Madeleine St John – Ladies in Black

Text Publishing, Melbourne Australia, 2018
First published in Britain by Andre Deutsch, 1993

The fact that the ‘praise for’ at the beginning of this novel comes from some of my favourite Australian writers is a dead give away that it is something special – Delia Falconer, Joan London and Michelle de Kretser variously praise Madeleine St John’s deft prose, ironic, sharp and insightful writing and capacity to evoke memory.

And it’s here that I start with this delightful and clever book, evocative of a time just out of reach for some of us and on the fringes of experience for others – Sydney in the late fifties. The story mostly takes place at Goode’s famous department store, a thinly disguised David Jones, and is peopled by the women in black (the original title of the book) who worked there. We follow an assortment of skillfully drawn characters through their domestic and life dramas, large and small.

Madeleine St John not only manages their voices to perfection, she also reminds those of us with Sydney memories of places and practices now long gone. A reference to dining at Cahill’s had me back in my teens immediately, feeling frightfully grown up and sophisticated eating out ‘in town’.

As a snapshot of the times, Ladies in Black also manages to capture that time of post war migration led change, when ‘Continentals’ brought their strange and exotic ways, the food, the manners, the merchant trades. The slow change to the expectations of women, however,  is made very clear in the writer’s subtle story telling.

I have not YET seen the film or the stage show, but I enjoyed Bruce Beresford’s informative introduction both to the story and to Madeleine St John herself. To my shame and chagrin, she had been unknown to me as a writer, but now I will certainly seek out her other novels – A Pure Light, The Essence of the Thing and A Stairway to Paradise.