Madeleine St.John: The Women in Black (1993)

With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence. The Women In Black is a great novel, a lost Australian classic.

Madeleine St. John wasn’t on my initial list of authors for the Aussie Author Challenge but after one of Litlove’s (Tales From the Reading Room) comments I thought I’d like to read one of her books and picked The Women in Black. Coincidentally Litlove reviewed it recently as well as you can see here.

The Women in Black is Madeleine St. John’s first novel. She wrote it at the age of 52. It was followed by three other novels which, unlike the first, were not set in St. John’s native Sidney but in London where the author had been living since the 60s. The book is set in the 50s in Sidney and takes place to a large extent in a famous department store, just before the Christmas rush, on the floor of Cocktail Frocks and Model Gowns. It centers on a little group of interestingly different women, Patty, married to Frank (the brute), Mrs. Jacob, the mysterious, Fay, the thirtysomething single woman, Lisa aka Lesley the assistant (temporary) and Magda, the glamorous European refugee who has more elegance and style than all of them together.

Magda and Lisa are the characters where most of the other stories converge and are the indicators that this novel, as lovely, bubbly and playful as it seems, still is a satirical comedy of manners, depicting a society undergoing great change. One of those changes concerns the status of women. No longer only dependent housewives, this decade sees the first female university students who want more than just a husband and children.

When you have a confined environment like an office, a hotel, a shop or anything like this, a newcomer like Lisa, is sure to stir things up, no matter how kind and nice the person is. Lisa is a new type of Australian woman, one that has only recently emerged, more interested in books and studying than attracting a husband.

“A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation you know: you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or at least silly, which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can: put their noses out of joint for them. It’s the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world.”

The World depicted in The Women in Black is gone. The importance for a woman to attract a man has considerably diminished, it isn’t exotic for a woman to study and the composite post-war society, mixing European refugees and born Australians, has certainly become more homogenous. At the time however it seems, Europe is as far as the moon and the ways of its people quite exotic which is a source of comedy for St. John.

“Do Russians count as Continentals?” she asked Myra. “Who are you thinking of?” asked Myra. “Oh, no one in particular,” said Fay. “I just wondered.” “Well, I suppose they do, ” said Myra. “But you know they’re not allowed out, Russians. You never really see any Russians, do you? They are all in Russia.” “I suppose you’re right, ” said Fay. “Still, if they were allowed out, they’d be Continentals, don’t you think?” “Oh yes, I reckon so, ” said Myra. “All them peoples are Continentals.”

This is a witty and cheerful novel in which each chapter is like a vignette and tells episodes of the one or the other woman’s story. As much as it depicts a change of values it shows that some things will always be of importance to women and much of this is reflected by the clothes and gowns sold at the department store. The power of dresses and fashion cannot be underestimated. A beautiful dress, sexy lingerie can become more than just a piece of garment, it can tie you down or free you.

Lisa stood gazing her fill. She was experiencing for the first time that particular species of love-at-first-sight which usually comes to a woman much earlier in her life, but which sooner or later comes to all: the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to ne’s deepest notions of oneself. It was her frock: it had been made, however unwittingly for her.

I enjoyed this a lot, and was reminded of my grand-mother who supplied Haute Couture dressmakers with haberdashery. I still have some of her elegant gloves and scarves, even some of her handbags and a black evening coat. It made me very nostalgic to read about the changes linked to clothes. Lisa’s mother sows a lot of her daughter’s clothes, alters them, mends them. Nowadays we just throw them away, buy something new. Only the most expensive Haute Couture dresses are still handmade.

As I said, it’s a cheerful novel that captures a changing society and a vanished world. It’s not free of social criticism but it manages to show that even this long-gone era with its antiquated beliefs had its charm. There are infuriating moments and people in the book, mostly men who repress women and the women who support them, but each negative character gets a chance to develop. The positive habits of one character are passed on to another one and all of them win something in the end. Lisa, for example is a reader and when she passes on her copy of Anna Karenina to Fay this isn’t only a symbol – shortly afterwards, she meets a nice Hungarian man – but reading literature is a new habit. There are many instances like this in the novel. Maybe at some other time I would have found this to be overly optimistic but it was exactly what I needed after my last readalong title.

If you want to spend a few moments with a cheerful and intelligent book, this is one you shouldn’t miss.

The Women in Black is my first contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2012.