Helen Trinca, Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John (Review)
I wanted to read Helen Trinca’s biography Madeleine for several reasons. First, of course, being a reader, I’m interested in biographies and autobiographies of writers. Secondly, Madeleine St John belongs to that group of Australians, half a generation or so older than I am, that has made quite a mark on the literary and arts world. Her friends and acquaintances included Sydney University peers Clive James, Bruce Beresford, Robert Hughes, Richard Walsh, most of whom lived ex-pat lives like she did. Thirdly, her father Edward St John, was a controversial conservative politician (and then barrister) who fought injustice and whom Justice Michael Kirby described as “a contradictory, restless, reforming spirit”. And finally, I was hoping to find out more about what happened to Bruce Beresford’s plan to film her first novel, The women in black. Trinca covers all these bases and more in her biography.
Madeleine was – as Trinca ably, but fairly it seems, demonstrates – a complicated and difficult woman. She could be called a tragic figure if we define that as a person brought down by a flaw in their character or make-up. Trinca’s Madeleine, though, would probably not agree with that assessment. As far as she was concerned, her troubled life was solely caused by her father, “the ghastly Ted”. More on that anon. Firstly I’d like to quote from a letter Madeleine wrote as she was trying to write her first novel:
I somehow feel (not for quite the first time) that life is beyond my capacities … meanwhile am trying to write some fiction, which is abominably difficult & and therefore terrific – but horrifying.
This quote says a lot about St John – about how hard she found life, and about the heightened way she lived it.
Madeleine was born in 1941 to Edward St John (Ted) and his lively, sophisticated wife Sylvette. Sylvette did not, for several reasons carefully explored by Trinca, adjust well to the life of wife and mother. She became an alcoholic and mentally unstable, to the point that Ted, apparently in order to protect his two daughters, placed them in boarding school in 1953. They didn’t understand, and were miserable. The next year their mother took her life, a fact which was not made clear to the girls at the time and which Madeleine never accepted. Ted remarried the next year a women ten years his junior, 27-year-old Val Winslow. Madeleine never accepted this either and at the age of 18 was told to leave home. While she saw and communicated with her family, on and off, for the rest of her life she never reconciled with them and believed to the end that they were the architects of all that was wrong with her life. We will never know the truth of course, and many records have been destroyed. However, while mistakes were made, partly due to individual personalities and family dynamics and partly as a consequence of the childrearing practices and patriarchal attitudes of the time, Ted and Val, Trinca argues, did their best to support Madeleine but she never gave them an inch, never saw things from any other perspective but her own. Tragic, really, however you define it …
… and making her, I think, a tricky subject to write about. Madeleine was, and there is documentation from a variety of sources to support this, a controlling and emotionally erratic friend who would, as one said, “just destroy everything, destroy a relationship”. She was, as we’d say now, high maintenance, and wanted, needed, to call the shots. And yet, people stuck with her, because she was witty, intelligent company, and also because people saw her need. Trinca handles this minefield with a clear, even-handed but sensitive eye, enabling us to feel Madeleine’s pain while being frustrated at her inability to lift herself out of it.
St John moved to London in the 1960s, leaving, more or less by mutual agreement, her first and only husband behind in the USA, and eventually took out English citizenship. She was horrified when, on being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel The essence of the thing, she was hailed as an Australian writer. She didn’t want to be aligned with the place, but she was the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker, so no wonder she was hailed that way.
Trinca’s biography is a traditional, chronologically told one. It’s tight, with little superfluous detail but enough examples to provide a good picture of Madeleine and her life. I particularly enjoyed the chapters covering the writing and publication of her novels. The book is very well documented, using clear but unobtrusive numbers linked to extensive notes at the end. In her acknowledgements, Trinca details what records she had available and where the gaps are. In addition to the oral history St John recorded (covering the first couple of decades of her life), Trinca had access to letters by and to Madeleine (though many were destroyed) and other documentation such as wills, and obituaries written by those who knew her. Trinca also interviewed many of the significant people in her life. I was intrigued to discover names familiar to me in other contexts, such as filmmaker Martha Ansara. The older we get, it seems, the more we discover our paths have crossed in interesting ways with others.
If you need any proof that Madeleine is worth reading, Clive James’ statement made in 2006, the year she died of emphysema, may convince you:
Sometimes, when I’m reading one of the marvelous little novels of Madeleine St John, part of whose genius was for avoiding publicity, I think the only lasting fame for any of the rest of us will reside in the fact that we once knew her. (quoted by Trinca from his memoir North Face of Soho)
A slight exaggeration perhaps, given who the “us” are, but James clearly believed that this complex late bloomer who produced four novels in six years deserved more recognition than she was getting. Thanks to Text Publishing, all four of her novels are back in print and we have this thorough and highly readable biography. All we need now is to see The women in black in film!
Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)