‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John

1993,  228 p.


The further I get from the right side of fifty years of age, the more I am drawn to writers who don’t get published until they themselves are over fifty. What in my younger days I may have perceived as to be rather pathetic (the idea of someone scribbling away secretly for years, the mounting rejection slips, or life just slipping away with ambitions unfulfilled) I now see as an affirmation of the strength of maturity, a victory for persistence and dedication, the triumph of character and a validation of life experience!  Methinks I do protest too much.

Madeleine St John’s first book The Women in Black was written in 1993 when she was fifty-two years old.  She’d been working odd jobs in bookshops in London for years and, convinced that she could do as well as the authors of the books she was selling, she wrote this book and three succeeding books, one of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  From the preface ‘Madeleine and Me’ written by Bruce Beresford and the obituary at the end by Christopher Potter, she seems to be a rather reclusive expatriate who lived her life in London, seeking various kinds of spirituality and with rather brittle friendships and little contact with her family back in Sydney.  She was an undergraduate at Sydney University in the early 1960s, alongside Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, John Bell and Bruce Beresford: were university students more brilliant then in the rarified air of fees and Commonwealth Scholarships, or arriving early on the cultural scene,  have they just promoted themselves better?

The Women in Black relates a sliver in the life of the main character, Lesley who has adopted the name Lisa instead, who is I suspect rather biographical. Lisa has taken a job in the Ladies Cocktail Dress department of F.G. Goode in Sydney- a thinly disguised David Jones.  I say ‘a sliver’ because Lisa is  in that hiatus between completing her Leaving Certificate results and finding out whether she has been accepted for University.  She is the young casual, working alongside older permanent women as one of the “women in black”, changing from their street clothes into the black uniform of F. G. Goode before starting work. She just works the one Christmas/New Year period, then she moves on.

The narrative shifts in successive small chapters (often only 2 pages in length) between the lives of the women who work in the department store.  I’m starting to make “being able to build a sustained narrative over 20 pages” as one of my criteria for good writing: I am tiring of these short, jumpy snatches that seem to be common in recent writing.  It seems ridiculous that a novel  of only 228 pages should have 55 chapters.

The front cover of the book suggests chick-lit, and it IS an easy read.  But I think that St John has captured the early 1960s  well here: the wariness and yet curiosity about ‘New Australians’ who seem cultured and exotic with their strange food, coffee and wine;  the stifling embarrassment about sexuality even among married couples, and the world of promise opening up with universities that is stretching the expectations of women for their lives. It is an intellectual coming-of-age book too, in a way, as Lisa finds herself feeling embarrassed about her home-made clothes and dipping her toes into adult social life.  Her father is gruff but grudging: her mother is out of her depth both socially and educationally but she is encouraging her daughter to move into this world that she knows nothing of.

It is certainly a well-blurbed book  with Clive James, Bruce Beresford and Barry Humphries (Helen Garner???)  as contemporaries, and with younger women writers Toni Jordan, Joan London, Kaz Cooke and Deborah Robertson as well.   They refer to the warmth, wit, wistfulness and sharp observation of the book, and they’re right.  It’s a small nugget of a book, affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic.  And yes, I did laugh during this book- at force 2 level (breaking into a smile with a little chuckle). It’s only short- you could almost knock it over at a reading- but it was a satisfying, happy read.

Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZLitLovers have both reviewed this book.  It’s not a coincidence that Sue and I have read this together: it was the January selection for the online Australian Literature group we’re both in.

6 responses to “‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John

  1. Great review RJ … I agree that she captured the era beautifully.

    I don’t so much agree with your criteria for good writing. For me the ability to be terse and get to the point quickly is also a criteria for good writing. St John conveys a lot in these little vignettes … so that while at times we might WANT the backstories (because we’ve engaged with the characters) we don’t really NEED them. (Perhaps I’m feeling a bit exhausted because 3 of my last 4 books have been of the wordy variety. All good – some moreso than others – but so many words to tell their tale, so much detail. As I get even further than you from the “right” side of my 50s I’m thinking how much time do I have for all this detail?!)

  2. What a great premise for a book. I worked at Kirkaldie and Staines (read very posh!) Dept store in Wellington NZ between my school and Uni days in 1968-9, and have many memories of those short months. So much has changed in retail since then – including the popularising of the word ‘retail’! I will look for it.

    • I know Kirkaldie and Staines!! I was there just before Christmas in 2009 (hmmm…forty years later…) and saw their lights- a very tasteful store I must say!
      I’m afraid that I can only claim working for Biz Buzz hardware stores in suburban Thornbury, Preston and Niddrie. I know all the bits and pieces you can buy for a Namco pressure cooker- if they even make such things still. And I bet the ladies at F.G. Goode (and Kirkaldie and Staines for that matter) weren’t asked to wrap plastic laundry baskets “for present”!!

  3. Yes, MH, you’re right…I can’t think of another book set in a shop except for The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay, and 84 Charing Cross Rd, neither of which are set in a department store with its rich opportunities for plot development. Interesting, that…are most authors not au fait enough to use a department store as a setting??
    (I worked in one as a ‘junior’ many moons ago, and there were certainly some odd characters in that not-to-be-named workplace. There was a Mr Woods who these days would be in serious strife for sexual harassment, for a start!)

  4. Pingback: ‘Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John’ by Helen Trinca | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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