GLO­RI­OUS PARA­DOX

A new bi­og­ra­phy of Thea Ast­ley should re­new our fas­ci­na­tion with a writer who en­cap­su­lated the con­tra­dic­tions of her time, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

Thea Ast­ley

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