Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 29, 2013

Madeleine, A Life of Madeleine St John (2013), by Helen Trinca

Biography TBR May 2013Literary biographies are my favourite kind of non-fiction, and I have a small pile of them on my TBR, patiently waiting their turn.

Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John is timely, because there is renewed interest in this author’s small but important oeuvre, thanks to Text Publishing reissuing her novels.  I am one of many readers who would never have had the pleasure of discovering The Women in Black  (1993)  if not for Michael Heyward’s initiative in publishing Australia’s ‘forgotten classics  – and I am keen to read St John’s ‘English’ novels, A Pure Clear Light (1996);  The Essence of the Thing,  (1997) and A Stairway to Paradise  (1999) all of which are now back in print. 

MadeleineWhen I read The Women in Black, I thought it was ‘poignant, tender, and witty’ (see my review) but until I read Helen’s Trinca’s biography, I had no idea just how poignant a figure St John was.   For all the words of great praise from the likes of Bruce Beresford and Clive James, Madeleine St John seems to have had a lonely and bitter life, traumatised from childhood by the ambiguity of her mother’s probable suicide, and incapable of sustaining relationships.

Born two months premature in 1941 while her father Edward Ted St John was with the AIF in Palestine, Madeleine was the first child of Sylvette Cargher, a sophisticated young Romanian who reinvented herself as French in 1930s Sydney when she arrived as a migrant in 1934 aged 17.  Sylvette sold cosmetics for Helena Rubinstein, gave French lessons, and mixed with a bohemian crowd, so St John’s conservative parents were not keen on the marriage, but St John was determined and the wedding took place anyway in 1940.  A little sister, Colette, was born in 1944, but by then the marriage was in trouble.  Sylvette was bored with suburban life, she missed Paris, and she took to drinking.  There were suicide attempts, and ECT therapy, and when it was obvious that Sylvette was an alcoholic the girls were sent away to boarding school by their father. It was not long after Sylvette broke the news to  12 year-old Madeleine that there was to be a divorce, that she died of an overdose.  For reasons not clear, the coroner didn’t enquire too closely into the circumstances of the death, and Madeleine never accepted that her mother may have intended to abandon her.

Madeleine never forgave her father for her mother’s death, and although her stepmother Val seems to have been a kind-hearted woman who did her best, Madeleine’s pattern of driving people away was soon established.

It was her headmistress at Queenwood College Sydney who noticed Madeleine’s potential as a writer, where her work was published in the school magazine.  Although she didn’t fit in with the ‘trendy’ crowd, Queenwood was, she said, ‘a respite‘ from her ‘utterly Gothic family life’.   And she was reasonably contented when studying Arts at Sydney University where she was part of a set that reads like a Who’s Who of Australia’s cultural elite: Clive James, Les Murray, Geoffrey Lehmann, Richard Walsh, Mungo MacCallum, Robert Hughes, Bruce Beresford and John Gaden.  She took up with another student, Christopher Tillam, and imprudently married him, setting off not long afterwards for the US so that he could study there.  The marriage didn’t last, though the bitterness about carving up their trivial assets certainly did.

From the US,  Madeleine went to London, where she was able to reconcile her awful snobbery with the need to work by taking part-time positions in book and antique shops.  She was very hard up but somehow managed to dress with some style and to furnish her small flat with spare elegance.  Success, however,  was elusive.  She slaved away for an impoverished eight years writing an unpublishable biography of an occultist called Helena Blavatsky,  co-founder of the Theosophical Society, and then tore the manuscript up.  It was not until she was in her fifties that she penned The Women in Black in a mere six months, launching herself as a successful author whose third novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  But even when her talent was finally acknowledged, Madeleine continued her destructive patterns of behaviour, penning vitriolic letters to friends and family, chasing up slights from long ago, and bullying what friends she had over trivial offences.

Helen Trinca’s achievement in writing this biography is remarkable because Madeleine’s controlling personality extended to orchestrating the story of her life as well.  It is painful reading to learn that when emphysema made every breath a struggle in her final years, Madeleine spent them destroying papers that did not fit with the way she wished to be perceived.   She was a ‘morally unbendable’ sort of person, and too vulnerable to any criticism to risk an unfavourable portrait even after her death.  But as can be seen from the extensive notes and index at the back of the book, Trinca has been able to consult many people who knew her, and brought the story of this remarkable author to life.

For me, reading this biography sheds light on the reasons why I found St John’s style more Muriel Spark than Jane Austen.  Her wit is occasionally cruel, and now I understand why…

Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed this biography too.

PS That cover photo is sheer genius – it captures the personality of Madeleine St John perfectly!

Author: Helen Trinca
Title: Madeleine, A Life of Madeleine St John
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781921922848
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John

Or direct from Text.


  1. Thank goodness TBR books don’t beep when they haven’t been read.


    • Goodness, yes! I would need industrial strength earmuffs to block out the noise!


  2. Glad you liked it too, Lisa, though I do have to say that Austen’s wit was often cruel too, particularly in her letters! I found The women in black more optimistic than Muriel Spark, which was interesting given St John’s attitude to Australia?


    • Ah, I haven’t read the letters. I remember finding cruelty in Sanditon, and thinking that maybe Austen would have thought better of it had she lived to revise it.


      • She may have but then again she may not have. Here is a famous one from a letter – she was just writing to her sister and we don’t know what’s behind this but it makes one splutter: “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”


        • Yes, it’s hard to know. These days, when the boundary between things we might say only in private or to close friends (or enemies) has blurred because of Facebook etc, anything can be said ‘in public’, no matter how nasty.
          But for me, and I suspect for many writers, writing is a form of release and many’s the time I’ve penned a long and furious email or blog post and then thought better of making that public the next day.
          Because the nastiness usually says more about the writer than the victim. Most of us would find that remark of Austen’s a grievously unkind thing to say about a woman who’d had a stillbirth, and even if the remark would raise a sardonic laugh with her sister, Jane Austen, being no fool, would probably not want her public to think that of her and would not use it in her novel, surely.


          • All very true … I try to be very careful about what I say on line … I’ve seen too many people hurt over the years (starting with my early online reading group experiences). As for Austen, yes, I think she would not have been that cruel in her novels, but she could and would be biting in her social critique I think, albeit often couched in humour.


  3. her life sounds like a novel in itself only read stairway to paradise by her ,all the best stu


    • Oh, have you read that one Stu? Did you review it?
      I’ll add a link to it if you have:)


  4. What a sad and complex woman. Almost tragic I dare say. Intriguing review of a book I would love to read. Thanks, Lisa :-)


    • She was tragic. Though I have to say, that we have to take much of what the biographer says on trust. She quotes the people she interviewed as authoritative, and because St John destroyed her own documents except for a select few, she isn’t really able to retrieve a full picture of this complex woman.


  5. […] Booker in 1997.  It’s hard to believe that the bitter, alienated woman who is the subject of Helen Trinca’s recent biography wrote this kind of sparkling […]


  6. Keen to read this and her remarkable novels. Thanks. I guess the twisted thing appeals!


    • Hello, and welcome :)
      I’m glad I read the novels first – the miracle is that she could produce such sparkling novels when her real life was so unhappy.


  7. Thank you. I took that photograph of Madeleine in Trafalgar Square in 1968. It hung on the wall of my den for years and typified her for me. She would often spend time with my wife and me on Sundays in London.


    • Hello Daniels – how nice to ‘meet you’ like this, and to learn the story behind the photo. Thank you for taking the time to comment:)


  8. Ahhh – it was an interview with Helen Trinca that I read. Didn’t realise she had written a biography. Will add it to my library list as I noticed there is a copy in our system.


    • I think the bio has been nominated for the PM’s prize?


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