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.