Madeleine St John, The women in black

The women in black, Madeleine St John, book cover

The women in black bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

One thing mystified me as I started reading Madeleine St John‘s The women in black and that is why she would write a book in 1993 about 1950s? It seemed an odd choice. And then, as I read further, it started to become clear. The time period represents one of those cultural watersheds that nations experience. In this particular case, it was a time of social change: not only were things starting to change for women, but the “reffos” or “Continentals” (as the post-war European refugees were disparagingly called) were beginning to impact Australian culture.

St John chronicles these changes lightly, with warmth and gentle humour, but also with determination. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that St John, born in 1941, would have been around the age of the youngest character, Lisa/Lesley Miles, at the time the book is set.

Hmm … having introduced a character now, I’d better talk briefly about the plot. It centres around the women who work in the Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks and the more exclusive Model Gowns sections of a fictional (but thinly veiled DJs) upper crust department store in Sydney called Goode’s, and takes place over the few weeks before and after Christmas. Model Gowns is staffed by one woman, the Continental or reffo, Magda, while Ladies’ Cocktail is staffed by the middle-aged Miss Jacobs, the 29-year-old almost-on-the-shelf Fay Baines, the 31-year-old married-but-so-far-childless Patty Williams. There is also the buyer Miss Cartwright. Overseeing them all is, of course, a man, Mr Ryder. Into this mix is thrown 17-year-old Lesley (who changes her name to Lisa) Miles, who has just finished her Leaving Certificate.

The story is told in short chapters, each one devoted to one or more of these characters. The tone is (almost conspiratorially) conversational, which invites the reader in. St John draws her characters effectively through brief sections of perfectly caught dialogue and succinct but apt descriptions. The style is witty, with light wordplay and irony. Here are some excerpts from Chapter 2:

Mrs Williams was a little, thin, straw-coloured woman with a worn-out face and a stiff-looking permanent wave. Her husband Frank was a bastard, naturally.  [ …]

At the weekends she visited her mother or one of her sisters; Frank drove her there and fetched her, and while she was ‘jaw, jaw, jawing’ he played golf on the public course at Kingsford or drank in the pub. He was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.

[…]  as she left the surgery, the physician looking idly at her back view thought, she’d clean up quite well with a new hairdo, some paint on her face and a black nightie; but the husband probably wouldn’t notice, the bastard …

By the end of chapter 2 I was hooked. In three and a bit pages we were told all we needed (and probably more than we wanted) to know about poor little Patty Williams and her bastard of a husband. But Patty’s is just one story. There’s also Fay Baines who’s desperate to be married but meets all the wrong men through her well-meaning night club manager friend, Myra; and Lisa Miles who expects to do well in her end-of-school results but whose father thinks women have no business at university. Into this mix are thrown the outgoing, confident (but “god awful” to the women in black) Magda and her also Continental/reffo husband Stefan.

Magda takes an interest in Lisa and invites her home. She also tries a little matchmaking with Fay. Meanwhile, Patty does try that black nightie, with consequences she would never have foreseen. It could all go horribly wrong but, without spoiling anything too much, I’ll simply say that St John’s book follows, loosely and more lightly, the Jane Austen tradition, that is, it’s a comedy of manners. Unlike Austen though, she’s writing in an historical, rather than contemporary, time-frame, and so has a slightly different goal in mind – and that is documenting the social change I mentioned in my opening paragraph.

Two simple examples of this are “kissing” between friends, and food. Here is Lisa on “kissing”:

And she [Magda] kissed her on the cheek. Lisa smiled shyly at her. I’ve heard she thought, that Continentals kiss each other much more than we do: it means nothing. They do it all the time, even the men. The men even kiss each other.  But how strange I feel.

This little paragraph struck me; I realised that my friends and I kiss each other in greeting but it was not, I think, the norm among my parents’ generation. In one or two generations, in fact, the often-maligned (in the book and in reality at the time) Continentals had effected quite a change. And then there’s the food. By the end of the book, Lisa, Fay, and even Lisa’s father had tasted and enjoyed such exotic foods as salami. And again I reflected on the immense change in diet from my parents’ to my generation.

I won’t tell you more of the story. It’s a gentle one, but there is a drama concerning Patty, and some little tensions surrounding Fay and Lisa, that keep the book moving while it observes a society in change. There are some perfect descriptions of Sydney, such as this of the women coming to do their last minute Christmas shopping:

From the wooded slopes of the salubrious North Shore to the stuccoed charm of the Eastern Suburbs, from the passé gentility of the Western ditto to the terra incognita of the Southern had they travelled by train, bus, tram and even taxi cab to this scene of final frantic activity.

It’s a book almost of vignettes than of fully realised stories, and there’s the odd clumsy or heavy-handed bit, but St John has nonetheless managed to convey a convincing picture of Australian society at the time, while also telling an engaging and generous tale. And, just to show she has a sense of humour, St John, who was a libertarian at university, injects near the end her own little in-joke. Here is Lisa’s father on the possibility of her going to university:

But I’ll tell you one thing: if I decide you can go, and you do go, if I ever hear of you being mixed up with any of those libertarians they have there, you’re out of this house like a shot and I never want to see you again, is that understood? Right then. If you go, no libertarians, not even one.

I wonder what St John’s father – the prickly politician Edward St John – said to her!

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed the book.

Madeleine St John
The women in black
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2010 (orig. 1993)
ISBN: 9781921656798

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

25 thoughts on “Madeleine St John, The women in black

  1. I have to see if I can get hold of a copy of this. A decade later I had my first Saturday job in a very similar department store in the UK and there is so much here that I recognise. I have been chortling over my breakfast tea as I read this. Did the Television programme ‘Are You Being Served?’ every make over to Australia? It is a wonderfully funny take on just this situation.

    • I’m so glad I made you chortle, as long as you didn’t also splutter. Yes, we did get Are you being served here. It was great …

      Madeleine St John spent most of her adult life in England. She wrote 4 novels. This was her first … the other three are all set in England, and the last was shortlisted for the Booker.

      I do hope you can get it. It’s a very quick read.

    • Oh, and I forgot to add that around a decade later I too had my first job (Saturday mornings) in a similar department store in Sydney – it was probably a sociological”level” down from this one – and I worked in, wait for it, Budget Shoes! OH how I wanted to work in Books!

      • I was in either raincoats or stockings, depending on how the mood took the powers that be. Stockings (no tights in those days) was hard work, especially when you had to add your book up at the end of the day (no tills either, just a drawer to put the cash in and a book to write down sales) but raincoats bored me rigid. You were lucky if you got a couple of sales a day.

        • Yes, wouldn’t Cocktail Dresses have been so much more fun…not that I would have been an expert!

          I remember the days of stockings … I guess you didn’t sell all the corsetry as well.

  2. I’ve just learned some new terms. I have never heard of “reffos” or “Continentals” before. I’ve had my share of retail jobs, women’s clothes and men’s clothes, arts and crafts (worst ever!), and once a manager of a store for pregnant women tried to recruit me to work there but her incentive that I would get a great employee discount didn’t quite work as I had no plans to have children. I definitely do not miss those retail days!

    • No, I don’t think many of us do. My daughter worked in cafes and a chain bookstore and was cured of retail too. At least it was a bookstore I said!

      BTW, those terms are very much of their time … there’d be Australians who wouldn’t know them now too.

  3. This will be a must for me, too. Can I be second in line after Hannah? I’m interested to see if she captures the customers’ side of the experience, too. How different from today’s. Service was the order of the day: no racks of clothes to wade through alone – one stated what one was looking for and – wait for it – was shown the range in one’s size. While a parcel was being neatly wrapped in brown paper and string (shades of ‘Sound of Music) there were chairs or stools to sit on and, pre-war, there was also the option of having the parcel delivered – often arriving home before you did! There was also the option of taking something home on ‘appro’ – basically the same as being able to exchange or return as one does now but no questions asked if it was marked on the docket as ‘on appro’ (approval).

  4. I love Madeleine St John. I gave this to my mother and she said it captured the time beautifully. I read somewhere that Bruce Beresford is making a film of it.

    • Ah, were you the one who mentioned her on my blog a few months ago? I’m sure someone did but I couldn’t remember who it was, or which post it was on. It seems that the Search function here doesn’t work on Comments. OR my memory is wrong and noone mentioned her!

      Yes, the intro to the book is by Bruce B and he visited her way back in the 1990s re making a film, but I’ve seen elsewhere that it’s likely, with Miranda Otto in it. But what role would she be?

      I have another of hers here to read – the first of her English books – and will aim to do so soon.

  5. A period piece perhaps, but seems to capture the spirit of the 50’s rather well by the sound of it. Interesting that you found the article on her father!

    • Thanks Tom I was intrigued because I recognised the name … hence the Google search for her father. It does capture the era beautifully I think – particularly in terms of general feel and trends.

    • Thanks Guy. Did you read her others? She wrote only three more and they were set in England. The last one was shortlisted for the Booker – The essence of the thing. She was I gather the first Aussie women to be shortlisted for the Booker which I find very embarrassing as I hadn’t heard of her until last year. I think, while I think the comparison is loose, that if you like Jane Austen you are likely to like her…

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  8. What a lovely review! I was a fan of Madeleine St John before I read this one (I have the vague feeling that A Pure, Clear Light was shortlisted for the Booker), and the keynotes of her prose are always economy and humour. But she gets a lot into what might seem on the surface a bit of delightful frivolity. I so admired the way she captured that social transition you describe so well.

    • Oh thanks litlove for adding your comments. (I think it’s The essence of the thing that was shortlisted. A pure clear light is the one I plan to read next though). I did love the way the surface is easy to read but it covers some really interesting ideas and complexities. That’s clever writing I think. A fascinating woman.

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