A new biography of Thea Astley should renew our fascination with a writer who encapsulated the contradictions of her time, writes
The wonder of Inventing Her Own Weather is that Lamb manages to corral these contradictions into some kind of individual coherence. And the generosity of her project lies in the biographer’s effort to locate and explain the forces that made Astley so tricky, so difficult a customer. To be a woman and a writer under the conditions Lamb describes required either the tact and diplomacy of a Talleyrand, or else the bloody-minded determination of a pioneer.
The initial surprise of the biography is the Edwardian conservatism of Astley’s upbringing. The flat-vowelled chain-smoker of literary legend began life as the child of congenitally correct parents. Thea’s mother was a devout Catholic and a figure of surpassing primness. When the young adult Thea eloped with a man 10 years her senior and a divorcee to boot, Eileen Astley did not talk to the couple for years. She returned a gifted copy of A Descant for Gossips, Astley’s second novel and breakthrough work, with offending passages and unpleasant words blacked out.
Cecil Astley was not as godly but he was even more of a stickler. An old-school copy editor for Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail, Cecil possessed a vermouth-free wit which his daughter inherited. The unhappiness of her parents’ marriage was also a boon of sorts: the biddable child became curious about the institution’s flaws at an early age. Astley also gained from Cecil a love of and respect for Australian literature which, as Lamb points out, was unusual for the day.
The family was all spit and polish, but not wealthy. Astley won a scholarship to Brisbane’s grand All Hallows Convent, where she combined a bluestocking’s earnest swotting with a growing resistance to the habits of empty obedience inculcated by the school. She ended her time there as an internal emigre from religion and caste, though it was only during her undergraduate degree at the University of Queensland, in the closing years of the war, that she met and made friends with other literary and artistic figures of the moment, that she discovered in writing a potential means of escape.
Yet, as is so often the case with Australian women writers of Astley’s era, that freedom would be years in the gaining. Lamb passes quickly over the time when Astley toiled as a schoolteacher in far north Queensland and elsewhere, lonely and repelled by the pinched mores of small-town Australia, even though it was these formative experiences that provided Astley with the material for her early fiction.
But Lamb is solid on the subject of Thea’s re-