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