Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-sh8wx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-22T11:19:08.822Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Thea Astley’s modernism of the ‘Deep North’, or on (un)kindness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2019

Jessica Gildersleeve*
Get access


Although she is often perceived as a writer of the local, the rural or the regional, Thea Astley herself notes writing by American modernists as her primary literary influence, and emphasises the ethical value of transnational reading and writing. Similarly, she draws parallels between writing of the American ‘Deep South’ and her own writing of the ‘Deep North’, with a particular focus on the struggles of the racial or cultural outsider. In this article, I pursue Astley’s peculiar blend of these literary genres — modernism, the Gothic and the transnational — as a means of understanding her conceptualisation of kindness and community. Although Astley rejects the necessity of literary community, her writing emphasises instead the value of interpersonal engagement and social responsibility. With a focus on her first novel, Girl with a Monkey (1958), this article considers Astley’s representation of the distinction between community and kindness, particularly for young Catholic women in Queensland in the early twentieth century. In its simultaneous critique of the expectations placed on women and its upholding of the values of kindness and charity, Astley considers our responsibilities in our relations with the Other and with community.

© The Author(s) 2019 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



1 Astley, Thea, cited in Ray Willbanks, ‘Thea Astley in America’, Antipodes 2 (1988), 108.Google Scholar

2 ‘I’m a great admirer of American writing. I’ve always felt that the standard of competence in writing since the war lies in America and not in England at all. Whenever I’m writing a novel I read a lot. I tend to read poetry more than novels, but I would look to American writers for guidance in how they handle the rhythms of their prose, how they handled dialogue, how they handled things generally, rather than to the English. I have, I would say, for the last twenty years, sought my impulse in techniques only from the standard set by American writers’ (Astley, cited in Norma Jean Richey, ‘An interview with Thea Astley’, South Central Review 3 (1986), 90.

3 Sheridan, Susan and Genoni, Paul, ‘Introduction’, in Sheridan, Susan and Genoni, Paul (eds), Thea Astley’s fictional worlds (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2006), p. xiv.Google Scholar

4 Lamb, Karen, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2015), p. 65.Google Scholar

5 Emmanuel Levinas explores the concept of the Other in Totality and infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991 [1969]), p. 197, where he notes that, ‘The face [synecdoche for the Other person] resists possession, resists my powers’.

6 For a comprehensive discussion of Astley’s Catholicism, see Lindsay, Elaine, Rewriting God: Spirituality in contemporary Australian women’s fiction (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000).Google Scholar

7 Ibid., p. 100.

8 Ibid., p. 100; see also Sheridan, Susan, The fiction of Thea Astley (New York: Cambria, 2016), p. 19Google Scholar: ‘Astley continues to attend to the human need for redemption from cruelty, despair, and small-mindedness, through the expression of love or kindness or creativity.’

9 Lindsay, Rewriting God, p. 105.

10 Lamb, Inventing her own weather, pp. 40, 41.

11 Lindsay, Rewriting God, p. 144; see also Susan Lever, ‘Changing times, changing stories’, in Sheridan and Genoni (eds), Thea Astley’s fictional worlds, pp. 126–34: ‘Astley’s early work requires diligent reading to uncover any feminist insights’ (pp. 129–30).

12 Sheridan, The fiction of Thea Astley, p. 18.

13 Lamb, Inventing her own weather, p. 39. Lamb also observes that, ‘A woman could not live a life like a man, with sexual freedom and freedom from negative social consequences. Her early autobiographical novels … dramatise her views about this’ (p. 83) and similarly argues that Astley wrote Girl with a Monkey in order ‘to give expression to the battle with herself and with the beliefs she had grown up with’ (p. 109).

14 Lindsay, Rewriting God, pp. 100–1.

15 Sheridan, The fiction of Thea Astley, p. 17.

16 Goldsworthy, Kerryn, ‘Thea Astley’s writing: Magnetic north’, Meanjin 42 (1983), 479.Google Scholar

17 ‘There’s something almost Gothic about Astley’s imagination,’ Goldsworthy adds, and as I earlier noted, like Astley herself, she compares her work to ‘short stories by women writers of the American South’ (‘Thea Astley’s writing’, p. 480). Astley also readily identifies William Faulkner, Truman Capote and Carson McCullers as literary influences: see Richey, ‘An interview with Thea Astley’, p. 91.

18 Goddu, Teresa, cited in Susan Castillo Street and Crow, Charles L., ‘Introduction: down at the crossroads’, in Susan Castillo Street and Crow, Charles L. (eds), The Palgrave handbook of the Southern Gothic (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 2.Google Scholar

19 Astley, Thea, ‘Being a Queenslander: A form of literary and geographical conceit’, Southerly 36 (1976), 253.Google Scholar

20 Astley, cited in Richey, ‘An interview with Thea Astley’, 92.

21 Astley, cited in Goldsworthy, ‘Thea Astley’s writing’, 482.

22 Astley, cited in Willbanks, ‘Thea Astley in America’, 107.

23 Smith, Andrew and Wallace, Jeff, ‘Introduction: Gothic modernisms — history, culture and aesthetics’, in Smith, Andrew and Wallace, Jeff (eds), Gothic modernisms (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp. 34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24 Paul Riquelme, John, ‘Modernist American Gothic’, in Andrew Weinstock, Jeffrey (ed.), The Cambridge companion to American Gothic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 57–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

25 Astley, Thea, Girl with a monkey (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012 [1958]), p. 25.Google Scholar

26 Ibid., p. 25.

27 Riquelme, ‘Modernist American Gothic’, p. 59.

28 Ibid., p. 59. Sheridan adds: ‘Astley is one of the rare women writers to have been accorded a place among the literary modernists of the 1960s in Australia. This was in part because of her experimentation with modernist narrative structures and her densely metaphoric diction. It was also because of her subject matter: her focus on sexual and social relations in the small towns and suburbs of post-war Australia, her interest in the alienated and the outcast, and the sardonic eye she cast on the snobberies of class and consumerism. In addition, the fact that she had no apparent interest in nationalist themes aligned her with the literary innovators of the period.’ See Sheridan, Susan, ‘Thea Astley: A woman among the satirists of post-war modernity’, Australian Feminist Studies 18 (2003), 261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 Lindsay, Rewriting God, p. 33.

30 Lever, Susan, ‘The challenge of the novel: Australian fiction since 1950’, in Pierce, Peter (ed.), The Cambridge history of Australian literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 501.Google Scholar

31 Ibid., p. 498, p. 502.

32 Astley, Girl with a monkey, p. 4.

33 Ibid., p. 48

34 Ibid., p. 49.

35 ‘The third-person narrative stays close to Elsie’s perceptions of the world, while at the same time it confirms her self-criticism, showing up her “shallowness of soul”.’ See Sheridan, The fiction of Thea Astley, p. 20.

36 Astley, Girl with a Monkey, p. 50.

37 Ibid., pp. 58, 59, 61–2.

38 Sheridan, ‘A woman among the satirists’, 263.

39 Ibid., 270.

40 Astley, Girl with a Monkey, p. 103.

41 Couper, J.M., ‘The novels of Thea Astley’, Meanjin 26 (1967), 332.Google Scholar

42 Astley, cited in Richey, ‘An interview with Thea Astley’, pp. 92, 93.

43 Astley, cited in Willbanks, ‘Thea Astley in America’, p. 107.

44 See T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the individual talent’, Egoist 4 (1919),