There’s a tiny piece by Rosemary Sorenson in the Australian, but so far the death of Patricia Wrightson this week has gone unremarked in the media.
When I became editor of The School Magazine in the 1980s, I was awed by the knowledge that I was stepping into her shoes. As I understand her work, her central concern was with the disjunction for settler-society between on one hand the experience of living in Australia and on the other having a children’s fairy-tale heritage deeply rooted in European landscapes and histories. In books like The Nargun and the Stars and A Little Fear she set out to create fairy stories that were grounded in the Australian reality. She drew on Aboriginal motifs and, I heard her say in a lecture, was meticulous in consulting Aboriginal friends. I think most people these days would see the project as a noble dead end, smacking too much of appropriation. Certainly in my last months at the magazine, a reasonably ignorant education department functionary was at pains to explain to me that the Aboriginal stories of ‘Judith Wrightson’ were not politically acceptable.
There will be much discussion of Patricia Wrightson and her work on the Internet over the next couple of weeks. ALA Connect, for example, is inviting people to post comments. I happen to have a photocopy of a wonderful letter she wrote in 1974 to a school principal, which I reproduce here for your pleasure and edification:
Dear Mr XXXXX
Thank you for your letter of July 11th regarding the phrase ‘wipe your bottom’ in the June issue of School Magazine Part 2.
I am sorry you found this homely phrase objectionable. It must be pointless to indicate that it was written by one of our leading poets and writers who is now Chairman of the Literature Board; or to ask whether ‘smack your bottom’ or ‘wipe your nose’ would have been so offensive; or to ask for a clear explanation of what is offensive in the phrase. I can only say that we cannot possibly undertake not to be offensive.
We continually offend. We offend by failing to keep in touch with the fast-moving world of young readers and by being too contemporary; by a rigid adherence to syntax and formal style, and by our disregard of them. Our verse is both too classic and too unclassic. We offend by speaking with respect of the church and the theory of evolution; the plight of captive nations and the achievements of communist countries; Anzac Day and the laws relating to Aborigines. We can only follow our usual policy of holding a balance between these things while still aiming for honesty and life.
As to your use of School Magazine in the future, that is always a matter for your decision. Withholding the magazine from children is another matter. It is produced for the children, and those who wish to read it are entitled to receive it.
Mrs Patricia Wrightson
She was not a woman to mess with. At a children’s literature conference in the USA in the mid 1980s, a children’s librarian told me with awe about a lecture by Patricia: ‘She was a very wise and challenging lecturer, but at the same time as easy and comfortable as an old boot.’ As this letter demonstrates, she could also sink the boot when necessary. I never met her. I don’t know anything about the circumstances of her death. I mourn her passing.