Thea Astley Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Considered one of Australia’s most original writers, Thea Beatrice May Astley during her long career explored all levels of Australian life, satirized human folly, probed spiritual matters, and experimented with language and form. Set in Astley’s native country and drawn from the life around her, her fiction transcends its parochial origins. Her work has been published and well received in the United States and Great Britain.

Astley was brought up in a family of journalists and attended Catholic schools in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland. Showing an early interest and ability in literature and music, she studied arts at the University of Queensland, which in 1988 awarded her an honorary doctorate, one of the numerous awards, literary prizes, and honors that she received.

After college, she taught school for several years in remote parts of vast and largely unsettled Queensland. Her first two novels draw from these experiences. Girl with a Monkey records the last day a teacher spends in a dusty Queensland town, her life during the past few months unfolding through memory as she waits for a train. Schoolteachers also figure in the second novel, A Descant for Gossips, which reveals the destructive nature of a small, insular town. These books establish Astley’s recurrent thematic concerns: loneliness, both physical and spiritual; a “nausea of spirit” (as the condition is defined in Girl with a Monkey); a “personal crucifixion” at the hands of established society (as it is called in A Descant for Gossips); and a longing to reach “the center,” a term Astley uses all through her work and a destination that to her seems reachable only through death.

Astley married a musician in 1948 and moved to Sydney, where her third novel, The Well-Dressed Explorer, is primarily set. The title character is a second-rate journalist whose explorations, including his spiritual and sexual quests, fail pathetically. Here Astley’s Roman Catholic upbringing played a significant role in the fiction for the first time, and it would continue to do so in the...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Blake, L. J. Australian Writers. Adelaide, Australia: Rigby, 1968. Offers a profile of Astley.

Brown, Susan Windisch, ed. Contemporary Novelists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. Contains an entry on Astley.

Chow, Lesley. “For the Last Reader.” The Times Literary Supplement, January 5, 2001, p. 20. Chow reviews Astley’s Drylands and compares it to Kim Scott’s Benang (1999).

Dale, Leigh. “Colonial History and Post-Colonial Fiction: The Writing of Thea Astley.” Australian Literary Studies 19, no. 1 (May 1999): 21. Discusses Astley’s emphasis on the devastation to indigenous people caused by colonialism and the refusal of former colonial powers to acknowledge the effects of that devastation.

Goodwin, Ken. “Revolution as Bodily Fiction: Thea Astley and Margaret Atwood.” Antipodes 4 (Winter, 1990). Compares the two writers’ handling of personal estrangement.

Lowry, Beverly. “Tough Old Thing.” Review of Coda, by Thea Astley. The New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1994, p. 712. A favorable review.

Ross, Robert L. “Mavis Gallant and Thea Astley on Home Truths, Home Folk.” Ariel 19 (Winter, 1988). Discusses how the two writers give their characters only rare and brief glimpses of truth.

Ross, Robert L. “Thea Astley’s Long Struggle with the Language of Fiction.” World Literature Today 67 (Summer, 1993). Examines the related matters of Astley’s critical reception and writing style.

Willbanks, Ray. Australian Voices: Writers and Their Work. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Contains a perceptive interview with Astley.