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The life of the author

15 May 2015

Books | A new biography captures Thea Astley’s idiosyncrasies and contradictions, and the qualities of her fiction, writes Susan Lever


Alive on the page: Thea Astley.

Alive on the page: Thea Astley.

Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather
By Karen Lamb | University of Queensland Press | $34.95

When Christina Stead read Thea Astley’s fifth novel, A Boatload of Home Folk (1968), she commented in her notebook on its “slapdash” energy and its “shameful” depiction of ageing women characters. “No doubt this violence [is] part of the writer’s personality,” she observed. Stead was reacting to the way that Astley’s personality – excessive, contrary, angry, self-mocking, satirical – is impossible to ignore in her work. In Astley’s case, literary theories that insist on separating the author’s life from an appreciation of the writing fall in a heap. Rather than being “dead,” this author, with all her idiosyncrasies and contradictions, is very much alive.

But no matter how extraordinary a writer’s personality may be, the writing life, with its long, lonely hours of work, can make for dull biography. Astley lived an outwardly ordinary life, growing up Catholic in Brisbane, too young to be much affected by the second world war, teaching in a school for a few years, marrying and living as a suburban housewife and mother, then making a late career as a university academic. Compared to Stead, or to Patrick White or even Elizabeth Jolley, Astley was a homebody living an Australian postwar domestic life most of us recognise all too well.

Karen Lamb has confronted the range of problems that beset any account of a writer’s life, particularly the difficulty of giving due place to the work, and has tackled several others – how to understand the writer’s complex personality without resorting to psychoanalysis, how to placate the many people still alive with personal memories of the subject, how to write well enough with the writer’s posthumous critical eye looking over your shoulder. She has produced an engaging, affectionate account of Astley that relishes the writer’s contradictions and opens up new ways to understand her novels. Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather follows the trajectory of a long writing career, delineating the shifts in Australian publishing and literary criticism.

Astley published her first novel, Girl with a Monkey, in 1958, after it had been commended in a Sydney Morning Herald fiction competition. She sent the manuscript off to publishers Angus & Robertson on spec, and was lucky enough to gain the attention of the renowned editor Beatrice Davis, who was looking for new writing outside the “social realist” mode. Astley found in Davis a soulmate who shared her taste in literature and music; she admired Davis’s style, her worldliness and humour. Lamb even suggests that Astley may have taken up smoking in imitation of Davis; she didn’t smoke until her thirties, which will come as a surprise to those who knew her as a devoted smoker. For her part, Davis supported and promoted Astley’s work throughout her career in publishing (even, perhaps, on the Miles Franklin judging committee).

Girl with a Monkey was the work of an educated, intellectual woman who found herself exiled in the suburbs with a child. Lamb depicts her walking the streets of Epping North, furiously pushing a stroller with her baby son, Ed, on board. The image conjures up Gwen Harwood’s “Suburban Sonnet” or Jessica Anderson’s compulsively walking housewife in Tirra Lirra By the River. She was also a Catholic, with a devout mother and an older brother in the Jesuits. Few readers will miss the heavy sense of sexual guilt in Astley’s fiction, and it is easy to ascribe this to a conventional Catholic upbringing. In her case, it was exacerbated by the fact that her husband, Jack Gregson, was married with a child when they met. Their civil marriage didn’t meet her parents’ standards or, it seems, her own. She entered the long bureaucratic negotiation for a Catholic “validation” in order to achieve the blessing of parents and Church. As in her fiction, Astley was unconventionally conventional, radically conservative in her attitude to sex and religion.

Lamb’s account of Astley’s relationship with Jack is both tactful and revealing, no doubt helped by Ed Gregson’s candour in his discussions with her. They met at a chamber music concert in Brisbane in 1947 when they both felt themselves exiles from the centres of culture. Astley was school teaching in Townsville, Gregson had been demobbed from an army posting in Cape York. Music remained their shared lifelong passion through all the difficulties of their marriage. Jack introduced Astley to jazz, and together they pursued what was then considered “radical” music as part of their defiance of convention. They also built a house in a modernist style in the northern suburbs of Sydney.

Again, this biographical detail reveals an important influence on Astley’s writing. Jazz is the musical equivalent of modernist experimentation, and by the 1970s, in novels such as The Acolyte, Astley was adopting elements of jazz improvisation into her writing. As a musical style it required technical mastery while making room for individualism, wit, flamboyant riffs on a theme – all of which became evident in Astley’s fiction, in which a love of music is often the measure of her characters’ sensitivity and morality. Classical music may be revered in shorter fiction such as The Genteel Poverty Bus Company, but the writing itself is more likely to follow the wayward path of jazz.

Astley had the good fortune to find work teaching at Cheltenham Girls’ High School, where teachers with children organised childcare nearby, and where her fellow teachers included Joan Levick (who wrote as Amy Witting) and other intellectual women. Of course, she was the staffroom wit. By the late 1960s, she had joined the staff of the new Macquarie University as a tutor in English, and she remained there, chafing against the university’s refusal to promote her to lecturer, until the end of the 1970s. There is always plenty to anger academics in a literature department and Astley responded energetically to all the perceived slights that came her way.

By the 1980s feminist critics began to take notice of her fiction and her extraordinary position as the lone woman in Australia with a longstanding reputation as a literary novelist. Astley always read her critics and she tried to accommodate their concerns. In interviews, she began any explanation of her fiction’s lack of “positive female characters” by declaring that she had been “neutered” by her upbringing and work in the male-dominated university. Although her writing changed to include such characters, her fiction was not so much about “representing women,” as Lamb makes clear, as about expressing the complex emotional experience of one particularly clever, cantankerous woman who was part of a generation denied full sexual and employment equality.

Questions about Astley’s mental stability hang over this biography, and Lamb uses the expression “manic depressive” at least once. Astley’s energy was extraordinary, but those who worked with her also saw the low points when she wept in her office. It seems that she never sought professional help, and Lamb thankfully refrains from offering her own psychoanalysis. Instead, she gently tracks the parallel career of Astley’s brother, Phil, who entered the Jesuits and suffered a series of breakdowns. Astley was always ready to attack Catholic institutions (while seeking their approval), and particularly their treatment of her brother, but Lamb argues that the Jesuits cared for him, possibly with greater success than Astley cared for herself. The people closest to Thea made room for her extremes of mood, though she often alienated those meeting her for the first time.

Everyone who encountered Thea Astley has a story to tell about her. She was a writer who would ring up reviewers and harass them about their comments on her novels. In numerous interviews she tried to take control of the critical response to her work, so that many critics (even, at times, her publishers) kept their heads down while she was alive. By and large, Lamb lets other critics make the running on the merits of the novels and she pulls readers’ reports and letters out of the Angus & Robertson archives that show the mixed response they received. She ventures more with A Boat Load of Home Folk: “If there is a book by Astley that ought not to have been published it is Boat Load.” And she goes on not only to chronicle the opinions of this book among A&R staff and reviewers, but also to describe its extreme bleakness as part of “a written dossier of treachery, betrayal and self-loathing.” Lamb seems to get it right when she suggests that Astley was projecting her own state of mind, her sense of “putrefaction of the spirit” on her fiction.

After she and Jack began spending their summer breaks in Kuranda, in the Cairns hinterland, Astley became more observant of the lives of others, including the local Aboriginal people, the hippies and the retirees around her. She is most likely to be remembered for her North Queensland fictions (all published after 1974), Hunting the Wild Pineapple, A Kindness Cup, It’s Raining in Mango and The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow. Though Astley alter egos appear in all of them, they also engage with wider political and social changes in Australia, often with a wry satirical commentary. Her self-mockery and disgust with physical ageing and sexuality lingered to the end, but in late work, such as the novella Inventing the Weather, she could reach for some spiritual consolation.

There are many amusing anecdotes in this biography, often involving a performance by Thea: dancing with Helen Garner, doing the same with Mandy Sayer, shopping for an elusive brown corduroy suit with Louise Adler, smoking furiously in her rented apartment under the “Smoking Prohibited” sign. I earnestly discussed possible moves from Cambewarra with Thea and Jack when I met them there in the early 1990s, and now discover in this biography that Thea was a real estate fantasist, known to local agents for her impulsive deposits on unsuitable properties. Lamb ends with some fond images of Astley holding court among her admirers and fellow writers over Friday lunch at the Byron Bay Writers Centre, and sitting outside the library, smoking while she observed the passers-by. Ed recalls that she had agitated the local council for a “smoking bench” there.

It may seem petty to mention factual errors in such an enlightening book, but I feel obliged to note that Tom Keneally’s early childhood in northern New South Wales does not make him a Queenslander, and he trained for the secular priesthood not the Jesuits; and the photograph taken in Memphis is of Ray Willbanks, not the late Robert Ross. More unsettling are some odd vulgarities of expression that you suspect might enrage the dead writer: the suggestion that Astley’s voice and timing in her public readings was “almost sex” and the description of the elegant Beatrice Davis as “a classy dame.”

This biography can be placed alongside biographies of Elizabeth Jolley, Patrick White, Judith Wright, Hal Porter and Beatrice Davis to create a collective history of literary and social change in Australia in the decades since the second world war. Curiously, Christina Stead, Jolley, Wright and Astley all found themselves in relationships with married men (“Reader, he was already married”) though they did what they could to maintain respectability in a narrow-minded society, even to the extent of never addressing the situation directly in their writing. So the biographies matter in understanding both their writing and the society they lived in. Astley’s obsession with the abject female body gains new meaning in the light of this book. It does what good literary biographies should – incite a reader to go back to the novels. •

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