Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2010

The Women in Black (1993), by Madeleine St John

The Women in Black is set in 1950s Sydney, but it couldn’t possibly have been written back then.  Madeleine St John’s comic sensibility is honed by decades of feminism and readers today find it amusing because of the archaic attitudes of the characters.  St John is sometimes described as a 20th century Jane Austen for her irony is sharp, but I think she’s more like Muriel Spark because her wit is occasionally cruel.  No wonder Clive James and Barry Humphries like this book…

(Actually, the portrait painted by Bruce Beresford in the introduction suggests that St John wasn’t a particularly nice person.  Testy, diffident, obsessive, prone to tantrums, waspish, he says. Maybe she was, but an interesting choice of words, those.  When was the last time I heard an adult male’s anger described as a tantrum?  Can a man be waspish?  Methinks feminism has a way to go yet).

Like many ex-pats who left Australian in the 1960s, St John paints Australia as a cultural desert.  The women in black (NB not ladies) who staff Goode’s Department Store (a thinly disguised DJs) are dull.  They lead mundane lives which revolve around the getting of a man and plodding through suburbia.  Apart from Lesley/Lisa, toying with a new identity while she works as a temp between school and getting her Leaving results, none of the women have any interests.   They gossip, they sneer and they envy.  They work in the dress department but they have bad taste in clothes, and even their sandwiches are dull.  All of them are subservient to men; it is the natural order of things.

Magda the sexy, self-confident Slovene who manages the designer range in ‘Model Gowns’ is by contrast sophisticated, convivial and interesting. Conversation at her house is of the giants of literature, read both in the original English and in translation.  St John can’t resist expressing her scorn at Australian attitudes towards migrants such as these:

‘What do you take us for?’ said Stefan.  ‘Naturally we are cultivated, we reffos, we are famous for it, or rather notorious, it is one of our most despicable qualities.‘ (p103)

Magda’s relationship with Stefan is in marked contrast to Patty Williams’ inconclusive marriage.  Stefan and Magda have witty exchanges and she takes no notice of his tongue-in-cheek efforts to be masterful.  She is a career woman, and she has no angst about a woman’s biological role.  She eats salami…


To invert Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a department store staffed by women whose role in life is to find Mr Right – must be in want of  an unattached man.  It’s a good thing post-war immigration comes to the rescue for Fay is on the cusp of being left on the shelf.  A sociable soul, Marvellous Magda throws parties all the time, and it is she who plays the role of matchmaker while Lesley/Lisa is the catalyst, crossing the No Man’s Land between ‘Ladies Frocks’ and ‘Model Gowns’ and providing the hapless Fay with a copy of Anna Karenina (which leads not to railway lines but to romance.)

And so it is that Fay meets Rudi. Fresh from Hungary (with only the most casual reference to escaping the Soviet invasion) Rudi flees Melbourne because there is nothing there except good cakes.  (Fancy St John bothering to snipe at a city she hadn’t been to for forty years – inter-city rivalry runs deep, eh? And all the way from London!) Anyway, at Magda’s sophisticated party where they have champagne instead of beer, Rudi takes an interest in Fay…

Perceiving her as a blank slate, Rudi decides to manage her cultural education.  (Note the instruction to try eating the veal as well).

‘So you have never seen a French film before? My God, I see I have arrived here just in time.  We will see them all, Les Enfants, Les Jeux, La Règle, Le Jour. Etcetera. It will take forever , we will have time for almost nothing else.  Well, there is no opera here and virtually no theatre so the time we will have.  I will get the program of the University Film Soc as soon as the academic year begins, they show them all the time, so they did anyway in Melbourne. Of course anyone may walk in there, why not? Taste some of this veal, it is very good here.’ (p174)

This snide dismissal of Australian cultural life strikes a false note,  for there was a vibrant opera and classical music scene in Melbourne from the time of the Gold Rush onwards, and I’d be surprised if it were any different in Sydney.  My music teacher Valda Johnstone was a concert pianist: she began her career as a child prodigy aged 12 in 1926, and her performing career (1926-1970) was (by choice) in Australia.  A soloist in her own right, she was also an accompanist at recitals.  The artists who sang at these recitals were opera singers who also performed at the Tivoli, Her Majesty’s Theatre, the Melbourne Town Hall and elsewhere round Australia.   Perhaps if St John had the internet available to her in 1993 she could have done some basic research to reveal that the Elizabethan Trust was set up in 1954 to support the Elizabethan Opera Company (now Opera Australia) and the Australian Ballet.  Or was it that St John let her agenda get the better of her?

Anyway, the plots tidies up nicely, and it is amusing – but The Women in Black is no mere romantic comedy. The intimations of change in gender relations and the ethnic composition of Australia are too subtle for Miss Jacobs: all she gets is a momentary glance of pity at her departing back from her boss.  Beresford in the introduction notes the autobiographical aspects of Lesley/Lisa’s character, but surely this is St John’s voice in Miss Jacob’s advice:

You’re a clever girl, I could see that.  It’s a pleasure to work with you and I’ll be sorry when you leave us.  You’ll be going to the university, won’t you, of course you will.  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. (p214, underlining mine.)

Bruce Beresford is making The Women in Black into a film starring Miranda Otto and it will be interesting to see whether he succeeds in capturing the irony that elevates this poignant, tender and witty book well out of chick-lit.

A great choice for book groups.

Helen Elliot reviewed it for the SMH.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Madeleine St John
Title: The Women in Black
Publisher: Text Publishing 2009, first published 1993
ISBN: 9781921520204
Source: Review copy sent to me by Text, but I also had my own copy, bought ages ago from Readings.  $29.95 AUD.


  1. Oh I’ve her Stairway to Paradise. I brought it quite few years ago and never got to it. I ll root it out and try to read it, all the best Stu


    • I’ll be interested to see what a bloke thinks about it!


  2. […] at ANZLitLovers has also reviewed the […]


  3. Great review Lisa – I love the way you’ve described this book but, funnily enough I find it more gentle than you, perhaps because of the conclusion. I see her as more gentle than Jane Austen who can be rather cruel and leave some of her lesser characters in rather parlous or at least unhappy states. Perspectives eh?

    Didn’t read this when you posted it as I always like to read and write my own reviews from a fresh perspective, but was glad to read it now.


    • But Miss Jacobs is left in a parlous position, Sue! The image of her plodding down the street in her sad mackintosh all alone in the rain, and her bitter advice to Lisa/Lesley at the end is the clearest reminder about the bleak future for solo women that there could be!


  4. Oh dear Lisa. LOL … I think we read a different book. I don’t recollect the image of Miss Jacobs walking alone in the rain in a sad mackintosh. In Ch 3, Mr Ryder sees her walking alone with “a stompy rather pathetic walk” but overall he comes across as a pretty resilient albeit perhaps resigned person. (But can you point me to the sad mackintosh in the rain, as I truly don’t remember it)

    IN Ch. 7 she defends Lisa when the others are putting her on the spot.

    So, in the end, I thought she was great. I thought her speech to Lisa was a bit clumsy in terms of how the story is developed and the little we knew about her – she was the mystery that no-one knew about – but I didn’t see her statement to Lisa as bitter. In fact, I saw it as a wonderfully generous recognition of change. It was a lovely gee-up wanting Lisa and girls like her to achieve in the future the things she didn’t/wasn’t able to – when she could in fact have been jealous/churlish. She’s kind/practical and knows just what to do when Patty faints, and she genuinely wishes Fay well in her engagement. Mr Ryder, says she the one stable thing in the Ladies area at Goode’s, “the dear”, he says. That could be seen as patronising but that’s not how Mr Ryder – nor St John – meant it I think. I think we are supposed to see Miss Jacobs as an example of someone who by virtue of the times missed out but who is stoically, conscientiously and rather generously getting on with it. We are meant to feel a little sad for her because of her generation’s lack of opportunity but I don’t think she’s meant to be bitter.


    • Alas, I have sent the book off to someone else and I can’t check out the mackintosh! (You know, this is the problem with blogging, you write something, recycle the book, forget it and move on to something else – and then because the review stays in cyberspace forever one day someone asks a perfectly reasonable question about something where you may have made a mistake and oh! embarrassment! you can’t check it!)

      Anyway, was it raining when Miss Jacobs was walking home alone and Mr Ryder saw her? Was he going to lend or share his brolly or give her a lift or something but thought better of it? Perhaps my subconscious has invested the scene with rain because it’s always pouring whenever I go to Sydney? I can’t remember, I just thought it was such a poignant image of her stoically plodding home alone at Christmastime and him feeling a kind of patronising pity which he thrust aside because he had better things to do.

      I still see Miss J as bitter – but not bitter towards Lisa/Lesley. Saying ‘Be as clever as ever you can; put their noses out of joint for them’ suggests to me that there’s an (autobiographical?) element of wanting to see L/L triumph over them when she couldn’t.

      PS Sorry about the tardy reply, this is my first full week back at work and I was too tired to do anything last night…


  5. Ah, when you didn’t reply, I wondered if you didn’t still have the book (but I certainly understand the tiredness). I do know what you mean … if someone asked me a question I’d have to go back to the book too.

    I think you have probably misremembered. It wasn’t raining and in fact she seemed to brush him off. Here is the description:

    “Mr Ryder caught up with her in Pitt Street one evening and attempted to accompany her for some distance in a spirit of friendliness, but whether for necessity or not, she parted from him at the very next corner and walked away alone down Martin Place, muttering a word about Wynyard, but Mr Ryder thought this must be a put up job because he himself travelled via Wynyard and had never seen Miss Jacobs in the vicinity thereof”.

    Mr Ryder seems overall to be kind. Miss Jacobs was mysterious – no-one knew where she lived.

    I certainly agree that she wants Lisa to “sock it to em”. I think she’s a disappointed woman, and she may be bitter, but I don’t see her as behaving bitterly. For me to define her as “bitter” she’d have to behave in a bitter manner. I thought she behaved generously. So, I read the speech a little differently (though I suspect we only differ in degree). I see the speech as telling us very clearly that Lisa represents that point of time when change was happening for women, and Miss Jacobs representing those women who had missed out but were pleased to see the change happening.

    Hope the first week went well, even if tiring!

    BTW I always think of Melbourne as being the rainy place! Give me Canberra – not so much rain here except of course this summer!


    • Ha, well, rain everywhere this summer! No seriously, I haven’t visited Sydney often, but the only time I remember good weather was the very first time I went. That was nice because I did all the touristy things in the sunshine and of course the harbour looked gorgeous. I cancelled dinner out tonight, just couldn’t face traffic and staying awake. Hopefully an early night and a bit of loafing over the weekend will set me straight.


      • Well, off you go! Otherwise soon it won’t be an early night. We are off to the coast tomorrow with the parents (now 81, 90 and 96). It’s amazing that we are still able to do it with them all. Weather is looking, surprise surprise, inclement there too! Still, it will be a nice break and I’ve found a new restaurant or two to try.


  6. […] at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZLitLovers have both reviewed this book.  It’s not a coincidence that Sue and I have read this […]


  7. […] n’ai lu que des bonnes critiques de ce roman sur les excellents blogs d’ANZ Lit Lover et de Whispering Gums. D’ailleurs, l’édition de Text Publishing  nous en met plein la vue […]


  8. […] from nearly zero, my knowledge of the country and its literature could only improve. After reading Lisa’s review about The Women In Black, I decided I wanted to read it too and it soon joined other friends on the […]


  9. […] Madeleine St John, the author of Women in Black (an Australian masterpiece that I highly recommend, see ANZLit Lover’s review here) James […]


  10. […] is another review here, which I have chosen for no reason other than it answers the Sydney-centric slights against […]


  11. […] Publishing republished her delicious first novel, The Women in Black, in the Text Classics series. (See my review).  The ANZ LitLovers reading group read that one a couple of years ago and enjoyed its sly wit and […]


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