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Thea Astley: The Well Dressed Explorer

As a boy, George Brewster did not particularly like girls, naturally enough. He tolerated his cousin, Susan but that was as far as it went. So when a new neighbourhood girl, Nita, spoke to him, he was not really interested, not least because she was eleven and he was thirteen. But there was something about her. Soon, they became friends, doing things together. This was innocent at first but soon George fell in love with her. However, his love was not reciprocated. She liked him and let him kiss her but Nita was not going to be tied down to one man, not now, and not ever. When she went to the local dance with Scaler, he was devastated. Soon his family moves to Hunterville for his father’s job. He writes to her and she sometimes writes to him. He gets a job in a bookshop and meets Enid. Enid is in love with him but he is still in love with Nita.

George gets a job as junior reporter and does well enough at it to move back to Queensland and resumes his relationship with Nita. When it is to him that she turns when she gets pregnant (a casual fling with a long since departed travelling salesman), George is again devastated. He manages to get a job with a Sydney paper and she comes to see him. He even takes her to a political rally he is reporting on, which starts out lively and ends up violent. She later casually proposes that they get married. He points out that he has no money and is saving up so they can get married. Not long after, she lets him know that she has married the hated Scaler. His pain is not relieved when he learns that Nita has been no more faithful to Scaler than to him. Indeed, he goes back and even goes to her house but does not dare knock. He flirts with religion and is eventually admitted into the Roman Catholic Church.

He then contacts one of her bridesmaids, Alice, for a bit of mutual commiseration and ends up marrying Alice in a very short time. She was a stranger. He did not know her. They had hardly exchanged an idea beyond that of mutual love, and what is that when it is only words? Though they had a daughter, their only child, George was not cut out for either marriage or fatherhood. In short, he enjoyed the company and, in particularly, the admiration of women too much. he is not, by any means a faithful husband.

George drifts through life drinking and having a series of affairs, both long-term and casual. Virtually all of the women, including, of course, his wife, are treated badly. Indeed, his method of ending the relationship tends to be not contacting them and refusing to respond to their phone calls, letters, etc. One of his mistresses sums him up by saying you’re so anxious to avoid trouble you don’t a tiny hoot about anyone’s feelings while the husband of one of his former mistresses says Brewster loves no-one but himself. He doesn’t know that. He wouldn’t believe it if you shouted it at him, but it is nevertheless true. Even his own daughter says I don’t know why Alice puts up with the old bastard. In short, he is a man thoroughly wrapped up in himself and completely lacking in self-awareness.

This book won the Miles Franklin Award in 1962 but also came in for a fair amount of criticism. While it certainly is not a bad book, I felt it somewhat drawn out, as we go through all his sordid relationships, with not much else happening, except that he is growing older and his daughter growing up (and seeing him for what he really is). He is not the first self-centred womanising man in literature or in life and certainly will not be the last, so, to make him interesting, the author needs to make him different. I do not think Astley succeeds in this.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Angus and Robertson