Not to be confused with Susan Hill’s ghost story, The Women In Black is a brief effervescent cocktail of a book, a little sharp and knowing flirtation with the reader that wears a very warm heart on its sleeve. I had read all of Madeleine St John’s other novels (three of them) years ago, and only recently found out through Kim that her first novel had been re-released. I already knew I loved her style, which is witty and astute, mostly based in dialogue and characterised by a trenchant concision and a tendency towards the vignette. She manages that admirable union of amusing, engaging storytelling and intelligence that I do so appreciate.
This novel is based in 1950s Sydney, a look back through time to a moment of cultural change in a very conventional Australia. The women work in an upmarket department store, in Ladies’ Frocks, and represent a cross-section of the possibilities for women in that particular era. Patty Baines is married but conspicuously childless, and her husband Frank is portrayed as a bit of a mindless dolt. Fay Williams is almost on the shelf at 29, having tried and failed to find a suitable husband amongst the men she meets at her well-meaning friend Myra’s nightclub. Miss Jacobs is a middle-aged spinster, unknowable because her life has taken an eccentric form. And Lesley, the temporary girl working in the run-up to Christmas, has just taken her Leaver’s Certificate and is trying out the new name Lisa for herself. Passionate reading has opened a path for her into education, and she hopes to go to university, only her father is dead set against it, thinking women have no place there. All these women have a struggle on their hands against the brute and dullard nature of the Australian male, entirely ill at ease with his emotions, at a time when men still had authority regardless of a woman’s respect.
This is the sort of novel that functions around a catalyst, and in this instance she comes in the form of Magda, the superior sales assistant who works the Model Gowns, exclusive and expensive one-offs for the richest women in the district. Magda is Slovenian, termed somewhat pejoratively a ‘reffo’ by her contemporaries in the store. But her outsider status is accompanied by a far more sophisticated and refined insight into the business of living. Magda and her husband, Stefan, have an amusing, bantering relationship based on equality, as well as a shared taste for the good things in life, literature, art, hospitality and good food. Magda takes an interest in little Lisa and sets about a gentle transformation with a hint of Cinderella to it, only Magda’s intention is that Lisa should find herself and enjoy her own potential, long before it is a question of princes. What I particularly enjoyed about this good-natured novel is the even-handed respect it doles out to the traditional desires of femininity and the undeniable ethical demands of feminism. Neither must be foregone in favour of the other. Witness Lisa being introduced by Magda to the glories of a gown created by Hartnell, Chanel or Dior:
‘Lisa stared, more bemused than ever; her head began to swim. She had lately come to see that clothing might be something beyond a more or less fashionable covering: that it might have other meanings: what she now but dimly and very oddly, very suddenly saw was a meaning she could not before have suspected: what she now but dimly, oddly and so suddenly saw was that clothing might be – so to speak – art: for these frocks as each was named and held out briefly before her gaze by Magda, seemed each to exist in a magical envelope of self-sufficiency, or even a sort of pride; each of these frocks appeared to her however ignorant still lively intelligence to be like – it was astonishing – a poem. ‘Gosh,’ she said; ‘Golly.’ Her hand reached out gently, tentatively, and she touched the many-layered skirt of a pale evening frock. ‘Are they very expensive?’ she asked, her eyes large and fearful. ‘Ho!’ snorted Magda. ‘Ha! They had better be expensive. My God! You will see my stock book very soon and then you will know. But with such a frock, the price as you may one day appreciate is part of the charm.’
There is no need to despise any part of female existence, for whatever embellishes or illuminates life is unquestionably valuable. Magda waves her magic wand (almost unbeknownst to her) and finds a charming Hungarian for Fay, and Patty solves her own problems by going through a crisis, caused by the purchase of a new and particularly attractive nightgown. Although this is a slight book, and essentially a happy one, it is still literary in its language and its insights. Madeleine St John is a master at finding the rich and poetic in the every day, even a day so very ordinary as those forced upon the women of 1950s Australia. I read this with a smile on my face from start to finish and cursed the economy of expression that I so admired. I would have been delighted to find it twice its length.