The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John


6a00d83451bcff69e2017ee908e15b970dThis sweet book is my last for the celebration of Australian Literature Month hosted by Reading Matters. Thank you, Kim, for doing this. It’s been great fun to read the reviews and find new authors. In fact, it was Kim’s review of this that motivated me to read it.

Bruce Beresford who wrote an introduction tells of meeting St. John at Sydney University, along with that great group of writers including Clive James, Germaine Greer, and Robert Hughes. She had grown up in a privileged setting; her father was a well-known political figure. She eventually landed in London where she worked in bookshops and wrote her first novel, The Women in Black, at age 52. It is the only one of her four novels set in Australia.

The women who wore black are the sales women who worked in the 1950s fictional department store, based on David Jones. That venerable establishment still exists; I hopped off a bus to make a quick tour through it when we were in Australia and stayed in that area in 2009.

We meet several of the saleswomen and their nemeses and each short chapter moves along the story of their lives for this short period. The book centers on Lesley Miles, a Christmas temp, who chooses the name Lisa to begin her new life outside of home and school. Lisa is an unpromising bookish skinny thing when we meet her, but blossoms during her short stay at the department store. As she becomes more stylish under the tutelage of the sophistocated Magda, she has many wonderful experiences.

Lisa stood, gazing her fill.  She was experiencing for the first time that particular species of love-at-first-sight which usually comes to a woman much earlier in her life, but which sooner or later comes to all:  the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to one’s deepest notions of oneself.

And later:

Lisette [the name of the frock] was, of course, everything which could have been hoped, have been dreamed; like all the great works of the French couture, it was designed to look beautiful not simply as a thing in itself, but as the clothing of a female form.

Lisa’s colleagues Mrs. Williams and Miss Baines also have Cinderella stories, in one case, rescued by the fearfully Continental Magda who turns out to be warm and generous. What a treat this was.

Her novels are available through Amazon, kindle and audiobooks. Three of her four novels are available at the UVa and public libraries (The Women in Black is not). I read it on the Kindle.

Madeleine St. John, The Women in Black, Text Publishing, 256 pages, Kindle version.

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