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Madeleine St John and the right thing

April 10, 2013

There were many ideas I wanted to discuss or share in my review of Helen Trinca’s biography, Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John, but it was starting to get too long … so I thought I’d save some points for another post or two.

Madeleine St John it seems had some very strong ideas about how to live one’s life – in both the more superficial areas, such as manners and customs, and in those areas to do with values, with morals and ethics. In terms of the former, Trinca writes at one point, when describing how Madeleine churned through friends:

It was ‘so very easy to do the wrong thing around Madeleine’. Her taste was perfect and her manners were sublime, but she felt no shame in making others feel ill-at-ease about their own behaviour.

I must say that my view of manners is that the first mark of good manners is making the other person feel comfortable, but, there you go, I’m not a member of the upper class so what would I know! Trinca provides many examples of the erratic way Madeleine treated her friends and family – and there are too many examples from a wide variety of sources for us not to believe them. She would cut them off and then want them back. And back they usually came because, as one, David Bambridge, said, she was “quite cutting and prickly … rather grand at times, but also kind, generous and funny”.

With all this in mind, I was fascinated by the excerpt Trinca provides from the obituary written by Christopher Potter, her publisher at Fourth Estate which published her last three novels. He wrote:

Language and a questioning of faith are the two poles of St John’s created world, as may also have been true of her domestic world … Beneath the sly and witty veneer of her writing, she explores questions that are basically theological: we must do the right thing, but how can we tell what the right thing is? This question is at the heart of all her novels … She lived by a strict moral code, the rules of which were only truly clear to herself.

All I can say is, curiouser and curiouser. She was one interesting woman … and I look forward to testing this proposition when I read the next book of hers in my pile.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2013 11:55 pm

    Sounds like a tough person to be around for the long term. Did she have children?

    • April 11, 2013 8:46 am

      No, Guy, she didn’t and that was a bit of a sadness for her … She had one husband from whom she separated in her twenties, and a few shortish term relationships. I think she was pretty high maintenance as a friend and relation, and her husband put up with a lot of emotionalism it seems.

  2. April 11, 2013 3:00 am

    That first quote gave me chills, almost. That’s exactly how some people have made me feel in my life. (Hopefully) never again.

    • April 11, 2013 8:47 am

      Hopefully not Hannah … You have to be a particular type to manage that I think … She clearly had something though that people responded to.

      • April 19, 2013 3:13 am

        But I think that’s partly where the power comes from, that “something” that people are drawn to, respond to, and thereby become vulnerable to as a result of idealising… if that makes sense.

        • April 19, 2013 8:15 am

          Yes … It does make sense. Power is such a complicated thing isn’t it?

  3. April 11, 2013 8:00 am

    I am interested to read your posts on her. I was at Sydney Uni when she and all the rest of the famous group were — Greer, James, Bell, etc. — but I don’t remember Madeleine at all. I don’t think she was part of the large cult following that James and Hughes and others had. They were entertainers then. They would hold court in the coffee shop every day. As for Greer, she was in my department, and at morning tea, I would find my face aching from joining in the laughter at her witticisms. Needless to say, I was a fish out of water, and though I admire their various achievements, I didn’t like them personally.

    • April 11, 2013 9:56 am

      Oh how interesting Christina, and thanks for sharing. I can understand what you’re saying about them personally. Sometimes larger than life people aren’t so good as closer friends. I think Madeleine was on the outskirts but she was involved in Honi Soit and there is a photo of her working on Honi Soit with a couple of other people including James. He didn’t really see her in London though, and while Beresford and she knew each other then, their real friendship didn’t come until late in her life. He became her estate’s literary executor.

  4. April 11, 2013 12:03 pm

    I do think it’s interesting how finding out negative things about an artist can colour your view of their art from then on. This is an ongoing debate I have with my friend, the poet Sue Edgar. I’ve never enjoyed Mahler’s music so much since I discovered how mean he was to his wife, for example. On the other hand, I recently read a review of the new biography of David Foster Wallace, in which the reviewer implied that all the comments about how hard Foster Wallace would have been to live with entirely missed the point!

    • April 11, 2013 1:25 pm

      Oh yes I agree, Dorothy … And then there’s the politics. Wagner and TS Eliot spring to mind. It’s a debate for which there’s no answer. Intellectually one feels it should be only about the work … But emotionally, well that’s another thing!

  5. April 14, 2013 5:55 pm

    I have known people like that – and they get very wearing!

    • April 14, 2013 6:17 pm

      I was thinking the same thing Tom … you have to really care about them to keep on going and she had quite a few people who hung in for a long time but then gave up.

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