Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2015

Thea Astley, Inventing her own weather, by Karen Lamb #BookReview

Thea AstleyThis biography of Thea Astley is so good I can confidently say that readers will enjoy it even if they’ve never read a word of Astley’s – though they will soon finding themselves wanting to do so.   In telling the story of Astley’s life as a writer, the book traverses Queensland’s emergence from a cultural backwater,  the massive social changes stemming from the Whitlam years, the dynamics of the Australian publishing industry and most importantly of all, the story of Astley the ‘anti-feminist’ who fought all her life for women’s writing to be accorded respect, recognition and adequate remuneration.  They should have named the Stella Prize the Astleys, it would have been so much more apt, IMO.

Now, as you know if you’ve read my previous posts about Thea Astley and her work, she was the multi award-winning author of fourteen novels and three short story collections.  Amongst other prizes, she won the Miles Franklin four times, Premiers’ awards, the Patrick White award and the ALS medal, not to mention an OAM (Order of Australia),  so it seems bizarre that she was constantly badgering her publishers to do more for her and complaining about a lack of recognition.  But Karen Lamb makes a very convincing case that this seemingly perverse behaviour stemmed from a deep insecurity and from an acute awareness that male writers were supported differently both in terms of sales-generating publicity and with promotion of their books into international markets.  Especially in the early years of Astley’s writing career…

Thea Astley (1925-2004) grew up in a staunchly Catholic household, witnessing the unhappy marriage of her journalist father Cecil and his wife Eileen.  Cecil had frustrated literary ambitions, but when Thea sent her parents a copy of her first novel in 1958 their response was less than encouraging:

She had sent a signed copy of Girl with a Monkey to Cecil and Eileen, who had made no comment.  A friend later sent her this same copy, inscribed ‘To Mum and Dad’, having discovered it languishing in the library of the Toowong seminary in Brisbane.

Astley didn’t know that her book had been dumped till some years later, but the silence in response to her debut was eclipsed by the reaction to A Descant for Gossips (see my review):

Astley also sent an advance copy of Descant to her parents.  One day she received a parcel from her parents’ Ashgrove address, containing her novel.  Eileen had fiercely crossed out passages and phrases she considered sacrilegious. Astley understood her mother’s attitudes towards sex and other matters, and constantly reminded her about her marriage outside the faith, but her reaction was still a shock.  (p. 126)

Lamb, a teacher and researcher at the Australian Catholic University, unpacks Astley’s ambivalence about her Catholic upbringing and her guilt.  There was the marriage to Jack Gregson which was (until a bizarre set of religious hurdles were subsequently overcome), not considered a marriage at all because he was divorced and they had wed in a registry office.  Astley was also conflicted about her brother Phil, a repressed homosexual whose mental health suffered within the Catholic priesthood, and she was also fiercely critical about the secondary role of women within the Catholic hierarchy.  There’s an amusing anecdote from a neighbour late in the book where Astley submits the absurd contradictions of Catholicism to pure logic:

In her childhood it has been a sin to eat meat on Friday: you went to Hell.  Once it was allowed, ‘Thea got stuck into whether they were all going to Hell. ‘  She laid the argument out neatly as a tablecloth: How did it work then?  Maybe the others hadn’t gone to Hell.  Ergo, it was a lie.  Ergo, lying was a sin.  Conclusion: there was no Hell. (p. 303)

Faith and its ramifications was only one of the personal issues that Astley explored in her oeuvre.   If like me, you love her novels, you will really enjoy the way Lamb analyses the writing, placing in context the author’s concerns about the restricted lives of women; the constraints of marriage and motherhood; ageing; and place as a source of depression, anxiety and despair.  Astley’s young adulthood was spent in the loneliness of remote Queensland towns, teaching by day and writing at night, and always the outsider.  Her characters are always misfits, but her development as a writer saw her move away from satire because she wanted to explore the complexity of flawed humans:

Astley asked herself who these townsfolk might be, sweating in isolation, with their  flaws, doubts and fears. She already knew, as she said, that ‘Any sort of person can be interesting in circumstances that create antagonism with other people, circumscribing them so that something breaks out.’ (p. 102).

Famous for her theory of the four ages of women as ‘bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden’, Astley found her middle age straddling the era of strong women making a splash in her literary world and elsewhere.   Despite being a protégé of Beatrice Davis (1909-1992) – a rare example in Astley’s early career of a strong female publisher who was pro-women, pro-Australian writing and who knew brilliant writing when she saw it  – Astley was always antagonistic towards the publishing industry but in her later years admired women in the industry who came to be household names: Louise Adler; Jennifer Byrne, Susan Ryan and Helen Daniel amongst others.   She also admired the independence of Mrs Waterman, the single mother of her son Ed’s partner , and these dynamic women influenced the style and preoccupations of her later works which feature strong women who could do things apart from marrying. With a female publisher (Adler) and agent (Jill Hickson) Astley went on to write novels featuring eccentric self-willed women with real agency: Reaching Tin River (1990); Vanishing Points (1992) and Coda (1994), (see my review). Meredith Rose at Penguin edited The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) and although Rose had moved to Magabala Books in Broome she also edited the acerbic last novel Drylands (1999), recognising its ‘undeniable feeling of the emptiness of everything.  And the fullness of it.’ (p. 302)

Astley was, by all accounts, a prickly personality, but was lucky in her marriage to Jack, a man who gave her space and loved her unconditionally.    (Something one might not expect, given the author’s unflattering portrayals of men! See my review of The Well-dressed Explorer for example, or of The Acolyte.)  Lamb’s admiration for Astley is obvious, but this is no hagiography.   The biography exposes the contradictions of Astley’s personality: she was prone to infatuations (including profligate purchases of real estate later abandoned!) but meticulous about money; over-partial to praise yet hypersensitive and hostile to any criticism; snooty about the value of creative writing courses when she taught one herself; pro-women and anti-feminist; and jealous of the sexual freedoms of the 1970s when she had longed for less repressive mores herself.  She constantly explored the theme of self-interest but was repelled and fascinated by it in equal measure. She was also theatrical; obsessive about recognition; and prone to one-liners that offended her listeners, yet she could be shy, self-deprecating and anxious.

(I think this is why I don’t like the photo on the cover, apart from looking uneasily as if Astley is in a coffin, it shows a face too guarded, with those big hands warding off any intrusion into her space).

There is so much more that I could write about this fascinating and highly-readable biography, but really, it is a case of ‘do yourself a favour’ and get a copy for yourself.  To my mind, it is on a par with Jill Roe’s award-winning biography of Miles Franklin (see my review) and there is no higher praise than that.

So see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums as well!

Author: Karen Lamb
Title: Thea Astley, Inventing Her Own Weather
Publisher: UQP, 2015
ISBN: 9780702253560
Review copy courtesy of UQP.

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Fishpond: Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather


Responses

  1. This biography is one of the best I have ever read. Lamb has researched so well, and revealed so much with surprises for me. I always thought of Thea Astley being a very confident woman, but this biography shows the other side to her. A very good read.

    • Yes, absolutely, full of surprises. And doesn’t it make you want to drop everything and read all the Astleys? Especially *chuckle* that one that was a bomb!

  2. And this has been on my wish list since you said how much you were enjoying it.

  3. I’ll definitely “do myself a favour” and hopefully not leave it too long in the TBR. I’m not sure about Qld’s emergence from a cultural backwater, Astley’s novels, the ones I’ve read, are savage in their exposure of the Qld rednecks I know from my years driving trucks into FNQ from the very early 1970s, and from the murder at Palm Is which continues to be covered up, and which has it parallels in Astley’s writing.

    • *chuckle*, We may well debate Queensland’s status, especially in the wake of Campbell Newman’s demolition job on the Qld Literary Awards and the way most Queenslanders didn’t give a hoot about it, and yes, I’ve met Qld rednecks on the road myself and was nearly run off the road by one who didn’t like Victorian number plates. But ironically it was the Newman debacle that showed just how vibrant the Qld literary community is because they got together and set up a replacement award. I bet Thea herself would have been on the committee if it had happened in her day!

  4. […] If you enjoy Astley’s novels, do find yourself a copy of Karen Lamb’s recent biography Thea Astley, inventing her own weather (see my review). […]

  5. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) would agree. […]

  6. My review is scheduled to post this afternoon. What a wonderful read, Lisa. I totally agree. As you say you could write so much about it, from all sorts of angles. I think I had at least four different intros, each of which would have taken me down different paths – some criss-crossing each other but with different flavours over all.

    Love your idea of Astley prize rather than Stella. I guess there was a bit of thumbing and a certain nose in naming it the Stella, but I like your suggestion.

  7. […] also covered extensively in Karen Lamb’s recent bio Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather, see my review) but I found them less interesting to read about than Steggall’s coverage of the genesis of […]

  8. […] Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather by Karen Lamb (UQP) – Dulwich Hill, NSW, see my review […]

  9. […] in Soviet Politics, Sheila Fitzpatrick Thea Astley: Inventing her own Weather, Karen Lamb, see my review Second Half First, Drusilla Modjeska Island Home, Tim […]

  10. […] Thea Astley: Inventing her own Weather, Karen Lamb, UQP, 2015, see my review […]

  11. […] see also reviews of the recent Astley biography: Karen Lamb, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, UQP, St Lucia, 2015; by Sue/Whispering Gums (here) and Lisa/ANZLitLovers (here) […]


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