The Well Dressed Explorer (1962) – Thea ASTLEY

I picked this up at a second-hand book stall that pops up at my uni every now and then, for only $4! Bargain! And, I had heard Thea Astley’s name thrown around as an Australian author that is quite good. No surprise, then, that I had only heard of her in the last few months. Heaven forbid the HSC teaching us (shock horror!) Australian texts. Anyhoo, enough ranting for today…

When George Brewster, aged 11, falls in love on a beach holiday with a girl he has just met, it sets off an obsession with women that lasts his entire life. Along with his long-suffering, though ever cheerful wife, he stumbles through life, eventually having a daughter of his own. Life does not settle down for George, though, who cannot keep his obsession with other women out of his life.

I’m going to be honest (and if anyone actually knows the answer, please tell me – it’s killing me), but I’m still not totally sure how serious this books was. I couldn’t tell if it was a satirical piece of writing, biting at gender roles in suburban Australia of the 60s, or if Astley was being serious. I’m leaning towards the satire, but it’s all a bit fuzzy. George’s wife is the most annoying woman – she seems not to care at all that her husband is constantly having it off with other women – other women who offer themselves with alarming frequency, despite their own marital status also theoretically preventing them from having it off with him. To be fair, though, he only tells her about one of his affairs, but even then, she cries for a few days, then all seems to be forgiven. This could, of course, be because she is a pretty shallow character, and is never really fleshed out properly.

This is the main thing that really made me question whether or not this book is having a go at society – it reminded me on so many occassions of the tone of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, particularly the way in which the characters seem to act as ciphers for larger groups of people within society – or whether Astley is trying to present what she truly believes happens in the ‘burbs. Which worries me, because most of the female characters in the novel are presented in terms of what they can do for George – not exactly flying the feminist flag, there.

Let’s talk about George for a bit. In the beginning, as this tortured love-sick teenager, he comes off quite well, considering how badly he is treated by the woman he (thinks he) loves, who is just using him, while she has her own affairs. When he finally finds out, he is pretty crushed, and spends the rest of his life pining for her. And yet, somehow, when he treats his wife in exactly the same way, he is totally blind to it – the whole world revolves around him, and he doesn’t learn from anything any woman has taught him, in love or otherwise. He walks through life completely oblivious to most people around him, unless they are a mildly attractive woman – whether they be young, middle-aged, single or otherwise.

The Well Dressed Explorer has gone the way of many other early (and later) Miles Franklin Award winners – out of print. Even though Thea Astley won three of the buggers (the most anyone has ever won), her popularity seems to have petered out a bit. Not unlike my enthusiasm for this book. Maybe this isn’t her best work – there’s not a lot on wiki telling me what her most famous/admired stuff is. Though, I love her language and style, so if anyone has anything to add, let me know. Please.

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4 thoughts on “The Well Dressed Explorer (1962) – Thea ASTLEY

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m afraid to say I’m another Australian who’s only vaguely heard of Thea Astley and never read her. I do have a second-hand copy of A Kindness Cup but I haven’t got to it yet. Apparently The Well-dressed explorer was one of her Miles Franklin winners, so I’m surprised it’s a bit lacklustre.

  2. estelle says:

    I definitely had a different school experience to you, because we studied quite a lot of Australian texts, all of which were awful. Or made awful by the way in which we studied, I find it a bit hard to distinguish the two now. We were assigned Thea Astley’s The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, which I never read but now want to go back and read because it’s about Palm Island. I did read Coda in English Lit, although why the curriculum setters thought 17 year old girls would prefer to read a book about aging was a little bit beyond me. Far too subtle for my unsubtle mind, but I can still remember some lovely little quotes form that book.

  3. whisperinggums says:

    Oh, good for you Matt. I am a big Thea Astley fan…and have read a few of her books but have many to go. As you have noticed she had, until Winton this year equalled her, won more MF Awards than anyone else – and yet she is less talked about than almost any other major award winning Aussie writer. Why IS this? I haven’t though read this one of hers. The earliest one of hers that I’ve read is The kindness cup – which blew me away. She is pretty fearless and outspoken in what she takes on…and she is a risktaker in her writing too. I’ve done a lot of work on her Wikipedia article (but more needs to be done). You might like to look at it if you haven’t already.

  4. […] turns out that I’ve actually read Thea Astley before, though I have absolutely no memory of doing so. I’m confused as to why Astley is not a name […]

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