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Topographies of reception: Thea Astley

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2019

Leigh Dale*
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This article is an intervention in debates about the reputation of Australian writers, with specific reference to the career of Thea Astley (and, as a ‘benchmark’, Randolph Stow). It argues that the terrain in which reputations are made and books are valued is complex and uneven, particularly when viewed from regional perspectives. The aim is to shift the focus in ‘reception’ from single fields, such as book sales, literary prizes, critical attention and international recognition, to show a more complex literary ecology within which authors might simultaneously ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ in different ways. The data supporting this claim come from a variety of sources, including newspaper databases, schools and libraries, although the article is ‘preliminary’ in the sense that it does not investigate the substance of the quantitative data compiled — for example, it does not consider in depth the reviews or kinds of stories that were carried in the press. The discussion of reputation aims to keep Astley’s oeuvre and style in view, in order to consider why and how Astley might be ‘neglected’ and how this neglect might be addressed.

© The Author(s) 2019 

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1 Evans, Raymond, A history of Queensland (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 187Google Scholar.

2 I would like to thank participants in the seminar organised by Jessica Gildersleeve and Susan Sheridan in December 2018, whose work is represented in this special issue; Susan Sheridan and Cheryl Taylor for providing me with research notes and comments; Paul Genoni and Dorothy Jones for reading the draft essay, and conversations that helped immeasurably in understanding responses to Astley’s writing from Martin Haley and John Couper respectively; to Sue Cole, Sonya Driehuis, Julieanne Lamond, Liz Pope, Brigid Rooney, Mary Vernon and Julie Zacchei for insights and data; to the very kind staff at the Catholic Archdiocese Archives, Brisbane, who allowed me to see print copies of the Leader; and to the two anonymous readers and the editors for many helpful suggestions. I have also been influenced in my thinking by the scholarship of Guy Davidson and Ika Willis, in studies of literary celebrity and literary reception respectively.

3 The essay is ‘preliminary’ in the sense that it does not investigate the substance of the quantitative data compiled — for example, consider in depth the reviews or kinds of stories about Astley that were carried in the press.

4 Sales, Leigh, Any ordinary day (Ringwood: Penguin, 2018), p. 12 (quoting Murdoch’s The sovereignty of good [1970]).Google Scholar

5 Lamb, Karen, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2015), p. 290.Google Scholar

6 Lamb, Thea Astley, pp. 250, 280.

7 Thea Astley, Interview by Suzanne Lunney [as Suzanne Walker], 16 April 1974,

8 Buckley, Vincent, ‘In the shadow of Patrick White’, Meanjin 20 (1961), 144–54Google Scholar; Johnston, G.K.W., ‘The art of Randolph Stow’, Meanjin 20 (1961), 139–43Google Scholar; Kramer, Leonie, ‘The novels of Randolph Stow’, Southerly 24 (1964), 7891Google Scholar. Stow’s style and lack of interest in working-class characters were the subject of a critical essay by Jack Beasley, which lamented Stow’s victory in the 1959 Miles Franklin and that of Voss the preceding year (‘Miles Franklin and the “prose poets”’, Tribune [1 July 1959], p. 6,

9 Couper, J.M., ‘The novels of Thea Astley’, Meanjin 26 (1967), 332–37Google Scholar; reprinted in Genoni, Paul and Sheridan, Susan (eds), Thea Astley’s fictional worlds (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2006), pp. 3641Google Scholar; Matthews, Brian, ‘Life in the eye of the hurricane: The novels of Thea Astley’, Southern Review 6 (1973), 148–73Google Scholar; reprinted in Genoni and Sheridan, Thea Astley’s fictional worlds, pp. 42–63.

10 Goldsworthy, Kerryn. ‘Thea Astley’s writing: Magnetic north’, Meanjin 42 (1983), 478–85Google Scholar.

11 Perkins, Elizabeth. ‘A life of its own: A deconstructive reading of Astley’s A Kindness Cup’, Hecate 11 (1985), 1118Google Scholar.

12 Factiva includes material from Sydney Morning Herald from 1986 onwards; Sydney’s Sun-Herald from 1987; Melbourne’s Age and Sunday Age from 1991 (possibly incomplete until 1993); The Australian, the Canberra Times and the West Australian from 1996; Melbourne’s Herald Sun from 1997; Brisbane’s Courier-Mail from 1998; and Adelaide’s Advertiser and Hobart’s Mercury from 1999. The Sydney Morning Herald archive 1955–95 is available on the eponymous database.

13 On the first mentions of Astley come in gossip columns that carry a snippet announcing the interest of Anne Baxter in making a film of A Descant for Gossips (on which further, see Lamb, Inventing her own weather, pp. 139, 194), thence no reviews from the first half of 1968 (The Slow Natives) until late 1983 (A Boat Load of Home Folk).

14 The Leader has been microfilmed, but has not been digitised.

15 Cheryl Taylor, transcription, Letter from Astley to Haley, August 1948, Pomona, Haley Papers, Fryer MSS, UQFL48, pp. 9–15.

16 Susan Sheridan, research notes, Letter from Astley to Haley, 28 June 1958, Epping, Haley Papers, Fryer MSS, UQFL48, pp. 9–15.

17 Martin Haley, Review of Girl with a Monkey, Catholic Leader, 28 August 1958, 10.

18 Ibid., p. 10.

19 Ibid., p. 10.

20 Ibid., p. 10.

21 Thea Astley, ‘The purist’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September 1957, 15.

22 Judith C. Wolf, ‘Australian novel has poetic tone’, Review of The Slow Natives by Thea Astley, Sun [Baltimore], 24 December 1967, 6, Section D,

23 Astley, Interview by Lunney, p. 7; Jacqueline Smith, ‘The top writer who won’t go popular’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 October 1968, 12.

24 Paul Genoni, Email to author, 29 April 2019.

25 Smith, ‘The top writer who won’t go popular’, 12.

26 Evans, A history of Queensland, p. 190.

27 Astley, Thea, The slow natives (London: Angus & Robertson, 1976 [1965]), p. 206Google Scholar.

28 Couper, ‘The novels of Thea Astley’, p. 36.

29 Matthews, ‘Life in the eye of the hurricane’, p. 47.

30 Ibid., p. 47.

31 Rooney, Brigid, Suburban space, the novel, and Australian modernity (London: Anthem, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. One of the (anonymous) reader’s reports for this essay included what I think is the very astute observation that ‘even if he could never be seen as a complete success White could be celebrated as the right kind of “failure” perhaps, in a way that didn’t work for Astley’.

32 Astley, Thea, ‘The curate-breaker’ (1979), in Astley, Thea, Collected stories (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1997), pp. 6788Google Scholar.

33 Thea Astley, ‘One of the islands’ (1974), in Thea Astley, Collected stories, pp. 46–57. Julianne Schultz explains that the rapes began in 1972 and involved upwards of thirty men, but a combination of local and legal factors meant that no rape charges were laid in Ingham until 1977. See Appendix 1: The Ingham Case’, in Paul R. Wilson (ed.), The other side of rape (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1978), pp. 112–25. Astley’s story was published in Nation Review, 22–28 March 1974, but was not reprinted until the Collected Stories of the late 1990s.

34 Astley, Interview by Lunney, p. 10.

35 Ibid., p. 10.

36 Ibid., p. 10.

37 Lamb, Thea Astley, pp. 278–79.

38 Ibid., p. 280.

39 Thea Astley, Interview by Candida Baker, Yacker: Australian writers talk about their work (Sydney: Picador, 1986), pp. 28–53; Thea Astley, Interview by Jennifer Ellison, Rooms of their own (Ringwood: Penguin, 1986), pp. 50–69; Thea Astley, Interview by Ray Willbanks, in Ray Willbanks (ed.), Speaking volumes: Australian writers and their work, reprinted in Genoni and Sheridan (eds), Astley’s fictional worlds, pp. 21–35.

40 Malouf, David, ‘A first place: The mapping of a world’, Southerly 45 (1985), 310Google Scholar.

41 Cheryl Taylor, ‘Thea Astley’s poetry: A prequel to her fiction’,’s_Poetry_A_Prequel_to_Her_Fiction, p. 7.

42 The Australian Common Reader database indicates that the following Astley works have been taught in schools: A Descant for Gossips, A Kindness Cup, An Item from the Late News, Coda, Hunting the Wild Pineapple and Other Related Stories, It’s Raining in Mango and The Slow Natives.

43 Brigid Rooney argues for the influence of a single (‘devastating’) review on the style of Kate Grenville in her essay on Grenville’s oeuvre: see ‘Kate Grenville as public intellectual’, in Sue Kossew (ed.), Lighting dark places: Essays on Kate Grenville (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010), pp. 17–38.

44 Contrastingly, Sheridan’s The fiction of Thea Astley and Genoni and Sheridan’s Thea Astley’s fictional worlds have little circulation in non-tertiary libraries.