Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather

Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather

by Karen Lamb


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Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather by Karen Lamb

This is the first biography of one of Australia’s most beloved novelists, Thea Astley (1925–2004). Over a 50-year writing career, Astley published more than a dozen novels and short story collections, including The Acolyte, Drylands, and The Slow Natives, and was the first person to win multiple Miles Franklin Awards. With many of her works published internationally, Astley was a trailblazer for women writers. In her personal life, she was renowned for her dry wit, eccentricity, and compassion. Karen Lamb has drawn on an unparalleled range of interviews and correspondence to create a detailed picture of Thea the woman, as well as Astley the writer. She has sought to understand Astley’s private world and how that shaped the distinctive body of work that is Thea Astley’s literary legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702253560
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 04/22/2015
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Karen Lamb teaches literature and communication at the Australian Catholic University and has held teaching and research positions at the University of Queensland, Monash University, and the University of Melbourne, where she taught in literary studies, media and communication, and cultural studies. She has edited a book of Australian short stories, and published book chapters and articles on Australian authors, including Peter Carey: Genesis of Fame.

Read an Excerpt

Thea Astley

Inventing Her Own Weather

By Karen Lamb, Jacqueline Kent, Ed Gregson

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2015 Karen Lamb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-5501-4


The hinterland of childhood

There were many corners – she learned a lot about the eternal warfare of couples. It rather put her off.

Drylands by Thea Astley, 1999

Nearly thirty years into her writing life, at the 1986 Adelaide Writers' Festival, Thea Astley was, as always, preoccupied with weather: not the furnace-like heat so characteristic of Adelaide in March, but what might be called 'personal weather', part of the climate people created around themselves, their mark on the world. She had written about this, in various ways, for many years. Her preoccupation with physical weather, its strictures, limitations and effects on her characters, had always been deeply metaphorical. She liked to describe her characters charting what she called 'the approximate geography of the dream' while dealing with the inclement elements of life.

At the time she was living near Cairns in the tropical north of her home state of Queensland. She had already entertained an audience about her strange love-hate relationship with that particular region's climate: we 'wait for the big wet', she said, and it comes 'striding over paddocks and hits roofs like gravel trucks emptying'; 'landscape and sky are like a boil waiting to burst, skin crawls, salt stings your eyes and you itch'.

At the age of sixty Astley was an arresting figure, her agility as she moved to the microphone giving a clue to her energetic personality. During that festival she could be spotted around the tents, among other writers, the familiar cigarette in hand, at ease.

This was an exciting and important time for her: she was balancing her public exposure as an established novelist with the potential she still saw in her future as a writer. She was a guest at major arts festivals, the winner of three Miles Franklin Awards and she was also achieving longed-for recognition overseas. The publication of her most recent novel, Beachmasters, in the United States would be followed in less than a year by It's Raining in Mango.

This particular festival was therefore a special moment in an already long writing life, and Astley had been writing long enough to appreciate how few and far apart such moments were. Her voice, a deeply accented rasp with more than a hint of the broad vowels of her home state, was a world away from the plummy politeness of her early television and radio performances in the 1960s. She knew how to use that voice: her ability as a performer lit up public readings. If Astley hadn't been a writer, she could have made it as a stand-up comic – she had that kind of timing. So when she leaned forward and nervously lowered her voice to the crowd, 'I should explain, I suppose, that I'm not a very accomplished traveller', this unusual candour sent a ripple of excited interest across the audience. Astley used the personal pronoun in a casual, familiar way; it was an intimate sharing of what it might be like to be Thea Astley, Australian novelist.

She talked about the writing of her short story 'Diesel Epiphany' about a journey in a 'rail motor' – a motorised railway carriage very common in Astley's youth – perhaps because it was so characteristic of her own preoccupations. Rail trips across Australia's vast state borders had always held all the elements of narrative for Astley: human beings in a small spaces forging strange alliances, all with a rueful acceptance of their own banality. In a railway carriage anyone could be a 'people freak' – Astley's favourite term for herself – could listen in on the frank conversations which were natural theatre to her ear. She was no doubt irritated (perhaps with a high sense of drama) by all the inconveniences typical of 'cattle class' travel, especially other people's selfishness. 'Diesel Epiphany' is a story that is superficially about train travel, but is really about having the last word. After the travellers alight and head to town, the climax of the story describes a different kind of banality. Bored people are standing in a bank queue when the sound of a light baritone, the music of a Bach cantata, breaks through. The singer is a typical Astley 'screwball' and in her work she would give voice to them all: hippies, unfrocked priests, outcasts. Couples, with their 'hissed domestics', were a special case. Above all else, Astley loved to observe that most familiar of human relationships up close.

It was a fascination that grew quite naturally out of Astley's own childhood. By the time she came to know her parents beyond the familiar 'Mum' and 'Dad', Eileen Adeline Lindsay and Cecil Bellaire Astley had taught her a lot about marriage, or at least a certain kind of marriage. At a very young age, then, she had the central preoccupying theme of her novels. It was not the success or otherwise of such unions that fascinated her. Rather it was marriage itself that delivered to Astley, complete, the small-world whole-world perspective so essential to her as a novelist.

For Astley, the endless negotiation of the self with the other, intrinsic to marriage, came to stand for all the negotiations inherent in the passage through life: with family, with the Church and belief, with the social world and the politics of it, and inevitably with the personalities who would enter and leave her world. Astley, who had a lifelong affinity with numbers and logic, saw marriage as the perfect algorithm for a lifetime of experience, containing sex, choice, boredom, inertia, entrapment, despair, acceptance and love.

Looking back at Astley's childhood, it is easy to see why she, like her parents, stayed married and lived a regulated domestic existence much like theirs. She wrote sharp social commentary into her novels, but their emotional strength lies in the way Astley captured the nuanced, intimate, fallible moments of couples living a humdrum existence, together yet apart.

She was negatively drawn to this for the most understandable of reasons: in her early emotional world there was certainly care, but also an absence of closeness. Intimacy and emotional frankness – things she craved – were not part of ordinary life in the household in which Astley grew up. The Astleys were stoics, though Thea as a child was vulnerable and exposed to differences within the home and allegiances outside of it – particularly religious ones – that she could hardly have been expected to understand. They marked her life unmistakeably.

Thea Beatrice May Astley was born in Brisbane on 25 August 1925, a sister for her older brother, Phil, then aged four. The name 'Thea', meaning 'gift of the god' or 'goddess' (Thea was the Greek goddess of light), was a logical choice for Astley's pious mother, Eileen. If Astley could have read the future, to see the renowned editor who would give her a start in writing would share her middle name 'Beatrice', meaning 'traveller' or 'voyager', she might have preferred that name.

Brisbane in the 1920s bore almost no resemblance to the sky-scrapered commercial city of today. It was considered the hick cousin of Sydney and Melbourne. Throughout Astley's childhood and young adult life, being a Queenslander conferred a particular kind of status, sometimes negative. Migrants, from the 1940s through to the 'ten pound Poms' of the 1960s, were drawn to this place's exotic mix of shambolic suburbia and hillside wooden shacks high up on stilts all set amid lush tropical foliage. Some foreigners saw the place as unspoiled, others as backward, depending on their background and personal circumstances. For the locals, however, loyalty and acceptance of 'home' led to parochial defensiveness. It was an attitude that became inseparable from what it meant to be a Queenslander. For Thea, Queensland was a home she loved to love, and loved to hate. Brisbane and memories of her childhood there created an intense emotional world for her writing.

She is not alone. Other well-known Australian writers have written about growing up in Brisbane, including Thomas Shapcott, Matthew Condon, Rodney Hall and Rhyll McMaster. And David Malouf has written of Brisbane's gullies and vistas, how the senses become drenched in tropical downpours, and the steepness of the streets make buildings cast long shadows, a town built on hills, a river that changes direction so often it seems like many rivers. The Queensland child in this dilapidated and makeshift world, he wrote, was somehow more exposed to the vulnerabilities of the world beyond it.6 From these same origins Astley created an emotional geography inseparable from her sense-memories of home. The emotional aura of the Astley household made the two very different worlds seem imaginatively inseparable.

The Astleys had settled in Waterworks Road in the relatively new suburb of Ashgrove. The suburb was only five or six kilometres from the city and accessible by tram, the major mode of transport, and it developed around a long and winding main road. In the late nineteenth century this had been the road used to drive livestock to market. While the area was originally noted for its genteel rural estates, it was the new Waterworks Road that redefined life for the first residents who lived along it. By the time Astley left the suburb it was readying itself for the post-World War II baby boom and an influx of thousands of families looking for relatively cheap houses near the city.

The atmosphere at home when Astley was a primary school child was quietly tense, characterised by silences between her parents, punctuated with many arguments. Sister Mary, who taught young Thea at Rosalie Convent primary school, could see that Cecil and Eileen Astley were not much of a match. Astley's mother made frequent visits just to talk to Sister Mary, who remembered conversations with one or the other parent but never both. In the days before school counsellors family tension was not for discussion.

For Astley's parents, marriage was disappointing, after what had been a promising romance. When Eileen first met Cecil she saw at least a superficial resemblance to her own father, for Cecil Astley was also a journalist. However, beyond that, the resemblance was not particularly obvious. Canadian-born Cornelius John Lindsay, Eileen's runaway father and Thea's maternal grandfather, left his family for the 'wild' city life and, as his granddaughter Thea would say pointedly, his wife never forgave him.

Eileen Lindsay was born in 1897 and from about the turn of the century until the 1920s endured a very straitened upbringing with her two sisters in a single-parent household. The Lindsays were related to a well-to-do family from Ballarat, Victoria – Eileen's great-grandfather was Judge O'Dee – but this did little to alter the poverty of her small family group. The derogatory term 'deserted wife' epitomises what would have been the practical and emotional reality.

Thea and her older brother, Phil, came to understand their mother as a troubled personality, and they slowly understood how her background was very different from their father's. Eileen was embarrassed by her lack of education and made amends by reading the classics by candlelight late into the night. Phil and Thea watched shame flicker across a great many of her actions and hard-set attitudes. She seemed too aware of social pride. Instead of the merely customary politeness of returning generosity, every little favour or act of kindness had to be returned in greater measure: a gift of jams meant a jam-cake for the giver. This developed into an exaggerated solicitousness, awkwardly annexed to anxiety, ideas about God and duty, and guilt – behaviour that would affect the lives of both Phil and Thea.

Eileen's father had, however, been modestly successful in his writing and was a reasonably well-known figure in Sydney journalistic circles throughout the 1930s and 1940s.11 Cornelius, known as Con, published articles in The Bulletin and was a member of the Dawn and Dusk Club, a bohemian society of writers, formed in the late 1890s, which met for drinks and conversation; Henry Lawson was a prominent member. When Eileen's father moved to Melbourne he quickly gravitated to similar circles, joining the Bread and Cheese Club, an all-male club based on 'mateship, arts and letters' and associated with prominent book collector J. K. Moir and his set. During the 1940s the club was an important champion of Australian writing, publishing books that dealt particularly with regional and bush Australia. Con later edited its left-wing magazine Bohemia, for which he wrote a column under the pseudonym 'Mr Grouch'. He was well liked, with a larrikin sense of humour and irreverence towards artistic pretension. He could puncture egos in a flash. One day, enjoying a quiet drink in a Melbourne wine saloon, discussion turned to the famed bush balladists of the 1890s:

Drinker: 'Con, did you know Henry Lawson?'

Con: 'Who didn't?'

Thea Astley didn't really need to meet her grandfather Con (in fact she did so once, when she was about thirteen, a couple of years before he died); he was a 'type' she grew up knowing.

By the time Con died in 1940, Eileen, who had married Cecil Astley in 1918, would have appreciated the irony that her own husband of choice was a man whose interests were almost identical to those of the father she barely knew. Eileen was three years older than her young journalist husband. He was conservative in his habits, seemed settled. In Cecil she could enjoy a little of the allure of a man in the same profession as her absentee father, but one who might offer the security she had lacked as a child.

The family of Cecil Astley was English. Cecil's father, Charles, born in Deptford, Kent, in 1869, had migrated from England at the age of eighteen. He lived briefly in New South Wales, where he married Mary Rankin at Wagga Wagga in 1894. The couple then set sail for Tasmania, where Cecil was born in 1896. Charles was extremely versatile. A highly regarded violinist with the Hobart Philharmonic Orchestra, he moved his family to Queensland's Darling Downs in 1902 and became a well-known painter, woodcarver and potter, as well as a teacher of these crafts. Cecil, an only child, would have watched his father establish himself and make his mark in a growing arts and crafts movement in Toowoomba, Queensland, and the nearby Warwick Technical College. Charles's artwork was praised and valued: the Queensland Art Gallery purchased his 1926 watercolour Rose of Evening and an intricately carved wood hallstand. His work has survived and is still traded in the contemporary art world – two watercolours were sold for nearly 7,000 British pounds in 2011.14 Charles's painting Condamine at Warwick gave Astley a placename for her to use in her novels, one that resonated with her grandfather's artwork and her memory of him. Condamine would become the setting of several novels.

Thea inherited her grandfather's gifts as a fine pianist and as a teacher. Charles was something of an experimenter with style in his painting, and Thea as a writer never gave up working on style. Most of all Charles Astley passed on a passion about Australian culture. His was quite unlike other immigrant British households with their morose backward-looking glances at the 'home country'. Charles Astley stamped that independent spirit – the joy of valuing where you are, not where you come from – on his entire family, and Thea grew up with pride in being Australian. Charles Astley made a prodigious series of paintings of seascapes, early settlers' homes, swagmen and the Australian bush. Because he was also a teacher these views made him a pioneer in his field, encouraging Australian artists to use their own locale as a subject. He fought for recognition and funding, since the cost of art equipment and materials was a real threat to his art at the time. Charles obtained local clay – unheard of then – and pressed it himself.

Throughout his childhood Cecil grew up with a father whose artistic reputation was building. Two-year-old Thea stood proud among her family at the presentation of the potpourri jar Charles had designed for the Duchess of York on her 1927 visit to Australia. The inscription on the pot 'Laugh and the world laughs with you' acquired pathos, since Charles died, aged only sixty-one, just two years later.


Excerpted from Thea Astley by Karen Lamb, Jacqueline Kent, Ed Gregson. Copyright © 2015 Karen Lamb. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue ix

Part 1 The Hinterland

1 The hinterland of childhood 3

2 Suspected of reading 25

3 Barjai: A meeting place 44

4 We've Freud and Nietzsche at our finger-tips 59

Part 2 Dream Country

5 Dream Country 73

6 Jack 87

7 The Gorgon of Epping North 103

8 An armed neutrality 128

9 I merely crave an intelligent buddy 147

10 Writing as a neuter 163

Part 3 North Of Nostalgia

11 The oldest senior tutor in the Commonwealth 187

12 North of nostalgia 202

13 Living is serial 219

14 Jane Austen of the rainforest 236

Part 4 Personal Weather

15 Pictures from a family album 257

16 Inventing her own weather 278

17 Curving 292

Epilogue 313

Acknowledgements 316

Notes 319

Further reading 349

Index 352

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