Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2020

A Kindness Cup, by Thea Astley

The title of A Kindness Cup is ironic.  It alludes to the New year’s Eve tradition of raising a glass (i.e. a cup o’ kindness’) while singing Auld Lang Syne. The words ‘We’ll take a cup of kindness yet’ express ‘good will, friendship and kind regard’ to absent friends, and they evoke a sense of belonging and fellowship among the company.  But the occasion in the novel in which it is sung is evidence only of malice, self-delusion, and a wilful forgetting.  Written contemporaneously with Xavier Herbert’s monumental Poor Fellow My Country that tackled Indigenous dispossession (1975, see my review) , Astley acknowledged in a note at the beginning of A Kindness Cup that the impetus for the novel was an actual incident at The Leap, Queensland, in the second half of the last [19th] century and she has used elements of the report of the Select Committee on the Native Police Force Queensland, 1861.  Her novel exposing this massacre won the Age Book of the Year in 1975, predating The Other Side of the Frontier by historian Henry Reynolds in 1981.  And wilful forgetting of Australia’s Black history is still going on.

Alternating back and forth in time, from events surrounding the massacre to twenty years afterwards, A Kindness Cup exposes small town memorialisation as a lie.  The occasion is a reunion to celebrate the founding of a town with a weeklong extravaganza of speeches, drinking and a performance by the town songbird who made good elsewhere. Now aged 60, Latin teacher Tom Dorahy has returned as an avenging angel to expose the involvement of his pupil Buckmaster in the death of Kowaha and her baby girl.  Buckmaster now is an honoured citizen, knighted along with Sweetman for handling (i.e. breaking) the sugar strike and for owning more acres of sweet grass in the north than any man had the right to own.  Dorahy’s musings establish that (like most of the class) Buckmaster was stupid and lazy; he also had a father whose patronage kept him at the school.  Defeated by his attempts to educate these lumpish boys, as a man of 37 Dorahy was capable of only minor acts of malice:

Nort, Mr Dorahy inscribed meticulously on Buckmaster’s ill-spelled prose.  Nort, he gently offered, as Trooper Lieutenant Fred Buckmaster gave his evidence before the select committee. (p.6)

Here Dorahy allows himself a self-indulgent joke: he wants Buckmaster to know that he has scored ‘nought’ on his ill-spelled Latin translation.  Thea Astley is making the same comment about the enquiry into Kowaha’s death — Buckmaster’s testimony before a magistrate follows, and the enquiry achieves ‘nort’.

Characters of all moral stripes flesh out the panorama of treachery.  Jenner is the bright boy in class who mystifies Buckmaster en route to a ‘dispersal’ with his sly allusion to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, ‘Tirra lirra by the creek’.  Buckmaster’s crony is the local politician Sweetman who just wants the past to lie buried.  Snoggers Boyd prides himself on objective reporting and isn’t keen to make a stand without some time to think it through (and beat a strategic retreat to retirement elsewhere).  Charlie Lunt, who almost paid with his life for warning off the Aborigines, is a Christlike figure, seeking reconciliation through the power of love.  ‘Christ was wasting his time’ says Dohery, when he finds Jenner recovering from a beating by Buckmaster, ‘It would take a score of Gethsemanes’. 

Well, religious or not, contemporary readers might argue that forgiveness and reconciliation begin with truth telling.  It is what Dorahy wants, but nobody listens to him now, if they ever did.

A Kindness Cup is rich with allusions. Astley was not interested in writing ‘accessible’ fiction.  In the first chapter, there is an allusion to Lunt doing a bishop’s candlesticks when Mr Dorahy (another of Astley’s misfit teachers aching with loneliness) muses on the position of the Indigenous people working with long knives in the cane and their scabby children making games in the dust at the entrances and exits of towns:

He was friendly with them, as friendly perhaps as Charlie Lunt on his hopeless block of land west of the township; friendly even when they robbed his accessible larder, noting the small fires they made at the boundary fences of his shack; or when he caught Kowaha, shinily young, pilfering sugar and flour, eyes rolling like humbugs with the lie of it while he did a bishop’s candlesticks — ‘But I gave them to you’ — confusing her entirely. (p.6)

1974, Winner of the Age Book of the Year 1975

When Astley published this novel in 1974, there was no Google to assuage a reader’s puzzlement and the musical Les Mis (1980) had not yet premiered in French, much less in English. Either you knew Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and the story of the bishop who lied to save the ex-convict Jean Valjean from further imprisonment after he stole the candlesticks — or you remained mystified.  My battered paperback copy of A Kindness Cup is obviously a student’s copy… it’s plastered with annotations, but its owner ‘McKenzie’ was blind to this symbol of mercy in the novel.

An episode between Lunt and Buckmaster alludes to the Biblical Judas and a Miltonic sweep of wings. I wondered, when I came across it, if younger readers, even with the advantage of Google, will unravel this one:

A large lady arranges her behind at the piano.  The queen is saved in a series of mundane chords. (p. 96)

When Dorahy sees Kowaha’s body, he quotes from Livy: Lucretia lying naked.  This is more than an allusion to rape, it’s also Dorahy’s unfufilled desire to cause a rebellion and bring down the regime, just as the noblewoman’s rape brought the downfall of Tarquinius Sextus. Like many of of his real-life counterparts seeking truth and justice for Indigenous people on the frontier — as documented in Henry Reynold’s This Whispering in Our Hearts, (1998) — Drahy was doomed to fail.

Sometimes historical fiction can be just as powerful.

Bill reviewed it too, at The Australian Legend. 

Author: Thea Astley
Title: A Kindness Cup
Publisher: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1977, (1984 reprint), first published 1974
ISBN: 01700562036
Source: OpShop Find, $1.00

A Kindness Cup is available in the Text Classics series at Fishpond: A Kindness Cup


  1. Excellent review Lisa of a powerful book. This was my first Astley, read over 30 years ago, and made me love her and want to read more. You’ve teased out some allusions I’m sure I didn’t get back then, but I didn’t miss the power of her passion for injustice and her anger at small town small-mindedness.


    • Thanks, Sue:)
      Agreed: I don’t think we need to catch every allusion to enjoy a book, it’s like icing on the cake but the cake is enjoyable even without it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Lisa. It’s the mark of a good writer I think, if readers can get the point without recognising allusions, while those who do can obtain added meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa, I wish I had a copy of this book to reread. I remember it being quite brutal. When the library reopens I will borrow it.


    • Yes… I haven’t mentioned it in my review, but the way in which Lunt loses his leg and almost loses his life is really gruesome.


  3. I think it might have been my first Astley too, though not so long ago as 30 years! Astley must have thought she was fighting a lonely battle against racism and race-based violence in Queensland. As the investigation into the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee so clearly showed, perpetrators of racial violence in Queensland are to this day given all the cover they need by the police and by the government to which they nominally report.


    • TBH I don’t know how I came to leave discovering Astley so late. I didn’t catch up with her till Drylands in 2006…


    • She was a woman of powerful opinions and she cared passionately about truth and justice. I wish there were more writers like her in Australia…


  4. Gosh I’m going to have to read this it sounds wonderful. What a writer Astley was! I have two more of her books wending their way to me by post already – now I can see I’m going to have to get this one as well. I’ve got half a bookshelf of Astleys now! (No way I could cull them!) She was astoundingly consistently good as well as being quite a prolific writer – not many authors can manage that. To think she taught English at my old high school and I was there too late, rats!


    • LOL Sue, you may have been well out of it… Karen Lamb says somewhere in her bio, that she was not liked by students. I can’t quote, though I saw it just a day or so ago, but I think Lamb said she was harsh.
      And even if you’re one of the clever ones who find the less able as exasperating as she did, it’s horrible to see a teacher giving others less gifted a hard time. I wish now that I’d been braver at school and spoken up for these kids who didn’t deserve the humiliations they suffered. Consolations afterwards are no substitute for doing something to prevent cruelty.


  5. I have to say my brother and I both have the tendency to not suffer fools gladly Lisa and I have to be aware of it. He can demolish his students in one sarcastic comment. I can well imagine Astley could have been withering! As you say, perhaps as well I missed her and can just enjoy her novels!


    • Teaching is a big responsibility: we’re only human but the weight of our words carries long beyond the moment. I went to so many school and had so many teachers I can barely remember any of them, but the ones I do remember are the ones who were cruel and unfair.


  6. I wish I could read this, even if I’d miss the allusions.

    Alas, Thea Astley is not translated into French and A Kindness Cup is not available in ebook. So…

    Thankfully, there’s your review (and Bill’s, that I’m going to read too) and at least, I know about the book, even if I can’t read it.


    • You’ll just have to come back to Australia and buy one here!


      • That’s an idea! :-)


        • LOL I’m usually the one fantasising about a trip to France to visit the places you feature in your literary escapades…


          • Now that I’m back to work, there will be no literary escapade for a while.
            (although I do intend to visit the two book villages of my region)


            • They’ve been lovely to read, and your photos are great. You’re a great ambassador for France!
              BTW at French we’ve been learning about the Pyrenees where Castex comes from. That’s a lovely area too.


              • Yes, the Pyrénées is a great region too, not that I’ve seen much of it.


                • I think I need a year in France to see everything I want to see!


                • That’s a great project! Chiche!

                  Liked by 1 person

  7. […] A Kindness Cup (1974) by Thea Astley […]


  8. […] Thea Astley, A kindness cup (1974) (Lisa’s review) […]


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