Thursday, 3 October 2013

MADELEINE ST JOHN The Women in Black (1993)

The Text Publishing Company, 2012

'I don't suppose you mean to make a career in the retail trade?' said Miss Cartright.
  'Oh, no!' cried Lisa.
  Miss Cartright laughed.  
  'It's quite all right, Lisa.  It doesn't suit everybody.  But as long as you are working here, you will be expected to work hard, and as if it were your permanent job.  Do you understand that?'
  'Oh, of course,' said Lisa, desperately.  'Of course; I do understand.  I'll work very hard.'
  And Miss Cartright, thinking it might be rather quaint to see the girl in such a context, decided to put her in Ladies' Cocktail, where she could give a hand to Magda in Model Gowns now and then because, although she looked so childish, she was evidently bright as well as willing, and might be quite useful, all things considered.

The Novel:  Shy, seventeen year old Lesley Miles has just finished her Leaving Certificate (the 1960s equivalent of today's SATs, Bac, GSCE A-Levels or HSC, depending on which part of the world you call home).  Needing a job to keep her busy and earn her a bit of extra cash over the Christmas holidays while she awaits her exam results, she applies for a position as a Sales Assistant (Temporary) at Sydney's famous FG Goode Department Store ('Serving the People of Sydney since 1895').  Although she's not aware of it when she fronts up for her interview –– where she daringly decides to write her name as 'Lisa' on the application form, replacing the long detested 'Lesley' she was christened by her mother –– the relatively short amount of time she will spend working behind the counter at Goode's will be transformative for her as well as for her fellow 'women in black' in many pleasant, positive but as yet unsuspected ways. 

She is sent, by the indomitable Miss Cartright, to work in the Ladies Cocktail department on the store's second floor, where she ably assists Miss Fay Baines, Mrs Patty Williams and Miss Jacobs –– its alterations specialist who has worked at Goode's 'since before the War' –– in their efforts to fit and clothe the bustling female hordes who descend upon them each sale time like swarms of bargain-hunting locusts.  Thanks to the whimsicality of Miss Cartright, Lisa is also  called upon to occasionally assist the exotic and formidable Magda –– a newly-arrived immigrant with an unpronounceable Slovenian surname who also speaks fluent French –– otherwise known as the 'guardian of the rose pink cave of Model Gowns.'  Only the city's richest, most fashion-conscious (and silliest) women can afford to shop in Model Gowns, where they are sold one-off haute couture creations –– suitable for any cocktail party or similarly important social event by this enigmatic but ever-tactful, perpetually unflappable 'Continental' salesperson.    

Magda is unlike anyone the quiet, book-loving Lisa has ever met before.  She speaks differently (because she's 'a New Australian'), dresses differently – she's allowed to wear her own clothes to work, as long as they're black, instead of having to wear the unflattering black frock the store provides –– and discusses Anna Karenina and French clothing designers with her as though she considers the girl her social, cultural and intellectual equal.  Magda more or less adopts Lisa during her time at Goode's, encouraging her in her ambition to become a poet (or an actress, Lisa's not quite sure which it's going to be yet) and inviting her to boisterous, fun-filled parties at her tiny Cremorne flat.  In addition to sampling her first glass of wine and her first slice of salami at one of these parties, Lisa is also introduced to Magda's husband Stefan and their livewire friend Rudi, newly arrived from Hungary via Melbourne, and to a clever boy her own age named Michael.  

But Magda doesn't just confine herself to broadening the horizons of this slowly blossoming school leaver.  She also invites Fay Baines – twenty-nine years old, unmarried, a former would-be showgirl who has an unfortunate habit of falling in love with the wrong kind of men – to her New Year's Eve party, introducing her to Rudi per his request that Magda should find him 'a nice healthy Australian girl to marry.'  Even the unhappy home life of Patty Williams, childless and married to the taciturn and uninspired Frank, takes a turn for the better after Frank leaves her, only to return a fortnight later to discover that he no longer calls the shots in their new, sexually exciting marriage.  Only Miss Jacobs – stolid, uncomplaining, solitary –– fails to be drawn into the spell that Magda's refreshing forthrightness appears to have cast over the lives of her flummoxed co-workers.  

But the spell, like all such spells, is soon broken.  Lisa receives her Leaving results, which are excellent and promise a bright future for her at Sydney University if only she and her mother can persuade her stick-in-the-mud father to let her attend such a hotbed of libertarian sinfulness.  Happily they do, meaning, less happily, that Lisa must give up her job at Goode's.  Meanwhile, Fay becomes engaged to Rudi ('the nicest man I've ever met' is how she describes him to her disbelieving friend Myra) and Patty, childless and miserable about it for so long, finally discovers that she's pregnant.  Only Magda is left, biding her time in Model Gowns until she and the ever-charming Stefan can save enough money to allow her to open a shop of her own in swanky Double Bay.   

André Deutsch Ltd UK, 1993
The Women in Black is a slim little gem of a novel, a modern(ish) update of the Cinderella story that manages to be witty, charming and positive while never losing its ironic edge or becoming crassly sentimental.  It captures the time and place in which it is set – a quieter, far less pretentious Sydney doing its best to survive the Christmas/New Year 'retail rush' of 1960 and 1961 –– in a way that's wistful, engaging and at the same time elegantly satirical.  For anybody who grew up in Sydney in the 1960s (and even the 1970s and 1980s) it will bring back fond memories of a time when the city's department stores seemed like treasure-laden palaces and the act of shopping itself was a perplexing, wearying but generally more pleasurable experience than it is today.  The world of FG Goode's Department Store –– based on the still-existing David Jones' Department Store that's been a beloved city institution since 1838 – is a vanished world but no less appealing or intriguing for having been relegated so firmly to the past.  The Women in Black recreates a time when life was not necessarily better or easier but was certainly a lot simpler and, dare I suggest it, a bit more fun. 

The Writer:  Madeleine St John was born in Sydney in 1941 but spent most of her adult life in London, the city in which three of her four published novels are set.  'I was brought up,' she once told a friend, 'on the idea that England was where I came from, in a deep sense where I belonged.  Australia was a deviation of one's essence.'  England, she added, 'was everything one had hoped for and continues to be so.'

St John (which she pronounced 'sin-jin' all her life in the supposedly 'true English' fashion) grew up in the genteel northern Sydney suburb of Castlecrag.  Her father Edward St John was a Queen's Councillor and well-known Liberal politician who was considered something of a renegade by his party for speaking out against apartheid and in favour of other radical ideas such as nuclear disarmament.  (He also attracted attention for exposing the somewhat convoluted sex-life of John Gorton, Australia's nineteenth Prime Minister).  Her mother Sylvette, born in Paris, was of Romanian-Jewish descent and unfortunately took her own life when Madeleine, who adored her, was twelve.  This event, she later confessed, 'obviously changed everything.'  Her father remarried and St John would live in what her stepbrother would call 'self-imposed exile' from him and his 'new' family for the remainder of her life.  She rarely discussed her family and only then, according to friends like Bruce Beresford, to draw attention to their alleged long-term 'ill treatment' of her.

After becoming a boarder at St Catherine's School in Waverley with her younger sister Collette –– an experience she likened to attending Lowood in Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre –– she went on to obtain a Master's Degree in English at Sydney University, where her friends and fellow students included Clive James, Germaine Greer, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Bruce Beresford (who has written an as-yet unproduced screen adaptation of The Women in Black) and the future maestro of Australian Shakespearean actors, the great John Bell.  She graduated in 1963 and almost immediately married a fellow student named Chris Tillam, moving first to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco with him so they could be together while he studied filmmaking.

In 1968 St John relocated to London, fully expecting that her husband would join her there once his studies were completed.  He elected not to do this, so she lived a semi-bohemian existence in flats shared with a succession of her fellow Australian emigrés before finding a permanent home in what was, at that time, the seedy, somewhat down-at-heel suburb of Notting Hill.  During this period, while supporting herself as a bookseller, a clerk and sometimes as a secretary, she became a follower of an Indian mystic named Swami Jr, wore Indian clothes and, for a time, called herself by an Indian name.  This flirtation with Eastern mysticism proved, in the end, to be a passing fad.  A devoted churchgoer all her life, St John soon began attending services again each Sunday as she had done, very unfashionably, back in her university days.    

The Text Publishing Company, 2009
Firmly settled in London, St John spent eight years attempting to write a biography of Madame Blavatsky, the Russian-born co-founder of the spiritual system known as 'Theosophy,' before permanently abandoning the project some time in the early 1990s.  She wrote her first novel, The Women in Black, in six months –– she claimed that none of it was autobiographical, modestly explaining that she lacked the ability to 'pull off' such a feat –– and it was published by the UK firm of André Deutsch in 1993.  Three more novels –– A Pure Clear Light (1996), The Essence of The Thing (1997) and Stairway to Paradise (1999) – followed, the last of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, making her the first female Australian author to be nominated for the award and a bugbear for certain members of the British literary mafia who took offence at her honest outsider's depiction of English mores and manners.  Her own reaction to the nomination was anything but self-aggrandizing.  'There are squillions of books out there,' she told a reporter.  'Who knows what the best six are?  It's not about me being brilliant.  It's about me being luckyWe won't know for a hundred years the truth about whether it's any good.  It's one of the things about literature; you just can't tell until you're dead.'

A heavy smoker all her life –– her tin of Virginia Gold tobacco remained within arm's reach on her night table right up till the end –– Madeleine St John died of emphysema, in her beloved London, on 18 June 2006.  In addition to her four published novels, she left behind her Notting Hill flat, a few dozen assorted paperbacks, one hundred handwritten pages of an uncompleted manuscript and a will stipulating that none of her work should ever be translated into any foreign language.  She remained a mysterious, somewhat elusive figure even to her closest friends, a writer who seemed to value her privacy to the point of consciously making a recluse of herself in order to protect it.   

Click HERE to order a print or eBook copy of The Women in Black and other novels by MADELEINE ST JOHN directly from the Text Publishing website.  You can also click HERE to read another review of The Women in Black posted on the informative Wordpress blog The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.  

You might also enjoy:
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)
MALCOLM KNOX A Private Man (2004)
BENTLEY RUMBLE A Face So Bright and Fair (2010) 

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