European culture was moribund … So writers and visual artists particularly began to look to Indigenous Australian sources of energy for the imagination … The artists – having been brought up with the general belief that Indigenous Australian culture was dying – thought they were preserving it.’
John Murray locates Wrightson’s work within a tradition of literary ‘indigenization’ – fiction that seeks to bring European-descended inhabitants of countries like Australia ‘into imaginative contact with the lands in which most of them were born but in which, by comparison with their indigenous peoples, they are aliens.’ To Murray, Wirrun himself becomes an explicitly indigenizing figure, unifying Australia: by the final book of the trilogy, he has taken on heroic responsibilities to the entire spiritual and material ecology of the continent, from spirits to the white urban population and the animal kingdom besides.
Mark Macleod told me: ‘It is possible to read Patricia Wrightson’s emphasis on ‘folk’ as a romantic reverence for simplicity or innocence. This comes dangerously close to the racist construction of indigenous cultures generally as childlike … We understand now that we can kill the thing we love, but it is too easy to approach this difficult and complex issue ahistorically and condemn it out of hand.’
An alternative, Mark suggests, is to look at the overlapping experiences of outsiderness between indigenous Australians and other groups. He points to the poet Les Murray’s early interest in Indigenous subject matter in the 1960s and 70s: ‘With his Scots heritage and his upbringing in rural Australia, he sees a natural empathy between the marginalising of Celtic Australians, non-Anglo migrants and Indigenous Australians. They have all been colonised by the English.’
Brian Attebery, writing on Wirrun in 2005, chimes with this perspective when he discusses George, a white ‘Inlander’ who helps Wirrun at the climax of the first book by distracting other white Australians who threaten to interfere with our hero’s plans. George, a farmer of harsh and isolated country, is an outsider in the mainstream society of white Australian ‘Happy Folk’, figures who feature only in the margins of the Wirrun books.
Attebery suggests that the Australian continent is the real protagonist of The Song of Wirrun, and all the other characters are defined by their relationship to the land – a sliding scale from the ignorant, superficial Happy Folk with their air conditioning and service stations, graduating through the Inlanders to the Aboriginal People, heroes like Wirrun, and finally the spirits whose actions trigger Wirrun’s quest.
Mark Macleod writes, ‘The reality is that there are Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and they need to find ways to coexist. Their histories and mythologies are different; their values often seem diametrically opposed. [Wrightson’s] project to try and create a pan-Australian imagery therefore rests finally on the idea that all they really have in common is the land.’
‘There is a sense of loss by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But what they all have in common is the land. Wrightson says repeatedly throughout her career that her books must not be read as ‘good vs. evil’ stories. The real issue is ecology: the rightful place of all beings.’ – Mark Macleod
Seen in this light, George the Inlander is an outsider, too – like Les Murray’s Celts. Although he’s not directly allied with Wirrun on his quest, he obliquely helps by keeping other white Australians away. He does this, tellingly, by taking on a number of roles which satirise relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, pretending to be first an anthropologist, then the producer of a hippyish Aboriginal ‘happening’, and finally a snake collector who has hired Wirrun and company to collect poisonous reptiles.
Mark Macleod suggests that for Wrightson, the key figure was always that of the outsider, be that the artist in Australian society, or the child in the adult world. In their different ways, George and Wirrun, and Wrightson herself, are all outsider figures.
Wirrun was Wrightson’s first indigenous main character. As Macleod points out, ‘He is a city boy, who travels to the central Australian desert and reconnects with the Dreaming. He is marginalised in his own culture.’ Brian Attebery takes this further by pointing to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and raised in homes or adopted by white families. The white-educated Wirrun is likely either a member of the Stolen Generation, or a child of that generation – although this is not confirmed explicitly by Wrightson’s text.
Mark continues: ‘By the mid-70s, when the Wirrun books started to appear, Indigenous Australian voices were becoming a powerful political and cultural force … So Wrightson’s desire to alert non-Indigenous Australians to the need for a new vision was becoming increasingly irrelevant … She did realise it, and from the mid-80s she lets go of the Indigenous subject matter for which she had become known around the world.’
This idea of letting go of indigenous subject matter from the mid-80s is the line that is taken in Patricia Wrightson’s UK obituaries…but one of her most interesting and challenging books is the unusual, dreamlike Shadows of Time. This novel, published in the wake of Australia’s bicentenary, seemed almost to revisit the world of Wirrun, with both an indigenous main character and seemingly indigenous spirit characters.
We’ll be looking at Shadows next time on Books and Adventures. To go to part four of this feature, click here.