Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 13, 2015

A Descant for Gossips, by Thea Astley

A Descant for GossipsThe title page of my battered 1983 copy of A Descant for Gossips tells me that it was formerly the property of schoolgirls Emma from 10NR and Marianne from 10MM – whose teachers presumably chose it as a set text because the novel shows the brutal power of teenage bullying.  But while I ached with compassion for poor, plain, lonely 14-year old Vinny, it was her teacher Helen Striebel who stole my heart, and it was her sad resignation to the power of small-town gossip that resonates with me still.

When kids bully, or they stand by as a supportive audience for the bully, they do it without really knowing the consequences.  How can they, with their limited experience of life and immature capacities for empathy?   It is up to the family and the school to teach young people about those potentially tragic consequences, and in the adolescent absence of maturity or concern for others, it’s the adults’ responsibility to monitor behaviour and provide swift, effective responses whenever bullying takes place.

But adults purveying gossip as they masquerade behind self-righteousness know full well what they are doing, and they delight in it anyway.  When Thea Astley (1925-2004) wrote this marvellous book way back in 1960, she would not have dreamed of today’s sordid celebrity culture and its spiteful gossip, justified by its readers as harmless fun because they think its victims are rich, offstage, and ‘asked for it’ anyway by becoming famous.  What Astley did know, and has depicted in her trademark incisive style in A Descant for Gossips, is the viciousness of small-town gossip.  It is a searing experience, reading this book, but if I had my way, it would be a set text for adults everywhere.

(Fortunately, UQP is reissuing A Descant for Gossips which has been out of print for ages, so it’s going to be much easier for me to implement my decree if ever I get to run the country for five minutes or so.)

The kind of country town where the story takes place is as recognisable now as it was in the sixties:

Cruciform, the two main streets had as their pivotal point the school, both primary and secondary sections, and martyred along the town’s four limbs were a score of shops and business premises and three times as many houses.  There were other roads leading out to the mountain district around Cootharabah and there was the road that curled in across the Mary Valley, but over all the deathly stillness and quiet of that first yawn of near summer shimmered above the scrub box and the tallow trees.  Spring paraphrased itself with shoots from sap rising in the hoop-pine forests to the west and the piccabeen palms and sand cypresses to the east; but here, centred in hills, valleyed below Bundarra, hammer-hitting the hard blue sky, there were only the new pastures, the sprawling paddocks of Rhodes and paspalum, green-squared between township and forest.  What there was of spring in the lack-lyricism of the summer opening was known in seascaped detail to the black swans and cranes fifteen miles away over the water-acres of Cooroibah, but not to Gungee, and not to Vinny Lalor now moving through the motionless morning to her personal crucifixion at the town’s heart.  (p.2)

For Ginny, the daily walk to school warrants the allusion to the Stations of the Cross.  She has always been rejected by the group, and they make her life a misery.  She has never done anything to deserve this; it’s just how it is.

It seems that in the mob there is frequently the one shunned or suspect or unlovely in some very simple and irremediable way.  And in this case it was Vinny.  She was not a pretty child or even a particularly clever one.  She was thin, pale, and red-headed.  Her eyes were a peculiarly light grey and like her mouth they were nearly always unsmiling.  But then she had little reason to smile.

Vinny has always been the last to get a turn at skipping and hopscotch or to be chosen for the rounders team.  Her chief tormentor Pearl Warburton has perfected the art of the whisper accompanied by a meaningful slight movement away.  Aided and abetted by Betty Klee, she is expert at passing notes which Mr Moller sees but does not intercept.  Vinny has never recovered socially from her mother’s well-meaning attempt at a birthday party, a party which revealed the family’s poverty to her vicious class-mates even more than her let-down hems had already done.    No one on playground duty can save her from the patronising remarks and the cruel laughter that seems to be her eternal fate.

But two teachers make Vinny’s life almost tolerable.  Middle-aged Mr Moller, world-weary and somewhat cynical, teaches English literature, while Mrs Striebel, a young widow, teaches maths.  Neither of them take much notice of Vinny until she hands in an essay that illuminates her bleak life, and Moller – who’s impressed by it – reads the essay to Helen.  Pity provokes an impulsive gesture, and Helen ends up taking Vinny to her sister’s in Brisbane for a weekend cultural jaunt, with transport provided by Moller, who has a car.

This trip becomes the catalyst for these teachers’ romantic relationship to develop.  They are like-minded souls adrift in a narrow-minded town, and apart from their shared cultural values, they are also honest and tolerant in a way that is unique among the pettiness that surrounds them.   In a small town, of course, the affair must be kept discreet: Moller is married, and his wife is a pitiful invalid with a terminal illness.  Teachers are expected to be respectable.

Astley dissects the inevitable discovery with sharp wit.  Naïve about their relationship, Vinny nonetheless tries to protect the lovers from the crass graffiti that litters the school-ground.  Findlay the principal responds with pompous morality; the middle-class wives respond with viperous glee.

‘Put that phone down, Cecily.  It’s time for the news.’
‘Just a minute, Freda.  What was that, Garth?’
‘I said put the damn phone down.’
‘Garth’s getting mad, darling.  I’ll see you tomorrow. ‘Bye.’
‘Happy?’ he asked.  ‘Busy spreading it round?’ (p.238)

What is remarkable to me about this novel is the economy with which Astley makes the reader feels Helen Striebel’s pain. The book is only 260 pages long, and the circumstances of the affair decree that the lovers spend very little time together.  Yet it is impossible not to know the depths of Helen’s love for Moller:

Her back was to the sun, her face in shadow, but Moller’s burned in the late extravagance of light coming from the western sky.  She squeezed his hand in return and briefly placed her other hand over his. ‘Mckeith is watching us fascinated through the signal-room window,’ she said, and turned finally from him.

She was late coming to the dining-room that night, having spent more time than usual exploring the possibilities of dress, examining her face with a new consciousness that comes to the lover and the loved. (p.162)

Times and mores have changed, but judgemental people still gossip and that gossip can still cause enormous harm.  I doubt if anyone could read the last page of this novel and not be horrified.

Author: Thea Astley
Title: A Descant for Gossips
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 1983 (the same year that ABC TV produced a mini-series based on the book.  I wish I could find  copy to watch it.)
ISBN: 070221843x
Source: Personal library, OpShop find.

A Descant for Gossips UQP reissueAvailability

UQP has just released a reissue of this title in their UQP Modern Classics series, ISBN 9780702253553.  There are some great titles in this series, and so far, they’re all by women!

You can buy a copy at Fishpond: A Descant for Gossips (UQP Modern Classics), direct from UQP  or any good bookstore.


Responses

  1. I’ve read a couple by this author and intend to read more–lucky for me I have a copy of this and mine is fairly beaten up too.

  2. She’s great, isn’t she! I can’t wait to read the new bio about her…

  3. You completely sucked me in with your description of this book, it is definitely going on the list. thanks.

    • Well, that’s lovely! Thank you, Martine, it makes my day when something I’ve written has this impact:) I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. Thank you, Lisa! Ever since your review of Coda (which was immediately purchased and is now on my virtual TBR pile – so much for book bloggers not selling books), I’ve been trying to remember the one novel of hers I had read and loved and Descant of Gossips is the one. I read it in the late 80’s while I was teaching in the very same area as her setting. I have no idea why I didn’t go on to read more of her but will certainly be doing so now. Your review of this was so good that my memory of it came flooding back – thank you.

    • Thank you, Glenda – I bet you had a wonderful time reading that book in that setting … I imagine you would have looked at your colleagues in the staff room with a secret smile, eh?
      Since I wrote the review I’ve been thinking about this book in relation to Wake in Fright, also using a teacher in a rural setting as a ‘fish out of water’. It made me wonder if transferring teachers to remote places where they don’t belong still happens today, I know I feared it when I was a young teacher.

      • I’ve never read Wake in Fright – perhaps another one for the TBR pile – *sigh*.
        As a scholarship teacher myself, I was terrified of being sent to the country. In the end, they sent me to Moss Vale and then Bowral, so not really a hardship posting at all especially as I’d spent my last two years of school in Moss Vale :). I was very pleased, however, that the Education Dept had instigated equal pay for teachers a few years before I started. Shocking to think now that that was the early 70’s.

        • Oh, I can think of way worse places than that in NSW to be sent too. We love visiting that area. A bit toffee I know, but beautiful. So you spent your last two years of school there?

          • And in my time, Glenda, we finally got promotion by merit instead of by seniority, a race always won by the blokes because they didn’t have broken service. It only took until 1993…
            (To be strictly accurate, prior to that there was some allowance for merit in that good academic marks put you at the top of the classified roll for your year…. and then if your principal recommended you for early inspection, and if the inspector recommended you for advancement, (hoops which took me 4 years to jump over) a woman could leapfrog about 1000 numbers on the classified roll, and then if she applied for unpopular schools she might, just might, eventually get “early” promotion (which I achieved in 9 years, because I opted for a ‘tough’ school which turned out to be the easiest school I’ve ever worked in). Of course a bloke could also tread the accelerated path too and naturally 9 out of 10 (male) principals would nominate the male teachers for inspection and not the women because they were going to get pregnant and leave anyway…
            It’s a wonder we were always so good natured about it all!

            • Cos we were brought up to be cooperative! Seniority went out of the PS about the time I joined the National Library in the mid 70s, except seniority was allowed if two applicants were of equal merit. That faded away fairly quickly.

              • LOL Canberra! so progressive back then!

  5. I’ve always loved the title of this one but I haven’t read it. Must get to it one day. Love her prose.

    BTW I don’t know with School Based Management in many states these days that there’s much transferring of teachers at all? Is there?

    • I don’t know. In Victoria there wouldn’t be, but I’m not sure how things are done in other states.
      But when I started teaching, I had won a studentship in my final year at teachers’ college, and that meant they could send me anywhere in the state. I was very lucky to get a position 15 minutes from home!, but even then there was always the risk of being moved somewhere else and it was like that for 8 years until I got my first permanent appointment.

      • Yes, that was the same in NSW back in the days of the teachers scholarships and bonds, but I think that’s changed in NSW too. Of course the ACT doesn’ really have “country” to go to though we have a couple of outlying small schools but you could live 10mins away in the city!!

        • LOL, it could still be very difficult if you didn’t have a car!
          You know, I met a teacher once, (must be careful here) who was transferred…um… at a time of political upheaval … to …um… a school on an offshore Victorian island … which involved hours of travel time because of the ferry, making it impossible for this teacher to be involved in … um… his former political activities.
          I believe there were in days gone by … um… not dissimilar examples of police being subjected to spiteful transfers in Queensland.
          *shudder*

          • Oh, yes, it seems like politics got its dirty paws into quite a few appointments and transfers … still does but perhaps not quite so endemic!

  6. Damn! I’ve been avoiding her but I don’t think I can resist this one!

    • Well! I am pleased to have enticed you:) But I’m curious, why were you avoiding her?

      • Couldn’t stand A Boat Load of Home Folk. It was so bitter and nasty. Shocked by the nastiness in fact!

        • Ohhhh.. I haven’t got that one …hmmmm, *frown* will I try and find a copy?

  7. Both you and Sue, will be pleased to know that Karen Lamb has written Thea Astley’s biography. It was reviewed yesterday either in the Australian or Age. It has a great title, Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather. I can’t wait to read it.

    • Indeed yes, it arrived chez ANZ LitLovers last week:) I can’t wait to read it either! (But I am having such a lovely time reading Awakening, Four Lives in Art, I mustn’t rush that just to get to something new.)

  8. I’d never read A Descant for Gossips until late last year, although I’d seen the ABC adaptation in the eighties, which was made a thousand miles from the real setting in a different Australian state, which distorted the story immensely.

    In fact the events portrayed were set in an era I lived through, and in my backyard: what is now called, for tourism purposes The Sunshine Coast, its hinterland, and in Brisbane, hardly regional Queensland as has been suggested.

    Astley’s description’s of the town. the north coast and Brisbane half a century or so ago are extremely accurate and evoked strong memories of times and places in one who was there.

    It has one of the saddest endings to a novel I have ever read, and one consumes a few in six decades or so. Why Astley chose to end the story on such an unpleasant, shocking and rather contrived note will remain a disappointing mystery.

    • I have a suspicion that the ABC moved its settings for financial reasons. Although they had more money for Australian drama than they do now, I expect that the cost of shooting a whole series up north would have been prohibitive.
      I really miss the days of great Australian drama on the ABC. All the recent stuff has IMO been well acted, well produced, but mostly thematically banal.

  9. […] my review of Loving Daughters), Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Thea Astley (see my review of A Descant for Gossips) and now Janette Turner […]

  10. Another very good review Lisa. “Times and mores have changed” On that comment by your good self I am not so sure. I still hear a few yarns from the more remote that give me no joy. As to the book. It has left me with a sense of anger and pity. Powerful writer who can bring that emotion into a cynical late 50’s bloke who thinks he has read enough history to be thick skinned.

    • Thank you, your comments are encouraging. I know what you mean in that there are still pockets of opinion that leave me shocked and dismayed too, but oh, I do hope that the times they are a changin’…


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