Madeleine St. John’s The Women in Black

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Some time ago I was teaching a short fiction workshop. The texts for the class included stories by Gina Berriault, Edward P. Jones and Mavis Gallant, among others. These were stories written with surpassing skill and insight on character, but finally, with a laugh, one young woman offered that they were an overwhelmingly depressing lot. Her specific concern was with the lack of stories portraying happy marriages. I granted that the unhappy marriage is a staple in fiction (I didn’t weigh in on the relative happiness of actual marriages), and we went on to discuss why readers tend to find less poignancy in happiness. Admittedly these are all generalizations, and I may be overlooking enough counter-examples to undermine these positions entirely. But in light of her comment, I almost immediately thought of the reaction I’d had to Mike Leigh’s film Another Year, which traces a largely unremarkable year in the life of an aging British couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen). The most remarkable element to me was the baseline happiness the couple maintained throughout the film, a consistent comfort that abides in the absence of major happenings. Characters around Tom and Gerri struggle in various ways, but for the year that Leigh portrays, theirs is a relatively smooth ride. It feels neither slight nor false, and it’s stayed with me as an example of the possibilities happiness offers at the heart of a narrative. That balance has proven a relatively rare choice among writers (blame my reading habits in part, perhaps), until recently when I picked up Madeleine St. John’s slim novel, The Women in Black.

The Women in Black is a comedy of manners, set in a Sydney department store, F.G. Goode, circa 1960. Everything unfolds over the course of a scant few weeks. During that period a handful of weighty incidents do occur, but they never really threaten the plot’s placid surface. This is not a criticism, not in the final reckoning. St. John manages a buoyancy here that’s ultimately comforting. A quick engagement doesn’t end with a quick parting, perhaps in part because we don’t follow it even as far as the altar, though this doesn’t undermine the good feelings generated. A missing husband has actually gone away for the chance to make extra money. His failure to tell his wife this is the result of dumb self-centeredness, rather than an active wish to hurt her. And a young girl – the heart of the novel really – awaits her high school exam results, longs for a beautiful dress she sees in the department store, and learns something of fashion and life from her more worldly, older coworker, all without suffering a single, crushing blow. The sum of all this is a brisk and pleasing narrative – yes, pleasing, in the way that light and heady things may provide not only momentary enjoyment but a pleasant memory as well.

A teenaged temp/holiday season worker named Lisa (she’s determined to change her name from Lesley to Lisa, at least outside her home) comes to F.G. Goode and finds herself swept up in the scale and sophistication of it all. This in spite of the sense in the book that Sydney, while less provincial than Melbourne, isn’t quite cosmopolitan, not just yet. But Lisa is just on the verge of things, and even a modest new direction seems impossibly rich to the girl, who tentatively fancies herself a poet. Her first encounter with William Blake’s “The Tyger” is the only comparable catalyst up to that point, when the book fell to the floor and “since it opened as it fell, her eye could not help alighting on the right-hand page: where she espied the word ‘tyger.’ This having come to pass, the rest followed with simple inevitability, for no moderately alert fourteen-year-old is going to see the word ‘tyger’, spelt thus so mysteriously, so enticingly, without investigating further.” Her new coworkers mock her ambitions as a poet or an actress, but she’s fortunate to catch the eye of Magda, a Slovenian emigre who works in a more glamorous section of the store. Magda introduces Lisa to simple makeup and dress techniques, as well as opening a perfectly ordinary social world to her. It’s a revelation to Lisa, though, and launches her gently forward into both greater awareness of herself as a woman, and of the world around her.

St. John wrote only four novels. The most notable, The Essence of the Thing, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997. The Women in Black, however, is the only one of her four novels to be set in Australia. No doubt this, plus St. John’s light, deft control and generosity of spirit, encouraged Text Publishing to bring it back as part of the Text Classics series. The filmmaker Bruce Beresford, a longtime friend of St. John’s, provides an introduction in which he memorializes her personally as sharp-tongued, with firm opinions, and as a writer, “a fastidious stylist, whose model was Jane Austen.” Misleading as they can be, there’s also an admiring blurb from Hilary Mantel – she calls the book “A pocket masterpiece. A jewel” – who also recommended another very good under-the-radar novel, Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare. That affinity leads me to suspect she does indeed admire St. John’s novel, and well she should. It has the makings of the rare, palliative novel, to be visited and revisited, like a reassuring friend.

– John McIntyre     

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