What a fascinating novel 'The Women in Black' turned out to be - and with an even more fascinating back story to its author. I was aware of the Text Publishing reprinting of Australian classics and had read reviews of Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel when it was re-released – but it took me a while to get to read this little gem. The introduction alone is worth reading. Written by St John’s old Sydney Uni classmate Bruce Beresford, it gives an insight into those halcyon days of my old alumni; St John and Beresford studied with Germaine Greer, Clive James and Robert Hughes, among others. Beresford described the North Shore girl as quirky and full of interesting energy: “Tiny and with rusty-red hair, she always reminded me of a sparrow with her darting movements, her beak-like nose, her inquisitive eyes.’ St John eventually lived in London and latish in life, wrote four novels, of which ‘The Women in Black’ was critically well received and a hit with readers. She was an eccentric by all description and sounded thoroughly charming.
The novel, at its superficial level, is very sweet. The characters are treated with absolute tenderness, and the end note is positive and generous towards the women at its centre. At a deeper level, the novel is a dig at the mores of 1950s Australia, especially issues of women and education, career and marriage. The plot is centred on a small group of women working in what is clearly David Jones in Elizabeth St, Sydney. As a veteran of Myers and David Jones, in my university days, I loved the satirical analysis of the division between the departments: the always snooty designer ware, the dolled up perfume counter girls, the worker bees in the less glamorous departments. Nothing has changed. The main character Leslie, or Lisa, as she has decided to call herself – a much more sophisticated name – has taken a summer job at the department store. And we see metamorphosis beyond the name change. Lisa is clever, but fairly plain and unworldly. As St John notes of Lisa’s school days: “Her only cronies seemed to be two other girls similarly outside fashion: a very fat girl and another who suffered from eczema: girls for whom there seemed everything to be done, but nothing which might be: girls who must find their way through the maze as best they might.”
Lisa’s world is opened up when she is taken under Magda’s wing: Magda is a ‘continental’, Hungarian, and works in the designer gowns section. She likes Lisa, sees she is clever and starts a makeover, both dressing Lisa up but also introducing her to the ‘migrant’ experience. At a party held in Magda’s fabulous Elizabeth Bay apartment, she is generous in her gregarious European way, so foreign to the three veg and meat Lisa: “’Now for some food’, she cried, rubbing her hands together as she approached the table. ‘What has he bought for us? Come Lisa and sit, and help yourself please. I will cut some bread. Do you like rye bread? This is very good. Then you have what you like with it, cheese – various kinds all here on this plate, ham yes, liverwurst, that sausage is good or try this salami, then I see he has made us a salad as well – you must eat some of that, it is good for you. Stefan, pour me a glass of wine, I beg you’.
The crux of Lisa’s story is her hope to persuade her father to allow her to go to University. Her working class parents are a metaphoric picture of the evolving women’s movement in Australia: her father thinks going to uni will make Lisa ‘get ahead of herself’ but her mother is blissfully proud of her ‘scholar’ daughter, and sees her daughter’s achievements as the fulfillment of lost dreams. However, Lisa’s entrance to uni rests on her father’s signature on the enrolment form. She is powerless to make her own decision. St John’s novel is a reminder of how far we have come in so little time.
The secondary characters, Patty and Fay, have more prosaic futures but also illustrate interesting dilemmas for the sixties. Fay is almost ‘on the shelf’ in her thirties, and St John (herself unmarried) paints an insightful and poignant picture of a girl making mistakes over and over again: “Fay’s heart sank. She had been meeting these men, or others resembling them in every important particular, throughout her adult life. She had eaten their dinners, drunk gin-and-limes at their expense, and she had danced in their arms; she had fought off, and sometimes submitted to, their love making. She had travelled this particular road to its bitter and now dusty end and her heart now failed her but to decline this evening’s engagement had been a thing impossible.”
Patty is married to an unresponsive boof-head, very much the embodiment of the old school Australian yob. He disappears one night and Patty faces abandonment. Her anger is acute and St John gives her a voice, where in reality, she surely would have suffered in silence: ‘Oh the bastard, Patty was thinking, the bastard. The selfish, selfish bugger, leaving me to cope like this; who does he think I am?’. The couple goes through change as well, perhaps not satisfactorily fleshed out by St John, but interesting nonetheless.
‘The Women in Black’ is truly a pleasure to read; a nostalgic snapshot of a distant Australia but an important reminder of feminist issues only recently addressed, if not completely resolved.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014