The Women in Black*
By Madeleine St John
(Book review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge)
Sydney in the late 1950s. On the second floor of the famous F. G. Goode departments store, in Ladies Cocktail Frocks, the women in black are girding themselves for the Christmas rush. Lisa is the new temporary Sales Assistant. Across the floor and beyond the arch, she is about to meet the glamorous Continental refugee, Magda, guardian of the rose-pink cave of Model gowns…
*Not to be confused with The Woman in Black, a 1983 gothic horror novel by Susan Hill, that was made into the scariest film of all time.
I have to confess that I’m bending the rules with reviewing this novel for the challenge, which is about discovering works by Australian authors you haven’t read before. I have previously read The Women in Black, many times in fact, and reading it again either from start to finish or delving at random into its pages is always a delight.
Its central characters are the women working behind the counter-tops: Lisa (better known to her lower-middle class parents as Leslie), sophisticated Magda, acidic Patty and pretty but directionless Fay. You spend equal time in all their heads and their lives, meeting their mothers, fathers, husbands, sisters and friends. Even characters making only small appearances are well drawn, taking advantage of their moments in the hot Australian summer sun.
Lisa is the newcomer; she’s finished school and is anxiously awaiting her exam results to see if she’s qualified for a university place. Working at the store in the lead up to Christmas is her chance to earn her own money for the first time and reinvent herself, hence the name change on her application. She works to both Patty and Fay in Ladies Cocktail Frocks, but also helps Magda with the exclusive designer labels. Her world is about to open up.
Magda is one of the most delightful creations on the page you can ever hope to meet. She is by turns chic, haughty, worldly, fiery and insouciant. She is also no stranger to stretching the truth and relying on Australians’ ignorance of the world beyond their shores to claim much more fashion experience than she really has. I particularly like her because she’s a woman succeeding in fashion who loves her food!
Fay at first comes across as a bit weak willed; someone who follows the lead of whatever stronger character is before her. She starts to assert her independence over her thoughts and destiny though when Lisa lends her a copy of Anna Karenina. She picks it up somewhat reluctantly, “She had finished The Women’s Weekly by dinnertime, so when she had cooked herself some macaroni cheese she sat down on the floor to eat it, propping Anna Karenina open at the first page, and she began to read. Late on Sunday night she said to herself, it’s really amazing how fast time goes by when you’re reading a book. I never realised.” The power of her imagination makes her open to the genuine charms of Rudi, one of Magda’s friends.
It’s Patty though that in many ways goes through the most significant change. Pinched faced and rather joyless, she holds life at arms length. This suspicion and isolation extends to her husband Frank, a taciturn and shy man. Treating herself rather unexpectedly to a sheer black nightgown, she sparks off a chain of events that will also have a profound effect on her life.
This is a novel of exceptional humour, charm and wit, but its beauty goes beyond that. Written in 1993 by Madeleine St John, a university classmate of Bruce Beresford, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, long after she’d moved to London, it is a story of great heart and sympathy. The voices of each character are so authentic for the time and the setting that it is easy to imagine the writer drawing on personal experience of working in a department store, observing customers and staff alike, noting details in her burgeoning writer’s mind.
Except she never worked in a department store, and observed all those things from customer’s side of the counter, making the novel even more remarkable for its authenticity.
Historically this was a time in Australia when the country was experiencing profound change but was also a time of suspicion at the arrival of New Australians. The Women in Black doesn’t rewrite history into a more flattering light, but it also doesn’t labour the point or paint a grim picture. The recent immigrants, in the characters of Magda, her husband Stefan, and Rudi, are charming and fun and of course you’d rather spend your New Year with them than with the dour Anglo-Australians, but it’s also sympathetic to the middle-class Australians it depicts, showing a fundamental worth to their lives.
St John is also sympathetic to the men she portrays. Patty’s husband Frank is observed at one point by Lisa as a man “who looked like one of those strange bipeds to be seen in the vicinity of the Hotel Australia during the week of the Sheep Show.” Despite this, he is someone you grow in understanding and compassion for throughout the novel.
The writing itself is so light and delightful that it looks like no effort at all, yet it is well constructed and paced. My favourite chapter is the New Year Party thrown by Magda. Running for only three pages, it is written entirely in Magda’s first person dialogue and conveys exactly the action that’s happening around her, the conversations going on and the relationships developing: “Fay is still dancing with Rudi, Lisa is talking to Miklos, or Michael, ca c’est bon. Everyone seems to be enjoying himself, I think I might be allowed to follow their example don’t you? Ah Bela is taking out his fiddle-no let this record finish and then he will play. Give him another drink, he play much better when he’s drunk.”
The more I think about the story as I’m writing this review, the more the connection I feel for it becomes clear to me. My parents spent their honeymoon in Bondi in November 1960. My eldest sister’s middle name is Lesley, as is the name of one of my male cousins. They were both named for my mother’s adopted father. And of course my darling mother’s name is Fay.
It’s a world I recognise from stories mum tells me about her life, about the excitement of being taken shopping for a proper grown up party dress by a kind sister-in-law (buying a black velvet skirt that she could wear with pretty pastel tops); about meeting my father at a dance (he asked her to share an ice-cream spider); about taking two days to drive in dad’s Holden from the Riverina to a little flat in Bondi for their honeymoon (where she got very sunburnt on the first day at the beach). It’s a world that is part history, part fairy story and part dream to me, and one that I can experience every time I visit the ladies in their black department store uniforms.
I hope to see you there too!
Links to my other reviews for the challenge: