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‘To my brother’: Gay love and sex in Thea Astley’s novels and stories

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2019

Cheryl Taylor*
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Beginning as early as A Descant for Gossips (1960), gay men and gay love come and go in Thea Astley’s prose oeuvre. The responses that these characters and this topic invite shift with point of view and under the impact of varied themes. Astley’s treatment refuses to be contained, either by traditional Catholic doctrines about sex or by Australia’s delay in decriminalising homosexual acts. Driven by love for her gay older brother Philip, whose death from cancer corresponded with her final allusions to gay love in The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996), Astley’s only constant message on this, as on other topics, is humans’ responsibility to treat each other with kindness. This essay draws on Karen Lamb’s biography and on writings and reminiscences by Philip Astley’s family and fellow Jesuits to reveal his significance as his sister sought to resolve through her fiction the conflict between an inculcated Catholic idolisation of purity and her own hard-won understanding and acceptance of gay men.

© The Author(s) 2019 

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1 Astley, Thea, ‘To my brother’ (1945), Thea Astley: Selected poems, edited by Taylor, Cheryl (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2017), p. 52.Google Scholar

2 See Dessaix, Robert (ed), Australian gay and lesbian writing: An anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 1114Google Scholar; Malouf, David, ‘Dark destroyer’ and ‘Unholding here’, Four poets (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1962), pp. 15, 16Google Scholar; Maynard, Don, ‘Athlete’, Bulletin, 26 August 1959, 57Google Scholar; and ‘Conversations’, Westerly 3 (1959), 11–14; Hal Porter, ‘Francis Silver’, Australian Letters 4, July 1962, 14–21; Rose, Jon, At the cross (London: Deutsch, 1961)Google Scholar; Lauder, Stuart, Winger’s landfall (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1962Google Scholar); Neville Jackson [Gerald Glaskin], No end to the way (London: Corgi, 1965). Standard guides to Australian literature, including The Oxford history of Australian literature (1981), The Oxford literary guide to Australia (1987), The Oxford companion to Australian literature (1993) and The Oxford literary history of Australia (1998) make no reference to these authors or their novels. AustLit gives only publication details. Kenneth Mackenzie’s The young desire it (1937) was the first ‘literary’ novel to explore a sexual relationship between young Australian men.

3 Dessaix, Australian gay and lesbian writing, pp. 15–17.

4 Hurley, Michael, ‘Critical reflection’ in Aiken, Graeme (ed), The Penguin book of gay Australian writing (Melbourne: Penguin, 2002), pp. 405–10.Google Scholar

5 Hurley, ‘Critical reflection’, p. 405. See Ben Winsor, ‘A definitive timeline of LGBT+ rights in Australia’, SBS, 12 August 2016,

6 Lea, Shelton and Harris, Robert, A flash of life (Melbourne: Mountain View, 1986), p. 50.Google Scholar

7 These include: Hal Porter ‘Fiend and friend’ and Thea Astley ‘Cubby’ in Hal Porter (ed), Coast to coast: Australian stories, 1959–1960 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1960); Astley, Thea, ‘The scenery never changes’, in Porter, Hal (ed.), Coast to coast: Australian stories, 1961–1962 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962)Google Scholar; Hal Porter, ‘Gretel’ and Thea Astley, ‘Journey to Olympus’ in Leonie Kramer (ed.), Coast to coast: Australian stories, 1963–1964 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1964); and Porter, Hal, ‘My pal Rembrandt’ in Astley, Thea (ed.), Coast to coast: Australian stories, 1969–1970 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1970)Google Scholar.

8 Letters from Hal Porter to Thea Astley, University of Queensland Fryer Library (henceforth UQFL) 97, box 21, folder 140 (original emphasis).

9 Lamb, Karen, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2015), p. 151.Google Scholar

10 Ibid., pp. 268–9.

11 Ibid., p. 297.

12 Letters from Philip Astley to Thea Astley, UQFL 97, box 21, folders 150, 153.

13 Province Secretary, Fr. Chris Horvat SJ, personal correspondence, 21 Mar. 2019.

14 Taylor, Selected poems, pp. 10, 52; Lamb, Thea Astley, pp. 14–16, 78–9, 88, 200–1, 231, 234, 249, 253.

15 UQFL 97, box 21, folder 150; ‘Morning’ introduces the opening section of four flower poems in Wolfe’s collection, Kensington Gardens (London: Ernest Benn, 1924).

16 UQFL 97, box 21, folder 150. ‘The magic ring’ and ‘Through the window’ are Philip Astley’s other surviving poems.

17 Strong, David, The Australian dictionary of Jesuit biography: 1848–2015, 2nd rev. ed. (Canberra: Halstead Press, 2017), p. 15Google Scholar; Horvat, personal correspondence, 21 March 2019.

18 Michael McGirr, Books that saved my life (Melbourne: Text, 2018), p. 65.

19 Wiltgen, S.V.D., Rev. Ralph M., The inside story of Vatican II: a firsthand account of the council’s inner workings (Charlotte, NC: TAN, 2014), p. 78.

20 Ibid., p. 441.

21 Ibid., pp. 399–407.

22 Part III: Life in Christ, Section Two: The Ten Commandments; and Article 6, The Sixth Commandment, II, The Vocation to Chastity, Catechism of the Catholic church, nn. 2337–59,

23 Martel, Frédéric, In the closet of the Vatican: Power, homosexuality, hypocrisy (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019)Google Scholar.

24 Letter from Eileen Astley to Thea Astley, 15 March 1969, UQFL 97, box 21, folder 148.

25 Letter from Eileen Astley to Thea Astley, 19 March 1976, UQFL 97, box 21, folder 148.

26 Horvat, personal correspondence, 21 Mar. 2019.

27 Strong, The Australian dictionary of Jesuit biography, pp. 14–15.

28 Letters from Philip Astley to Thea Astley, 28 September 1990, 3 October 1990, UQFL 97, box 21, folder 153.

29 Strong, The Australian dictionary of Jesuit biography, p. 16.

30 Horvat, personal correspondence, 21 March 2019.

31 Letter from Philip Grano to Thea Astley, UQFL 97, box 21, folder 153.

32 McGirr, Books that saved my life, p. 10. McGirr’s letter to Thea Astley (15 June 1999), marking the second anniversary of Philip’s death, encloses a copy of the quoted pages, ‘mainly because they include a tribute to Philip’ (UQFL 97, box 21, folder 153). McGirr left the Jesuits in 2001. He has since built a successful career as a teacher, author and critic.

33 Philip Grano, personal correspondence, 17 March 2019; McGirr, Books that saved my life, p. 64.

34 Lamb, Thea Astley, p. 17, p. 268.

35 Thea Astley, Interview by Ray Willbanks, in Susan Sheridan, and Paul Genoni (eds), Thea Astley’s fictional worlds (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2008), p. 35.

36 Astley, Thea, An item from the late news (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1982), pp. 196–7Google Scholar.

37 Matthew 27: 29–30.

38 Reproduced in Lamb, Thea Astley, after p. 178.

39 McGirr, Books that saved my life, p. 64.

40 Astley, Thea, The multiple effects of rainshadow (Ringwood: Penguin, 1996), pp. 226–7Google Scholar. Astley was stricken by grief and guilt after her brother’s death: see Lamb, Thea Astley, pp. 290, 295, 297–9; McGirr, Books that saved my life, pp. 65–6.

41 Astley, The Multiple effects of rainshadow, p. 221.

42 Astley, ‘Journey to Olympus’, in Collected stories (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1997), pp. 25–35 (p. 31). Hatherell’s, WilliamSome versions of Manifold: Brisbane and the “myth” of John Manifold’, Australian Literary Studies 21 (2003), 154–58)Google Scholar, The third metropolis: Imagining Brisbane through art and literature, 1940–-1970 (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2007), pp. 158–77 and Rodney Hall, J.S. Manifold: An introduction to the man and his work (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1978), pp. 113–14 all repay reading as a balance to Astley’s satire.

43 Astley, ‘Journey to Olympus’, p. 28.

44 Ibid., p. 33.

45 Ibid., pp. 25, 30, 32, 33.

46 Ibid., p. 27.

47 Ibid., p. 27.

48 Ibid., p. 28.

49 Ibid., p. 29.

50 Ibid., p. 29.

51 Ibid., p. 29. See, for example, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ by Matteo Balducci (1554), by Francesco Albani (c. 1640), and by the Utrecht School (circle of Jan van Bijlert, c. 1660).

52 Astley, ‘Journey to Olympus’, p. 30.

53 Ibid., p. 35.

54 Ibid., p. 35.

55 Astley, Thea, The well-dressed explorer (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson, 1977 [1962]), pp. 150, 193Google Scholar. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘queer’ (2) as ‘a homosexual; esp. a homosexual man. Although originally chiefly derogatory, since the late 1980s it has been used as a neutral or positive term, originally by some homosexuals’.

56 Thea Astley, ‘Not quite the same’ (1983) in Collected stories, p. 321.

57 Ibid., pp. 325–6.

58 Astley, Thea, Beachmasters (Ringwood: Penguin, 1985), p. 113Google Scholar.

59 Astley, Thea, A descant for gossips (Brisbane: Jacaranda, 1968 [1960]), pp. 137, 138.Google Scholar

60 Ibid., pp. 137–8.

61 Dessaix, Australian gay and lesbian writing, p. 13.

62 See, for example, Holberg in Astley, Thea, The acolyte (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1980 [1972]), p. 85Google Scholar; Quigley, the lugger crews, Jardine and ‘that old closet child molester’ Lewis Carroll in Astley, The multiple effects of rainshadow, pp. 19–21, 32–3, 167–8, 218–20, 262–6; and Jilly Shoforth’s rapist in Thea Astley, Drylands: A book for the world’s last reader (Ringwood: Penguin, 1999), pp. 160–8.

63 1 Peter 5.8.

64 Thea Astley, The slow natives (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1965), p. 33.

65 Ibid., p. 199.

66 Ibid., pp. 201–2.

67 Ibid., p. 127, 138.

68 Astley, Thea, A boat load of home folk (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1976 [1968]), pp. 15l16Google Scholar.

69 Ibid., p. 18, 28, 97–101.

70 Ibid., p. 123.

71 Letter from Eileen Astley to Thea Astley, 5 November 1968, UQFL 97, box 21, folder 148.

72 Thanks to Geoffrey Cains, Astley finally saw Stead’s comment in March 2003 (UQFL 97, box 21, folder 138).

73 Astley, The multiple effects of rainshadow, p. 7.

74 Ibid., pp. 148–9, 181, 183.

75 Thea Astley, ‘Juvenilia’ (1946), in Selected poems, p. 85; Astley, Thea, Coda (Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1994Google Scholar).

76 Stories with this theme are: ‘North: some compass readings: Eden’, ‘The curate breaker’, ‘Hunting the wild pineapple’, ‘Petals from blown roses’ and ‘Ladies need only apply’, all in Astley, Thea, Hunting the wild pineapple and other related stories (Melbourne: Nelson, 1979)Google Scholar.

77 Astley, Hunting the wild pineapple, p. 68.

78 Ibid., pp. 71, 72. Astley’s memories of her visits in the late 1950s and early 1960s to White and Lascaris at their Castle Hill home ‘Dogwoods’ (Lamb, Thea Astley, pp. 132–3, 151) may have inspired her narrative of Tom and his Greek lover.

79 Astley, Hunting the wild pineapple, pp. 73–4.

80 Astley, Thea, It’s raining in Mango (Ringwood: Penguin, 1989 [1987]), p. 115.Google Scholar

81 Reproduced in Brett Whiteley’s portrait, ‘Patrick White at Centennial Park, 1979–1980’, White’s ‘HATES’ list ‘sport’ between ‘The RAS Show’ and ‘Motels’.

82 Astley, It’s raining in Mango, pp. 122, 123.

83 Ibid., pp. 93–94.

84 Ibid., p. 99.

85 Ibid., pp. 132, 142.

86 Ibid., pp. 196, 201–4. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ (DADT), the advice to American servicemen signed into law on 28 February 1994, embodied modern Western nations’ separation of gay sexuality from heroic intent.

87 Astley, It’s raining in Mango, p. 221.

88 See Sheridan, Susan, The fiction of Thea Astley (New York: Cambria, 2016), pp. 102–5.Google Scholar

89 Astley, It’s raining in Mango, pp. 207, 217.

90 Ibid., p. 214, 215, 207; ‘Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them’ (Matthew 4.8); ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ (Genesis 3.19).

91 Astley, It’s raining in Mango, p. 221.

92 Eliot, T.S., ‘Gerontion’, Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), line 1Google Scholar; Astley, It’s raining in Mango, pp. 223, 224, 225; ‘I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers / How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’ (Henry IV, Part 2: 5.5.43-66).

93 Astley, It’s raining in Mango, p. 226.

94 Ibid., p. 229. Soon after his cancer diagnosis, Philip holidayed briefly with Thea and Jack at Cambewarra (Lamb, Thea Astley, pp. 257–8). Thanking them for their hospitality on a card dated 29 June 1994, he wrote: ‘You are blest to have such a place to call home, after your travels, and busy days. I hope you like this card, a reminder of how inspiring Australian distances are.’ The card features a reproduction of Streeton’s ‘Still glides the stream and shall for ever glide’, an assertion of immortality inspired by William Wordsworth’s ‘After-thought’ (c. 1806–20).

95 Only four heterosexual couples in Astley’s corpus are happy and mostly loyal: the unnamed elderly couple in ‘The salad of the bad café’ (Collected stories, pp. 307–14 [pp. 309, 314]); George and Mag in It’s raining in Mango (pp. 86–90); and Ted and Janet and Clem and Joss in Drylands (pp. 59–65; 281–2).

96 Forster, E.M., Afterword to Maurice (London: Edward Arnold, 1971), p. 236Google Scholar.