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.