Girl with a Monkey, Thea Astley

Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born in Brisbane, where she attended a Catholic girls school, got a BA at University of Queensland and studied to be a teacher. Let’s say that takes her to 1946. In 1948 she married and moved to Sydney, where she taught high school. Yet nearly all her fiction is set in coastal towns and cities north of Brisbane. Girl with a Monkey (1958), her first, is set entirely in Townsville.

I assume she, as does Elsie, her protagonist, spent a year or two teaching ‘up north’. The Oxford Companion says she “taught in schools in Queensland and NSW until 1967”, so that’s a start. It also says “Astley’s first novel appeared a decade before women writers began to make a large impact on Australian writing ..” I’m not sure where that leaves Prichard, Stead, Dark, Tennant, Cusack et al, nor for that matter Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson.

I have other reference books but they have nothing to add and none of my seven Thea Astleys contains more than the briefest bio. So let’s guess that Astley, like Elsie, taught primary school for two terms in Townsville and then spent at least the remainder of the year (1947, “today I am twenty two”) in a three teacher school south of Gympie (around 100 miles north of Brisbane).

River gasped and sucked lazily at sugar barges somewhere behind the broad street and shops, river that curled tightly in through the mangroves and on out past its artificial breakwater limbs to the warm reef waters. Cootharinga, its ugly granite escarpments sharp with sun and shadow, threatened the sprawling acolyte at its foot. From the silent and empty footpaths haze curled up under the tin awnings, lifting with it some coolness from the day …

Townsville, well into the tropics, is of course hot – ranging from pleasantly warm in winter to hot, steamy and frequently wet in summer – and Astley captures that feeling well, with a flow of words demonstrating the attention she has given to Modernism, and her mastery of it. We none of us talk much about Patrick White, but he was a big influence on Astley and she appears to have sought both friendship and mentoring from him.

In his early years White was not much regarded. His third and fourth novels, An Aunt’s Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) were acclaimed in the US and UK but it was not until Voss (1957) that he was widely noticed at home. Presumably by then Astley was well into Girl with a Monkey whose origins most likely begin in her 1947 or 48 writing journal. I wonder if there is a literary biography.

To me, despite the location, it doesn’t feel a lot like Astley’s later works, but then I haven’t read them all. In fact the book it most reminds me of is Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). There is the rush of words, the same focus on one young person over one short period; but third person rather than first, and without the slanginess, in fact Elsie is superficially at least, rather proper; but a similar commitment to understanding the ambivalent feelings both Holden and Elsie have about sex.

What the novel does is take us through Elsie’s last day in Townsville, from waking in her hotel room – a passage really with doors at either end against which she has stacked her luggage, chairs to keep out inquisitive men in the night – through breakfast; a walk down to the railway station to buy a ticket on the late train south; visits in the suburbs to say goodbye, pickup her things; to her old school for her books; lunch with an ex boyfriend, Jon; an unwelcome encounter with her current boyfriend, Harry, who knows in his angry heart he too is ex; tea with a school teacher friend; a last minute rush to catch the train; to unsuccessfully evade Harry.

That’s it, just a novella, but full of thought and description; little jumps back to other significant days; mysteries that remain mysteries, her distance from ‘home’, a birthday telegram torn into scraps; her catholicism, fervent at school, now fading, but present still in her virginity, in her assessment of men, boyfriends only as potential husbands.

Jon admits “tearfully” to having once visited the brothel, but drunk and against his will. Elsie is bitter not at his visit but at his weakness, wishing –

That I could see you striding strongly to your damnation in the tiny cottages at Rising Sun. That you should have no one and nothing to blame for your sin. That you could achieve sin and contrition and penance entirely on your own.
She felt, as all women do even in the earliest years of puberty, a cold and fully developed maturity that frightened her.

Harry is stronger, but rough, a ditch digger, with nevertheless the implication that there is more to him – maybe like many working class men he never got the education he deserved. All the summaries start ‘Elsie was lonely …’ but that’s not right, she takes up with Harry because there’s no pretence, because she has held herself on a tight rein for years – you suspect she spent her university years living at home and going to Mass. As with Miles Franklin’s heroines before her, you can feel Elsie holding herself out then pulling back.

Harry’s strength of purpose, his potential for violence frightens her. In fact the suitcases against her hotel door are symbolic of her belief that the potential for violence in all men – perhaps not without reason – frightens her, but she is nevertheless determined to remain in control.

An excellent, thoughtful novel, both in its writing and in its probing of the author’s inner life as she, for a year or two anyway, begins to experience independent womanhood.

.

Thea Astley, Girl with a Monkey, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1958. 144pp.

Thank you to Sue (WG) for sending me her copy, hard to get now, but available from Allen & Unwin’s A&U House of Books print on demand division. I found the print quality perfectly readable, not too small (and at the other extreme, I dislike books with ‘YA’ typefaces) and if the margins were minimal then I’m not a marginalia-ist in any case.

See my AWW Gen 4 page and Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page for more reviews.

23 thoughts on “Girl with a Monkey, Thea Astley

  1. I just took a quick look at my review of Karen Lamb’s bio, Inventing Her Own Weather, to see if I’d commented on the early years you refer to here, but alas, no….

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  2. I have a friend who has read all of her books (almost) but I have yet to pick one up. I enjoyed your post about this book. For a novella it sounds quite complex and the description of her day would probably hold my interest. I quite enjoy minutiae.

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    • Astley really is a very good writer. I’m sure when you start reading her you’ll say ‘what took me so long?’. Sue (WG) tells me this is the hardest one to find, which is a shame because it is an excellent introduction to her work.

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  3. I just checked, and there’s an unused paperback copy on Ebay for ninety dollars Bill, if that takes your fancy.

    This is the one Astley I tried and found the style unbearable, I actually couldn’t finish it – and I usually love Astley’s novels; they often help abate my lingering homesickness for a hot damp climate. I think I’ll have to try this one again. I think my copy came from Fishpond.

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    • Thirteen Viragos for $27 is more the direction my spending takes.Though I might spend that much on a hardback Miles Franklin with dustjacket…

      Interesting that you DNF’d Girl with a Monkey. I would have thought it her most mainstream, albeit, literary novel. I hope it works for you second time round, there’s certainly plenty of hot damp climate.

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      • That’s more my price range too Bill – my brother on the other hand happily spends two to three hundred dollars a time when browsing Melbourne bookstores. I wish!
        I’m going to have to try this one again I can see – but I’m currently heavily invested in Greene’s The End of the Affair thanks to Sue at Whispering Gums!

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  4. I’ve often wondered why I haven’t read any more than the one Astley. Your links back to Lisa’s Astley posts led me to her review on A Descant For Gossips. I’ll copy some of what I wrote there…

    …I read this whilst living and teaching in a small country town. It broke my heart, my resolve, my faith. It felt like so little had changed since Astley wrote this. It was easy for me to adopt her pessimistic view on small town life. I haven’t been brave enough to try again!

    Every time I read a review for Astley, no matter how stirring or inspiring or admiring (like this one) I remember how desperately sad and hopeless ADFG left me and struggle to do that to myself again!

    Great review though Bill, it does tempt me to try again…

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  5. I like the idea of books that tell a single day, especially with the focus on female independence, though I have to confess the comparison to Catcher in the Rye is not appealing – I’ve never been able to make it through that book, even though it’s only a slim volume! I like the quotes you provide though – would this be a good place to start with Astley?

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    • It’s different from her others, in that the protagonist is far more obviously her, Astley. I think of her as confronting small town (Queensland) racism, so my quintessential Astley is A Kindness Cup.

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  6. Here you’ve got another post that has made my brain drag out that dusty file full of long-since-used literary theory. It seems you are rather consistently on the side of firmly believing books are about their authors. I tend to agree with you, though my opinion stems from the fact that authors love to argue their books are not about them and then describe all the pieces of their personality in the characters such that you can’t but help see the author in every page of her work. Do you ever approach a book without an author biography shaping your reading?

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    • Do I ever? I suppose I must, sometimes. I certainly prefer books, or enjoy books, which are about the author or aspects of the author. And I think it is difficult for ‘coming of age’ books to not be about the author. On the other hand I accept that Justine Ettler whom we both interviewed, was serious about the Justine in The River Ophelia not being herself – that the work was a postmodern critique of the idea of the author being in the work. But I don’t think most authors are either that good or that thoughtful.

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      • I’m now thinking there is a difference between the book being sneaky memoir vs. an author writing about his/her experiences. For example, in Bogeywoman, Jaimie Gordon writes about her sister, who had previously been institutionalized because she was a teen lesbian. Gordon seems rather left out of the novel in every way. But, as the theory goes, if you aren’t looking at the author’s life, you wouldn’t even wonder if she was in it, nor would you care that her sister experienced part of what the character did.

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  7. I have a battered second hand copy of this which I found in Elizabeth’s more than a year ago. I think I bought it with Lisa’s Thea Astley reading my week but never actually got around to reading it. Your review makes me intrigued to pick it up now… might give it a whirl later this year. I’m currently reading Irish lit for Reading Ireland Month.

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      • Thanks for understanding my garbled comment. I did it on my phone and it seems to have used predictive text not very predictively as it turns out. 😆 My phone also thinks every time I write ‘the’ that I really mean ‘TBR’. Not sure what that says about me 🤭

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  8. I haven’t read this in detail as I really want to read this book myself too. I’m glad you are glad I sent it to you.

    I have looked at the comments. I sort of agree with you about A kindness cup – our of the several of hers that I’ve read – but Drylands is probably also quintessential “older” Astley.

    Finally, I agree with Lisa that Inventing her own weather is probably a good read regardless of how much of her you’ve read, but of course it’s hard to say when you’ve read a bit. It is, though, an excellent biography.

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  9. I’ve not yet read any of Astley, but I know that I would like to (and possibly “should” too, just for a taste, at least). Generally I love stories about schoolteachers and teaching. And I also have a “thing” for stories by women writers that are set in hotels: so transitory, so potentially revelatory as one steps outside one’s life for a moment.

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    • I hadn’t thought about why some people like hotel stories. I grew up in school houses so I’d rather not read school teacher stories. But, yes, please read Astley, she’s the next step in our literary history after Eleanor Dark.

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