KAREN LAMB Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather. Reviewed by Suzanne Marks
The first full biography of Australian writer Thea Astley is a rollicking read that reveals a complex maverick who pushed against both the limits of her time and her own doubts.
‘There was never a time when multi-award-winning Australian novelist Thea Astley was not a writer.’ Thus begins Karen Lamb’s perceptive and detailed biography. The subtitle comes from Astley’s fascination with weather as a metaphor to describe the highs and lows that swept through her life and of those she observed, what she called ‘the climate people created around themselves, their mark on the world’.
As the first biography of this profoundly gifted, prolific and paradoxical writer, it does not disappoint. Lamb steers a path through Astley’s life that is compelling, compassionate and convincing.
Astley amassed no less than 12 literary awards, including four Miles Franklins – an achievement matched only by Tim Winton so far. Her contribution to Australian literature was recognised with an Order of Australia and an honorary doctorate from the University of Queensland.
Lamb’s Prologue sets the scene for the revelations to come. If it is true that writers are born and not made, then Astley benefited from inheriting a family milieu with an established culture of writing, which she herself appreciated. She knew of and respected her maternal grandfather’s reputation as a Sydney writer and teacher, although he died before she was born. Her father Cecil was a sub-editor and journalist, first on the Queenslander and then the Courier-Mail, and from him she inherited an unshakeable belief in the right to free speech.
Her parents’ marriage, however, was unhappy, creating difficulties for her and her brother Phillip growing up. But it also provided her with a rich vein of raw material to draw on in creating plot and character. Eileen Lindsay and Cecil Astley ‘… 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.
Marriage was the key arena in which the relationship of the self with the other was negotiated:
[It] 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.
It is into her inner world that Astley retreated to explore how her characters could flourish and survive the pain, disappointment and exasperation experienced when their inner needs were at odds with the absurdities and unsympathetic demands of their social milieux. Lamb shows that it is the tension between these ‘twin modes of existence’ that provides the continuing leitmotif of Astley’s novels and shaped her as a writer, and how she coped with these countervailing demands by perfecting ‘the art of self-containment’ in her own life and which she depicts in the character of Elsie Ford, her first alter ego, in Girl With A Monkey (1958).
On entering university she was an eager recruit to Barjai, an on-campus student society. She gloried in being accepted as one of this gifted and formidable bunch of young intellectuals and artists who, at war’s end were inspired with a new, optimistic artistic vision that would break with the conservatism of the past and ‘bring about extraordinary change’. Barjai also developed in her an openness towards and acceptance of homosexuality; here she met men whose identity was other than as husbands and fathers. This helped her to understand and empathise with her beloved brother Phil, who as a Jesuit priest suffered paralysing periods of depression associated with his homosexuality and his life commitment to a flawed institution.
Like the other young girls of her generation, Astley grew up with mixed messages about men; you did not talk to strange men, men were providers but also to be feared; a studious girl was labelled a ‘bluestocking’ and wouldn’t attract men. At university these attitudes were to some extent softened as the war tipped the student gender balance, at least numerically, in favour of women. Later in life Astley expressed her horror that this did little to change sexist attitudes and her disappointment at how rapidly the situation reversed once the war was over.
Ever the contrarian however, she resolutely refused to be labelled a feminist; yet her women characters’ lives are far from easy. Towards the end of her writing career and nearing 70 she wrote Coda (1994) set in a nursing home. Coda’s key character is self-styled feral grandmother Katherine, who, at the end of her own life savagely identifies the four stages of women as bimbo, breeder, babysitter and burden.
In 1947, at 22, she met Jack Gregson who was divorced, a Protestant and ten years older. Astley fell passionately in love with Jack, fully aware of the social opprobrium such a marriage would reap her – especially from Cecilia, her devout Catholic mother and the Catholic church. Initially Jack took her beyond the control of Church and family, freeing her to plunge wholeheartedly into the excitement and passion of her awakened sexuality. Later, however, she was to suffer agonies of Catholic guilt in her role as wife and mother.
Lamb points out that Astley’s novels clearly reveal her strong feelings on issues of social injustice, especially the suffering of Aborigines under white settlement. However, as a writer it was not her way to engage in political activism, seeing it as ‘overriding the importance of character’. Instead she wrote stories about ‘how it came to be’ and ‘what was to be done’. A Kindness Cup (1974), set in a North Queensland town, includes graphic descriptions of white settlers’ vindictive atrocities committed against Aborigines. Lamb maintains that for Astley this brought ‘nerve wrecking [sic] public exposure as it was examining the politics of race’. But the novel was also the vehicle through which she vented her anger and exposed the dark side of white settlement, the truth of which was just starting to be publicly acknowledged.
Lamb takes us behind the public image of Astley the strong, opinionated woman and celebrated writer, and reveals her lifelong doubt and self-loathing. Despite her literary awards, Astley ‘spent her life suffering from an acute sense of being a writer who was out of favour, a sentiment that sits curiously alongside her visible success’. At Angus and Robertson she was grateful for being handpicked by the ‘doyenne of Australian literary publishing’, Beatrice Davis, but lived in fear of disappointing her.
She acquired a modicum of reassurance when, in 1989, she received the Patrick White Award given to a writer judged as highly creative over a long period but who may not have received adequate attention. By then she had amassed nine literary awards including three Miles Franklins. But it was a long time before she could comfortably call herself an author.
Lamb respects and admires Astley for both her personal qualities and her literary achievements, but never descends into hagiography. Her understanding of Astley’s psychology and motivations is compelling, supported as it is through her close study of the literary opus, her archival research, her interviews with Astley before her death in 2004, her family, friends and work colleagues.
Astley’s path to literary success was hard won. As I read this book I found the image Lamb paints to be deeply moving but not sentimental. I was especially struck by Astley’s courage and persistance with her literary vision. She earned her place as a noted writer within the Australian literary context by faithfully staying with where she was in life now; never holding back in exploring her own vulnerabilities and fears: ‘The canvas had to be life itself; that set of perennial dynamics of need and power … this is what fascinated and appalled her’ and was the basis of her ‘creative animus’. From Elsie Ford in Girl With a Monkey through to Kathleen in Coda, her cutting satire on old age, her protagonists consistently reveal the turbulent seeking of Astley’s inner world. They are also windows onto the emotionally and mentally distorted lives of many women of her generation in their efforts to meet their inner need for intimacy and companionship while conforming to the demands and expectations of the wider Australian society.
As biographies go, this is a rollicking, well-told and worthwhile story.
Karen Lamb Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather UQP 2015 PB 384pp $34.95
Suzanne Marks is a member of the Board of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, dedicated to the preservation of Australian women’s writing. Her professional life has been in equity, human rights and conflict resolution.
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