Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather
by Karen Lamb
University of Queensland Press
Published May, 2015
Thea Astley was the only Australian woman novelist of her generation to have won early success and to have published consistently throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when the literary world was heavily male dominated. As a fiction writer, she had few female contemporaries until the 1980s, when women once again came to the fore in Australian fiction, as they had done in the 1930s. She was the first person to win the Miles Franklin Award multiple times: in 1963 for her third novel The Well-Dressed Explorer (1962); in 1966 for The Slow Natives (1965); and again in 1973 for The Acolyte (1972). Finally, almost twenty years later, she won it in 2000 for her last novel, Drylands (1999).
Astley won other major prizes in the interim, but the Miles Franklin wins early in her career, and then again at the end, are interesting for what they suggest about her place in the evolving literary world of postwar Australia. At the beginning, in the 1960s, she was recognised as an innovator, a literary stylist in the tradition of Patrick White and Randolph Stow, but one who turned her back on iconic stories of explorers and settlers. Instead, she made suburban Australia her setting and took a satirical look at it. Yet mid-career some of her very best books, including Beachmasters (1985) and It’s Raining in Mango (1987), were passed over by the Miles Franklin judges. Their task being to choose the finest novel about ‘Australian life in any of its phases’, they may well have found it hard to take the expansion of her satirical gaze from suburban life to a broader engagement with abuses of power, and with past events that had been blanked out by a heroic white Australian settler history.
At the time of her death in 2004, Thea Astley was rightly remembered as a ‘creative force until the end’ and ‘a literary trailblazer’. A decade later, as is so often the case with writers, Astley’s work has all but disappeared from the public consciousness and now needs reintroducing to the world of readers and writers. Her sixteen novels and short story collections constitute an irreverent report from the margins, through her outsider characters, on a society that is marked by violence and failure, haunted by its colonial history of invasion and dispossession. Her darkly comic sensibility makes for confronting reading. Her legacy still awaits serious critical appraisal of the kind that has been accorded to the work of Patrick White and Peter Carey.
Karen Lamb’s biography Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather sets out to understand how that legacy was shaped by the writer’s ‘lifelong private conversation with herself’. While she does not attempt to address Astley’s overall achievement as a writer, Lamb offers unique insights into her subject, drawn from extensive primary research carried out over a long period, including several interviews with Astley herself. She has drawn on an extraordinary range of interview subjects and archival sources in addition to the interviews and occasional essays in which Astley presented her public persona.
The biographer’s access to this ‘private conversation with herself’ does not include any journals and very little personal correspondence, which is where most such conversations take place. Astley seems not to have kept such materials. Lamb is scrupulous about not raiding the fiction for possible autobiography, but without much directly personal material to work with, she has to depend heavily on other people’s impressions and Astley’s public performances,including her often searing correspondence with publishers.
The biography begins by pointing out that despite her successes Astley frequently claimed that she was a writer out of favour – with ordinary readers (for her sales were never huge) and with critics, even though her books were widely and favourably reviewed. When she received the Patrick White Award, for writers who have not received the recognition they deserve, she ‘regarded it as confirmation of her failure’.
Astley did make the comment about failure to her friend Rodney Hall, but she gave an interviewer a more rational explanation for her lack of recognition:
I think I started writing at the wrong time – before the feminist movement got under way … and so did the interest in Australian writing. But by then everyone thought: ‘That’s just old Thea, she’s been around for years.’
This too was a wild exaggeration. By this time – 1989 – her earlier novels were reprinted in accessible paperbacks and she was being published and admiringly reviewed in the United States. But Astley was never one to let bare facts intrude on a good story, and indeed this kind of mocking self-denigration was part of her public persona.
Lamb explores the contradictions of that public persona: the wisecracking, chain-smoking, self-confessed ‘people freak’ who loved to gossip – and who was acutely sensitive to slights. She remarks on the way Astley used this public persona to defend her private, vulnerable self. Astley would describe herself as ‘neurotic’ or ‘obsessive’ as a way of deflecting possible criticism by others. But she was also, as Lamb shows, prone to severe anxiety and self-doubt about her capacity for living as much as for writing. This made itself manifest in her relations with other people and her ‘strange mixture of bombast and anxiety’. She could be both engaging and difficult, outspoken and reticent. Friendships made boldly – like her uninvited visit to Patrick White – were sometimes tested to breaking point by her outspokenness. Her long marriage to Jack Gregson bore the strains of her restlessness and guilt.
The events of her life seem ordinary enough. Born in 1925, Astley spent her childhood and youth in Brisbane, in a small unhappy family. Her father was a newspaper editor; her mother stayed at home; her older brother was a gentle boy who would spend his life in the priesthood. Catholicism structured her mother’s narrow outlook on life, but it also provided the excellent education Thea received and the faith she never entirely relinquished, even to the extent of seeking a special ‘validation’ of her marriage to a divorced man. She was a clever, hard-working girl who loved music and poetry. Her talent and drive were nurtured by several of the nuns who taught her, and whom Lamb was able to interview. Astley won scholarships to secondary school and to university, where she took a degree in English, French and Latin, and completed a Diploma of Education. Lamb treats the writer’s early years sensitively, as the ‘emotional core of her work’, characterising these years as a time when unspecified ‘hurts and grievances’ made an indelible mark; yet it remains a mystery what the original wound to Astley’s developing ego may have been.
Astley began her teaching career as the Second World War ended, spending a year in Townsville, and then several more in small towns closer to Brisbane. When she and Jack Gregson married in 1948, they moved to Sydney, where they lived for the next 30 years. During this time, teaching was Astley’s full-time profession, except for the four years after her son Ed was born in 1954. She wrote fiction in the evenings and the holidays, publishing her first novel when she was 33. The last decade of her teaching life was spent at Macquarie University, where she gained some good friends among colleagues and students alike, but she never became reconciled to the institution’s hierarchical ways. This crowded part of her life takes up the bulk of Lamb’s biography. It included the period of Astley’s greatest mental distress, when she was negotiating an extra-marital relationship and worrying about her son.
Astley’s retirement from the university in 1978 marked the beginning of the period of her most accomplished and prolific writing. She published ten books over twenty years, including her Collected Short Stories (1997). More complex writing (and more of it), less complicated living: the biographer covers this period relatively briefly. Thea and Jack moved to her beloved North Queensland to live in the rainforest at Kuranda, outside Cairns. Her reputation as a writer had never been higher and she made several trips to Europe and the USA. Mainly because of Jack’s failing health (he was ten years Thea’s senior), they moved back to New South Wales, to the coast south of Sydney, to be nearer to Ed. Thea gathered accolades, and nursed Jack as best she could. It was another difficult period in her life, but she was more in control.
Signalling this, Part Four of Lamb’s biography is called ‘Personal Weather’, alluding to the book’s title, Inventing Her Own Weather. This phrase in turn alludes to a story in Vanishing Points (1992), about a character named Julie Truscott, who walks away from her children and her philandering husband in order to assert some control over the emotional climate she lives in. Astley managed to ‘invent her own weather’ without giving up on the marriage that sustained her for over 50 years. After Jack’s death, she survived him by only eighteen months. In this later period of her life, in which she produced the works that constitute her major achievement as a writer, Astley divested her style of the ornate brilliance that had drawn critical comments on her earlier work, without losing any of its wit and point. The targets of her satire came to be those who abused power, rather than foolish or malicious individuals. She went on experimenting with style – it was still writing that took risks, writing that drew attention to itself – and with form, using related short stories with a variety of focal characters to make up a discontinuous narrative, a technique she perfected in her last two works, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) and Drylands.
Karen Lamb’s insight into her subject’s‘private self’ goes a long way to explaining the distinctive narrative voice that recurs throughout Astley’s writing: sardonic, darkly humorous, satirical, angry, delighting equally in outrageous puns and arcane allusions to music or mathematics. Astley claimed that her characters were ‘90% ME’ and, as Lamb astutely puts it, they have in common a state of mind where ‘their will is seemingly suspended, their memory animated by hostile past events, while they await the decline of the ripened body’. Yet while the darkness of depression hovers over such characters, the writing is always flamboyant, as if energised by anger and frustration. Here, for example, is Kathleen, the elderly narrator at the beginning of Coda (1994):
I’m losing my nouns, she admitted.
God knows she was losing other things as well. Sight. Tenses. Moods. A grammarian’s funeral! But the nouns worried her most, proper nouns especially – names of people and places …
A funny thing about all this: she was starting to think of herself in the third person when she went back to where the nouns and the verbs all stayed in place in the sweetest logical sequence, as if she were some other. Which she was, the body replenishing its cell structure every seven years.
Was that me?
The wrapping’s changed!
The me of me rattles on, nounless.
It had been a bad few months.
A major source of Astley’s characteristic anger was her position as a woman. The frustrations she experienced with the expectation that she would work hard and accept her second-class lot without complaint, that she would suppress her desires and defer to men, were shared with many women of her generation. She gave clear voice to her impatience with those conflicting demands. In the early novels, this impatience took the form of scorn for female self-delusion. Later in her writing life, she directed her scorn at assumptions of male superiority and men’s oppressive and often violent exercise of power. This change freed her up to write as a woman, rather than exclusively through male narrative personae. It also allowed her to explore the sympathetic fascination with gay men, which had been evident from early in her writing.
After her first novel, Girl with a Monkey (1958), Astley habitually included at least one male narrative perspective, believing that no one would read her novels if she wrote from a female point of view. In The Acolyte (1972), she used a first-person narrator, who frames the story and is also himself ‘framed’ or set up to expose his own limitations. Later, when she wanted to use a female narrator in An Item from the Late News (1982), she claimed to have been worried about how to do it, because ‘I didn’t know how women think’.
In the 1980s, the impact of the new feminism on the world of literature offered an enabling context for her to take on this challenge, and in her later novels women narrators predominate. They are not immune, however, from Astley’s critical framing techniques – no feminist heroines for her. Like her male narrators, they suffer from boredom, ennui, even self-disgust and spiritual despair – states of mind which seem to act as a vacuum into which violence enters. This critical framing allows for complex movements of narrative irony, where the reader finds herself suddenly distanced from the narrator’s emotional state, yet still in accord intellectually with the narrator’s critique of violence and the abuse of power.
Violence, emotional and physical, is a distinctive feature of Astley’s fiction. Always more interested in the dramatic moment than in character development or plot, Astley moves her narratives inexorably towards a point of crisis, which is often an explosion of violence. She liked to use the novella form – Girl with a Monkey, and later works like Coda and Vanishing Points – and the short story, sometimes in the form of a story sequence, as inIt’s Raining in Mango and Drylands. Her novels, although they inevitably extend the narrative further in time, also proceed through a series of crises, each of which has a kind of cinematic immediacy, without filling in the intervening time gaps. This feature is constant throughout her oeuvre.
Another constant is the north Queensland setting of Astley’s fiction, the farther north the better. Her imagination fed on extremes of distance, of tropical climate, of coastal beauty and arid hinterland. It was her ‘dream country’, she told an interviewer, that she would think and write about from far away in the south. Characters as well as landscapes recur in her ‘dream country’, people who are drawn to the place and stay on. But the dream has nightmare qualities: Astley’s characters live in a kind of limbo. Here is Keith Leverson, the narrator of Hunting the Wild Pineapple and Other Related Stories (1979), introducing himself:
Let me draw you a little map.
Take a patch of coastline and its hinterland, put it just north of twenty and one hundred and forty-six east, make it hot and wet and sprinkle it with people who feel they’ve been forgotten by the rest of the country – and don’t really care …
Everything is very green here. Very blue and very green, and the depth of its coloration whacks out this response, not only from me but from the rest of us who, having chosen, ripen and wither and repeat ourselves in stories. Which are re-lived by others. Over. Over. Maybe it’s only a second-rate Eden with its rain-forest and waterfalls, its mountain-climbing burrower of a railway and sea-bitten rind of coast – a kind of limbo for those who’ve lost direction and have pitched a last-stand tent.
Astley developed a keen interest in the history of this part of the world, in particular the ongoing dispossession of its Indigenous inhabitants by settlers. A Kindness Cup (1974), which concerns the official cover-up of a massacre of Aboriginal people, anticipated the later novels which historicised and politicised the north Queensland landscape. In It’s Raining in Mango, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow and Drylands, the existential crises of her white characters are deepened by their habitation of a haunted land, which they have come to love, but where they can never belong. For the Aboriginal characters who feature in these three major works, the ‘dream country’ has entirely other meanings, which the fiction can only gesture discreetly towards. But if Indigenous belonging to country is something that the settler novelist cannot claim to explicate, Astley can, and does, make it clear that the two cultures are radically different: for instance, in It’s Raining in Mango, when a settler couple offer to hide an Aboriginal woman and her child from the police, the woman, Nelly, insists that she cannot leave her own people:
‘Not same,’ she whispered. And she cried them centuries of tribal dream in those two words. ‘Not same’.
In these three novels, Astley combines a postcolonial perspective on race relations with an often wickedly funny critique of patriarchal power. Also important in the later stories is her satire on the worship of unbridled ‘development’, which dominated Australian economic and social life in this period, especially in Queensland. The currency of such political and moral issues frames Astley’s work. Her lively satirical engagement with them was never merely topical, but deeply connected to that ‘private conversation with herself’ which is the principal subject of Lamb’s biography. Yet Inventing Her Own Weather pays scant attention to the larger events and debates that Astley lived through and incorporated into her work, and in this respect the biography underplays her seriousness as a writer engaging with the moral and political issues of her time. If Astley is still, or again, a ‘writer out of favour’, then I would say it is largely because she confronts her readers with unpalatable truths about human violence and cruelty, in darkly comic fictions which insist on the communal stage on which that violence and cruelty are acted out.
Jennifer Ellison, Rooms of Their Own (Penguin 1986).
Richard Glover, ‘Meeting the real Thea Astley,’ Sunday Age (19 November 1989).
Graeme Kinross Smith, ‘Thea Astley,’ Kunapipi, 4.1 (1982).
Rosemary Sorensen, ‘Creative Force until the End,’ Courier Mail (18 August 2004).
Susan Wyndham, ‘Journey of a Literary Trailblazer,’ Sydney Morning Herald (21-22 August 2004).