Madeleine St John and the right thing

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.

Helen Trinca, Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John (Review)

Trinca, Madeleine

Madeleine (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

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!

Helen Trinca
Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St John
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
280pp
ISBN: 9781921922848

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

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)
234pp.
ISBN: 9781921656798

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)