Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 17, 2020

Girl with a Monkey, by Thea Astley

It’s always interesting to discover the early work of a well-loved author.  I began reading Thea Astley with her last work Drylands (1999) and then worked my way back through the other novels which also won the Miles Franklin Award: The Well-dressed Explorer (1962); The Slow Natives (1995) and The Acolyte (1972).  I’ve also read Coda (1994) and A Descant for Gossips (1960).  (All of these are reviewed here on the blog except, alas, for Drylands, click the links to see my reviews).  To read an author’s debut novel after her mature work is sometimes disappointing, but not so with Girl with a Monkey, Thea Astley’s first novel, published in 1958.

I try to imagine the impact this novel must have had.  This story of a young school teacher marooned in an intellectual wasteland pre-dates Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961) and is all the more iconoclastic because the school teacher is a young woman.  Two decades later when I was at Teachers’ College myself, I was struck by how biddable my fellow students were.  I hung out with the other students who were already wives and mothers, and we could not believe how the younger ones meekly submitted to unreasonable changes to requirements (that affected our child-care arrangements and presumably their lives as well) and an absurd demand that female graduates would wear (virginal) white gowns to graduation, signalling that they were paragons of respectability.  This was the 70s, when we’d all read Germaine Greer, and yet these girls submitted to authority as if in a time warp.  How much more so must this have been in 1958 when Thea Astley was a teacher!

Written in Astley’s trademark spiky prose, laced with challenging vocabulary and scattered with French phrases and quotations from Horace, Catullus and the Catholic Mass, Girl with a Monkey tells the story of an assertive young woman called Elsie who is escaping from what we would call today a stalker.  In her short period of time in what is obviously Townsville though it’s never named, Elsie has been out with a number of young men, all of them disappointing and not just because they are not her intellectual match.  Her escape is facilitated by requesting a transfer to a different school, and the novel traces her last day in the town.  She buys her ticket, organises her meagre luggage, makes her farewells, and then over the course of the interminable day revisits her memories of the past months.  All the while she is conscious of hiding from Harry lest he discover her plans and do what he has threatened to do.

His possessiveness is declared in the first chapter.  

‘Don’t play me around, Elsie, or I’ll do you, sure as fate!’ But laughing, both of them, not deadly earnest at a time like that, yet sensing beneath the laughter a perhaps or a might; and a resolution that she should play him skilfully if she ever want to find out. (p.3)

Harry is a labourer on the roads, and even  Elsie’s landlady Mrs Buttling, could see that they are unsuited because he just didn’t have your education.

“You’d be like my mother.  Disgusted for life.  If you had gone on with it I mean.  Poor mum! He’s always asking for what she doesn’t want to give, and they’re both sixty. A woman has a right to feel sick.” (p.30)

Though Astley’s scorn for people like Harry is obvious, his characterisation is generous.  She shows him being more knowledgeable than Elsie about the beach flora, and also canny about a business proposition that a friend had.  He shares his memories of attending, aged eight, a post war demonstration for labour rights that turned into a riot, but says nothing to Elsie about how he was so panic-stricken by the shooting that he wet his pants. Harry has ambition, and wants to better himself, reading books that Elsie gives him, and submitting to her pedantic corrections of his grammar.  But the gulf between them is unbridgeable, and she knows that when she quotes some of her own poetry to him, and he asks if it’s by Shakespeare:

The sudden upsurge of anger and hatred surprised her, but nevertheless she was incapable of repressing this impatience with an ignorance which, in the world where he moved, caused all poetry to be classed as Shakespeare, the only name known, just as all music that was not popular in the hit-parade was ‘classical’.  Perhaps if she were not angry she would have shed bitter tears at the hopelessness of it all. (p.59)

[I have taught children like this — isolated in the milieu of the school by their fierce intelligence, in despair that they will never find a friend.  It will be better at secondary school, there will be lots more students there and some of them will be interested in the same things as you, I used to say, hoping that it was true, after all my efforts to find a match had failed.]

Reproved, Harry listens with pleasure to Donne, and Browning and Tagore, but this painful success concludes with these ominous words:

‘I tell you, Elsie, if this ends, you an’ me, I mean, there’ll never be anyone else.  Not ever, do you hear?  So don’t fool about with me.  I think I’d kill you for it if you did.’ (p. 61)

Girl with a Monkey is a short novel of only 144 pages, but these words of Harry’s haunt the pages when read with contemporary knowledge about the number of women killed by a current or former partner.  (On average, one woman each week in Australia.)  Did Thea Astley know about this when she published this novel aged 33?  Whether she did or not, the book is both a vivid picture of Australia in a more conservative era and yet chillingly relevant to today.

Because Elsie has no choice. She is the one who has to go, and has to hide her whereabouts.

BTW there is a small, and seemingly irrelevant episode in which Elsie receives a birthday telegram from her parents and tears it up.  This incident which isn’t connected to anything makes more sense when you’ve read Karen Lamb’s excellent biography Thea Astley, Inventing Her Own Weather (see my review) which reveals the poor relationship Astley had with her very religious mother.

Available print-on-demand from Allen & Unwin’s House of Books, $14.99

1958 First edition

Author: Thea Astley
Title: Girl with a Monkey
Cover design: no details
Publisher: Thomas Nelson, 1977, first published 1958
ISBN: 0170051722
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind. 50c!


Responses

  1. I bought the POD version after my post on House of Books. It’s little in size but the font size is decent. I’d like to read it for your week but may not. I will have one Astley before the end though’

    My first Astley was A kindness cup, which was astonishing (because she was astonishing) then I read five of her last six books as they came out. I’m keen to go back to the earlier ones.

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  2. I’m looking forward to reading this now. I purchased my copy for $3 in local Save the Children secondhand bookshop not knowing it was her debut novel.

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    • LOL I’ll be interested to know your tally for needing a dictionary. How she must have enjoyed being able to use words that sent me on a voyage of discovery time and again!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sounds like she gives John Banville a run for his money.

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  3. How wonderful to read your review of Girl With A Monkey. (I tried to LIKE the post but my wordpress and your wordpress are somehow at odds sometimes, and I am locked out of liking)

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    • Thanks, Carmel…
      BTW I had the same issue with WP and ‘liking’ until I got my new computer. It also kept signing me out of my own blog which was exasperating. I could ‘like’ in Firefox, but not in MS Edge, no matter how many times I refreshed the cache. Appeals to WP went unanswered as they often do or they just recommended using Chrome instead which is not a solution for people reading blogs in a workplace where MS Edge is the only option. (At school, the system blocked any attempts to download any programs other that the approved ones, and we all had to use the same browser so that children didn’t get confused). I even tried uninstalling MS Edge and reinstalling it but it didn’t work so I think it was a faulty bit of WP code. The only thing I can suggest is that you update to the very latest version of whatever browser you use.
      WP has always been very slow to care about users of browsers they don’t like and they are even worse now that *they think* everyone is reading on a phone.

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  4. I mention Tiburon (Kylie Tennant) as an earlier book by/about a young isolated female teacher, not that I remember it very well. What I do remember is the attitude of men in the bush back then to young women, when teachers were probably the only educated women they were likely to meet. They could idolize them and be extraordinarily possessive at the same time. In the little country towns where dad taught the single women would flat together but I don’t think they were given much support. I certainly don’t recall the teachers’ wives paying them any attention.
    (I’ll post Drylands tonight)

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    • I haven’t read that one, but I’m sure it would contribute to the portrait we have of a ghastly experience for young teachers of either gender but especially women. As you would know, it was almost universal for graduates to be sent out to the remote schools that nobody wanted to work at… when they were on studentships, they had no say in it, so they had two choices i.e. stick it out and apply for promotion to bigger schools ASAP or resign and pay back whatever they owed.
      It may not surprise you that as recently as my time as president of VILTA (the Victorian Indonesian Language Teachers Assoc), graduates who’d qualified in LOTE were still enduring a similar sort of isolation. There were few if any studentships by then, but many of them could only get jobs teaching one or two days a week in remote schools, so they had to work across two or three schools, making accommodation and social support doubly difficult. I had many long and tearful conversations with these young teachers who had little or no support, especially in redneck communities. Needless to say, my appeals to get help for them fell on deaf ears during the Kennett era.

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  5. I haven’t read this one yet but anything by Astley seems to be worth reading!

    I think you’re a little tough on the young girls being biddable. When I went nursing we had lights out at 10pm and the discipline was harsh and that was in the 1970s – but you were responsible for people’s lives at the age of 18. Most of our homes had still been authoritarian with a rule of don’t speak until you were spoken to, and my parents still thought a tertiary education for a girl was a waste of money. These attitudes didn’t change overnight and often girls were not given a strong sense of themselves. I certainly remember a crowd gathering at my (all girls) high school when we heard there was a woman general practitioner at the nearby medical practice – we were all dying to hear all about the “lady doctor”.

    I actually think the truly brave nonconformist ones were the senior nursing staff – the Matron and others – all single women, on low pay, but running the entire hospital and responsible for hundreds of lives – and our unmarried brilliant high school headmistresses. These women rose to positions of authority at a time when that was very tough for a woman to do.

    My brother was isolated in a far west town after graduating as a high school teacher – he found himself very lonely and isolated. A young man from a sandstone university was not particularly welcome in the small outback town & he had few peers to talk to. I think this was very hard on young inexperienced teachers.

    Thanks for the review!

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    • I agree entirely about the situation with nurses: I worked at the Alfred Hospital Nurses Home as a telephonist/receptionist in 1970 and indeed there was a curfew, enforced by seemingly formidable matrons who could occasionally be seen comforting a sobbing PTS who’d just experienced her first death on the ward. The shifts were tough too, so there were good reasons for the curfew and the strict rules. But still, most of them escaped into other accommodation as soon as they were allowed to, and then there was no gatekeeper (i.e. me) protecting them (as I was required to do) from dubious invitations from US sailors in port!

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    • I’m inclined to agree with you about the biddable-ness Sue. While my parents were very supportive of my going to university, unlike yours, it was very difficult to disagree with my Dad. You just didn’t. I think mature age university students had it all over the straight out of school ones in terms of confidence. I did very well academically, but I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence.

      My sister taught in two country towns – Temora and Deniliquin. I seem to remember her having a good time overall – that the teachers all banded together and made their own social fun. Because of the old teachers scholarship bond situation, even small schools always had a few single young teachers, it seemed. She wasn’t in any of those one- and two-teacher schools, perhaps because she had trained in special education. they may have been seen as more likely to be useful .

      (My high school teacher friend in Tumut found the same – the teachers formed quite a social network, and drew into it scattered other young professionals, like agricultural scientists, one of whom my friend married!)

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      • I think the situation was different in high schools because by definition there were more teachers who could network, and some of them were men, probably in those gendered days in the maths and science departments but I’m sure they found ways of crossing the divide!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Brilliant, your review and the book! Recently I read The Brisbane Line by J P Powell, well-researched historical fiction set in Brisbane during World War II with a young Thea Astley playing her part.

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    • That sounds like an interesting book… and it’s reminded me of another one… The Passengers, by Eleanor Limprecht, which while not exactly about the Pacific War is about war bride who goes to America.
      *musing*
      I think I heard somewhere that Eleanor is writing another book…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Lisa, Great review. I had a quick reread today and I had the dictionary out! I wonder if i skipped over those words years ago. Funnily, this morning when reading Sue’s post on this Thea Astley week, poetry was mentioned. And of course, as you mention it appears in this story. I also wrote down for myself, because I knew what she exactly meant. “There is a certain permanence of beauty and truth to be extracted from natural scenery.” (P.83) I think Thea Astley, knew the reality of life without creaming it over.

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    • LOL I even had to look up ‘carbuncular’ (and I wish I hadn’t).
      But you’re right, I should have mentioned her stunning descriptive prose about the environment.

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  8. Another new name for me – thanks for the review. Btw, I too have problems ‘liking’ your posts. I use a Mac and iPhone or iPad, so maybe it’s an Apple thing. Similarly if I click on the WP icon to post a comment, it sometimes freezes trying to connect. Worked fine just then, though. I notice an earlier commenter used ‘flat’ as a verb: ingenious! Maybe another Australianism? In the UK I think we’d use ‘flat-share’. I prefer this more economical usage: makes more sense. I wonder why they’re called ‘flats’, come to think of it; nothing ‘flat’ about the shape or layout, surely?

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    • “Apartment’ is becoming more common now because ‘flats’ as we knew them in the C20th are becoming larger and more suitable for family living in the way that American ones are. But you’re right, ‘flat’ is an odd word for them, maybe it’s because as a general rule they’re all on the one storey, no stairs up or down inside them?

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      • Good point – I hadn’t thought of that. Just looked it up in OED online: you’re right, it’s defined as ‘a suite of rooms on one floor, forming a complete residence’. ‘Apartment’ is just starting to catch on here, too. Less commonly used now is ‘maisonette’, for a regular house divided into two…flats. Sounds very old-fashioned now.

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        • And pretentious!

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          • I tend to swap between apartment and unit these days, when I always used to use flat. Of course, in the US there’s also a condo (condominium) which I think is an apartment that you own rather than rent!

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    • I use a Mac, and iPad or iPhone to comment on blogs, but I don’t really think it’s that. In some cases where I have trouble it’s with blogs that don’t have an SSL certificate and/or blogs that are self-hosted. I don’t tend to have a trouble with any of these from my Mac, but I often do from my iPad. However, I don’t think it’s the iPad that’s the main problem!

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  9. Interesting post, Lisa, and I wish I had time to join in with your Astley event but time is against me… I like the sound of this very much; and what you say about women in the 1970s resonated. When I left school I had no intention of settling down, wanting a life and career. I was pretty shocked by the number of my female schoolmates who were married and had families within a year or two…

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    • LOL Karen, I’ve been married for a long time now and I’ve got all the overt symbols of domesticity (child, house, garden, advanced diploma of suburban cookery) but I still don’t think I’ve settled down. I’m just as Bolshie as ever, and I don’t mean that in a political sense. I mean in the sense that I don’t accept things at face value, I have to be convinced.

      Liked by 1 person

      • LOL! Me too – exactly that! I always say that I may look like a benign old bat but what’s going on inside my head is very, very different… ;D

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