By Karen LambNon-fiction University of Queensland Press
Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather
This is the first book-length biography of Thea Astley, one of our most critically acclaimed writers. She was the first woman to win multiple Miles Franklin Awards – four in total. With many of her works published internationally, Astley was a trailblazer for women writers.
Karen Lamb has drawn on an unparalleled range of interviews and correspondence to create a detailed picture of Thea the woman, as well as Astley the writer. She has sought to understand Astley’s private world and how that shaped the distinctive body of work that is Thea Astley’s literary legacy.
Though her novels have fallen out of fashion in recent times, Thea Astley – winner of four Miles Franklin awards – is an important figure in Australian literature and this biography makes a wonderful start at acknowledging and perpetuating that talent.
The prose in Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather speaks to the spirited, idiosyncratic nature of Astley, as well as a sense of sadness that she did not see herself as a success and often found something to complain about, even when the going was good. In doing so, this biography handles deftly and honestly the facts of Astley’s life: that she was bold in her writing but had personal shortcomings and misgivings.
Karen Lamb provides insights to the inner workings of Astley that will captivate not just fans of Astley but also those who might not yet be familiar with her work.
There was never a time when multi-award-winning Australian novelist Thea Astley was not a writer. She began as a child, published on the children’s page of the newspaper where her journalist father worked; as a teenager she wrote for her school’s magazine; at university she joined Barjai, a group of young writers and artists that, in time, became one of the better known cultural organisations of the era, largely for having nurtured talents such as hers and poet Barrett Reid’s. She was able to pursue her ambitions as a writer within this small informal group; by the time Astley was in her thirties the effort she made to ‘carve out a good sentence’, as she called it, was the consequence of more than two decades of writing.
Her first novel, Girl with a Monkey, published in 1958, dazzled with insight and wit. Further novels appeared almost every two years throughout the 1960s. By 1963 Thea Astley had her first Miles Franklin Award for fiction for The Well Dressed Explorer, a humorous but scarifying portrait of a philandering journalist. This firmly established her reputation as a sharp-eyed satirist of Australian social mores. By the end of the next decade she had picked up a further two Miles Franklin Awards (for The Slow Natives and The Acolyte) and a healthy clutch of other major literary prizes. Yet 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. When she received the Patrick White Award in 1989 – intended for writers who might not have received the recognition they deserved – Astley regarded it as confirmation of her failure.
While eccentric, this attitude can be understood. Astley’s early literary role models, even from within her own family, were male (her artist-musician grandfather, her journalist father) and she also began writing at a time when, as Astley would later explain, women were supposed to emulate a ‘masculine style’ to succeed; that is, they were expected to conform to the ideals of strong narrative lines and the superior virtue of brevity. In Astley’s writing there are tensions between the vulnerability of female existence and the manner of its telling.
It is astonishing to think that even by the mid-1980s Astley was already as much of a household name as any Australian writer can be, that is, in Australia. ‘Australians loathe success that doesn’t take place in a scrum,’ she once said. But what becomes of a writer’s work when that writer is no longer alive? The relentless commerce of publishing, the thirst for the new, dictates much of that answer. Thea Astley was being published – and reviewed – in the United States, as well as in Australia. In all she wrote sixteen works of fiction in just under half a century. Drylands, published in 1999 when she was in her seventies, won her a fourth Miles Franklin Award (a feat shared only by Tim Winton).
Astley’s books offer a rare and sustained engagement with the social and political realities of Australian life over more than forty years, particularly for women. She was no Christina Stead balancing typewriter on knee in shabby hotels across Europe, but at home in Australia Astley established an output in the same class, rarely taking time off before moving on to her next manuscript. She has influenced a generation of Australian women writers such as Helen Garner and Kate Grenville and is known for her support of the many younger writers who came within her orbit as a teacher.
Astley was a child of the Depression and she lived through World War II as a teenager; she was no stranger to ‘personal weather’, as she called it, the highs and lows that sweep through a life. Early experiences shaped her fiction: the Catholicism of the 1930s and 1940s; the presence of American GIs in wartime Brisbane. She also observed unhappy marriages; absent fathers; bachelor celibates; misfits and ‘runaways’ risking safety for the tropics. Her strong women of the later books (It’s Raining in Mango, Reaching Tin River, Vanishing Points, Coda, Drylands) manage without men but with stoicism and a certain panache. Sometimes Astley’s own anxieties and self-doubt creep into her prose, driving the narrative with particular force. Like the work of Christina Stead, Astley’s novels and short stories have a strong autobiographical element which she readily acknowledged: ‘They are 90% ME,’ she wrote, adding that, ‘When you’re writing a novel, you’re not writing about anything really except yourself’ and, ‘I work from life, as I know it, as I have known it.’ Astley’s characters can be like members of an extended family, reappearing from novel to novel. A typical Astley protagonist has drifted unawares into middle age (Astley herself once claimed to have been ‘arrested at forty-two’). Their will is seemingly suspended, their memory animated by usually hostile past events, while they await the decline of the ripened body.
In her work as in her life, Thea Astley was a fatalist. In public she could display a strange mixture of bombast and anxiety, be sentimental – reduced to tears by a recalled scene – yet blunt in her opinions, often mumbling a shambolic apology.
Copyright University of Queensland Press
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist