‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John

Women-in-black

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 208 pages; 2011.

What do you do if you’ve just finished a hard-hitting, quite brutal and confronting, and overtly male book? You choose something completely different — in theme, tone and style — to read. So, hot on the tails of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe I picked up Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black — first published in 1993 — and what an utter delight it proved to be.

Delicious black comedy

This rather delicious black comedy is set in F. G. Goode’s, a Sydney department store — rumoured to be based on David Jones — during the 1950s and follows a group of women from various backgrounds who work in Ladies’ Frocks.

There is Patty Williams, fretting away because after several years of marriage, she remains childless and she fears that she may have chosen the wrong man in Frank, who prefers to spend all his spare time in the pub. There is Fay Baines, fast approaching 30 and imminent lifelong spinsterhood, who is growing sick and tired of all the hapless men she dates. There is Miss Jacobs — “whose Christian name remained a secret” — a stout and elderly woman, who has never missed a day’s work, but keeps herself to herself. There is Lesley “Lisa” Miles, the temporary sales assistant who has just finished her Leaving Certificate and wants to go to university — although her father doesn’t approve.

And finally there is Magda — “no one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname” — a Displaced Person from Slovenia, who runs the Model Gowns department in super-efficient and glamorous style.

Magda, the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed, was the most overwhelming, scented, gleaming, god-awful and ghastly snake woman that Mrs Williams, Miss Baines and even, probably, Miss Jacobs herself had ever seen, or even imagined.

Written in a style reminiscent of the delightful Muriel Spark, The Women in Black charts the ups and downs of these women as they struggle to find their place in a rather male-dominated world. And while there’s no real solid plot, there’s a decidedly fairy-tale element to it in which Lisa is taken under Magda’s wing and transformed from a shy, bookish and naive young schoolgirl into a confident young woman intent on following her dreams.

Fun and frothy, but never simple

And while the story is good-natured and fun and perhaps just a tad “frothy”, there’s some important issues underpinning it, not least the way in which women are treated by the men around them. I  don’t think it is any coincidence that all the Australian men in this book are depicted as rather insensitive or chauvinistic — or both (which, funnily enough, ties up nicely with my previous read, even though that was set a decade or so later). And it is only the “Continental” men — specifically Magda’s husband Stefan and his Hungarian friend Rudi — who are cultured and sophisticated and who treat women with respect and courtesy.

Indeed, St John writes these refugees — or “reffos” as they were pejoratively called at the time — who settled in Australia after the Second World War with acute sensitivity and insight, presenting them as well educated and “cultivated” — everything that an ordinary Australian at the time was not. This is nicely summed up by Magda when she denounces Rudi’s plan to find a nice Australian girl to marry as “madness” because all the cultivated girls have gone abroad. “You will hardly ever find one here; if you do she is saving her fare to London, I can guarantee it,” she says.

Although The Women in Black — the title refers to the uniform the ladies wear at work — is slight and can easily be read in a couple of sittings, it is hugely intelligent and acutely perceptive about human relationships and the way in which “Continentals” began to transform Australian society — for the better. It’s an utterly delicious read — heartwarming, life affirming, funny and sad, all at the same time. I found it rather joyful and fun, as did Victoria Best who reviewed it so beautifully on Tales from the Reading Room last year. Whispering Gums also has a lovely review on her blog.

The good news for British and North American readers is that you don’t have to order it from Australia to read it — there are two editions (one by Abacus and one by Text Classics) readily available.

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17 thoughts on “‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John

  1. I ve only read one by her a number of years ago a stairway to pardise ,was annoyed when couldn’t find it for this as I quite enjoyed her style and this sound like another in that vein ,a caustic wit at times I felt ,all the best stu

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  2. I really enjoyed this one too Kim. I think the symbolism to be found within was very clever.
    For example, the character Lesley Miles (‘please call me Lisa’) could be considered a metaphor for Australia itself at that time – clever, resourceful, eager to grow up and make its mark, but at the same time a little awkward and unsure of its place in the world.

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  3. Interesting how “reffos” are characterised in this book compared to how they are characterised in Richard Flannagan’s book “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” – almost the direct opposite!

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  4. So glad you enjoyed it too Kim … I think it’s deceptively slight because as you say it says a lot about Australia at the time. Knowing now what I know about St John, that quote about cultured women heading overseas has an even rather strong message. So many women (and women) did head overseas in the 1950s and 60s, escaping Australia’s conservatism, didn’t they. (Oh and thanks for the link).

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  5. Your comment about needing something as an antidote to the previous read, struck a nerve with me. Just had the same experience having read too many doom and gloom classics of late. Sonia looking for something to perk me up again.

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  6. Thank you for the link! That’s really kind of you. I loved this book, and it reminded me why I enjoyed Madeleine St John so much. I really must reread A Pure, Clear Light one of these days – it was the first novel by her that I read and I was hugely impressed by it. I love her economic style of writing that nevertheless packs so much in.

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  7. Apparently she was the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize… she went to university with Clive James, Bruce Bereford, Robert Hughes & Germaine Greer — what a class that must have been!

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  8. That’s very insightful, Jo. I think you’re right about the metaphor. Lisa does grow up during the course of the novel and, in many ways, learns to stand on her own two feet.

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  9. Interesting point… perhaps it’s because the “reffos” in each book come from different parts of the world? Another good look at refugees in Australia after World War Two is Alan Collins’ “A Promised Land?” which I loved when I read it a few years ago. Have you read that one at all?

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  10. I really want to read her biography, because she sounds like a rather eccentric character. Her obituary, which is printed in the back of the edition I read, paints her as a rather troubled creature who bucked a lot of conventions.

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  11. I find it fascinating that most of her friends from Sydney University left Australia — Clive James, Germaine Greer et al — in the 1960s and managed to carve themselves highly successful and very public careers in the UK. I guess Australia was probably quite “immature” back then and the only way to progress an academic/intellectual career was to head abroad.

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  12. This is the perfect fare, Karen. It’s quite fun and frothy, but if you look a bit deeper there is actually quite a lot going on. But it’s so easy to read, it just slips down like hot chocolate! Hope you get to read it soon.

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  13. It really is a good book to read when you don’t want to be banged over the head with weighty issues… and it’s less than 200 pages so you can read it in a day or two.

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  14. You’re welcome, litlove. I think it was your review that first alerted me to St John’s existence: I’d never heard of her before. I’ve now bought a couple of her other novels and look forward to reading them in due course.

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  15. I loved this book – very interesting as this was the time my grandparents came to Australia. The things I see as normal were completely foreign to the already resident Aussies (the other side of my family) – love what multiculturalism has done to broaden our horizons.

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