Toni Jordan on the novels of Madeleine St John

Author Toni Jordan tells us why Madeleine St John’s delicious novels of manners are Australian classics.


I would like to invite Madeleine St John to tea. Or better yet, cocktails. After reading the three of her novels reissued by Text over the past year – The Women in Black, The Essence of the Thing, and A Stairway to Paradise – I feel I know her.

We would meet in a dimly lit bar filled with worn leather couches. She would know the bartender by name. I can see her wearing a simple black shift, something by Gucci or Chanel. She would smoke, possibly balancing a thin ivory cigarette holder between her manicured fingers. She would drink martinis without ever becoming tipsy. She might wear gloves. She would be like the voice of her books: witty and cutting, insightful but ultimately compassionate.

‘Melbourne,’ she might say, tossing her head, ‘is a sad town, not, by the way, a city as they choose to pretend, not that they can know the difference. Sydney at any rate is undoubtedly a city, whereas Melbourne – well, there are of course some serious paintings in the Gallery, but nothing whatsoever more that pertains to a city; except of course for the cake.’

You see the difficulty? With St John, it is tempting to make the classic reader’s mistake: confusing the author with the characters in a book. Of course, she never said this line about Melbourne and especially never said it to me. I never met her and I don’t know if she’d ever been here. I have stolen this from a character in her first book, the glorious The Women in Black. But it sounds like something she might have said.

One of St John’s great literary gifts is dialogue, and every line in each of her books sounds like something that a real person might have said. Authenticity, though, is not the same as entertainment, and St John’s characters are as enthralling as they are true. The Women in Black is set in Sydney in 1960, in the ‘Ladies’ Cocktail Frock’ department of a thinly-disguised David Jones.

Australia is on the cusp of many revolutions: multicultural and sexual, as well as the breakdown of class structures. For some of her characters, the 1950s are hard to leave behind. Miss Baines, speaking about her supervisor: ‘It’s that Miss Cartright who’s a pain in the neck, excuse my French.’

And when Lisa, the teenage temp who’s just finished ‘the Leaving’, asks her mother if she can go to university, she asks her father.

‘No daughter of mine is going anywhere near that cesspit,’ said he, ‘and that’s final.’

I had forgotten that people spoke that way, but they really did.

For European immigrants Magda and Stefan, the world is a bigger place than Sydney, and ‘French’ doesn’t mean ‘pain in the neck’. Stefan is in bed, ‘reading a page of Nietzsche, as was his wont last thing at night’, while Magda was straightening the living room.

‘There is no law in this country,’ said Magda, ‘against men helping their wives to clear up the mess, is there?’
‘As a matter of fact,’ said Stefan, ‘I think there is.’

St John’s next two books are set in London, her home from the late 1960s. The Essence of the Thing, her masterpiece of manners that was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize, is particularly rich in these genuine conversations that mix humour with sadness and the familiarity of people who know each other well. When Nicola’s long-time boyfriend, Jonathon, dumps her with no warning, she feels she has ‘died and gone to hell’. It takes her friends some time to realise that Nicola’s perfect relationship has come to an end. Geoffrey says:

‘Not her. That chic little Notting Hill set-up with the deluxe plumbing and the stuffed shirt laying down old claret. No way.’

At first Nicola is struck dumb with grief and shock, but eventually her spirit rises up: when Jonathon says he has no explanation for his decision, she says, ‘If you truly haven’t then I’m well rid of you, because in that case, it looks as if you’ve had a brain transplant, and I hope it didn’t cost much because if it did then you’ve been ripped off. I should see the Trading Standards Officer if I were you.’

Just like in real life, after this spurt of courage Nicola’s resolve falters and she backslides. After Jonathon asks her to leave the flat they own together she moves in with a friend, but she can’t stop thinking about him.

‘I hadn’t done a proper shop for ages,’ Nicola says. ‘There can’t be a scrap of food in the house.’

Her friend Susannah says, ‘You should worry.’ But, just like a real person, Nicola does. And she keeps ironing his shirts. Her friends despair of her.

‘You’re incorrigible,’ said Lizzie. ‘A hopeless case. Wherever did you come from? A nineteeth-century orphanage?’

Nicola’s father has his own advice to give about the straight-laced love rat, Jonathon.

‘He was well camouflaged,’ said Michael. ‘One has a ridiculous prejudice in favour of people wearing traditional costume. Better try one of these chaps with spiky hair and black boots next time around, he might take proper care of you.’
Nicola began to laugh and then to cry again.

A Stairway to Paradise, the latest St John book re-released, is again rich in her trademark dialogue, at once subtle and revealing. Barbara, an aimless young woman working as a nanny, has moved in to Claire and Alex Maclise’s house to care for their two children while Claire is away on a business trip. A lesser novelist would spend pages waxing lyrical about Barbara’s growing attraction to Alex, with whom she is destined to have an affair. St John does it in four lines of dialogue: Barbara talking to the housekeeper.

‘If you could find the time to iron Mr Rochester’s shirts,’ she said to Mrs Brick, ‘it would be such a help.’
‘Mr Rochester?’ said Mrs Brick.
‘Oh, God,’ said Barbara. ‘I must be dreaming. Sorry. I mean Mr Maclise of course. Goodness!’
‘It’s those kiddies addling your brain,’ said Mrs Brick. ‘Kiddies do that to you. You wait until you have your own. Mr Rochester’s the least of it.’

The ‘kiddies’ in this book are wonderfully drawn, funny little people. I can almost feel St John laughing as she wrote them: ‘Nothing so thin, so pale, so stick-like as a little boy. He seemed to be made of wire, his cranium full of tiny wheels and rods all turning, endlessly turning, producing their endless stream of speculations and conclusions, notes and queries’. Fergus, the ‘fiend in human form’ who distracts Barbara from her troubles, is delightful and energetic.

‘What would I do without you, Fergus?’ said Barbara.
‘You’d be in really bad trouble,’ said he.

There’s also a sense of playfulness in the linkages between the books. I loved discovering that Mrs Brick is the housekeeper in both of the London novels. In The Essence of the Thing, Jonathon faces a long drive from his parents’ house, so he listens to a ‘bootlegged talking book … some footling tale about some shop assistants in an antipodean department store, fretting about their wombs and their wardrobes and other empty spaces – ye gods!’ There are others, but I won’t spoil them for you.

Perhaps St John’s pitch-perfect ear was tuned at Sydney University where she studied English and graduated in 1963, part of that astonishing year that produced Germaine Greer, Clive James, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, John Bell and Bruce Beresford. Her dialogue seems perfect for the screen and Beresford, her literary executor, has announced he will soon direct the film version of The Women in Black, to be called Get it at Goode’s, starring Guy Pearce, Monica Bellucci and Miranda Otto.

If she were alive today St John would be 69. All we have to remember her by are these wonderful lines. Does she really think that ‘the average man I suppose would rather be caught with his prick in his hand than a novel’? Or that ‘the thing that’s wrong with women is that they go on and on, and the thing that’s wrong with men is that they don’t’?

She died of emphysema in 2006, undoubtedly caused by all those cigarettes in her imaginary ivory holder. Text Publishing will be releasing the fourth and final Madeleine St John novel, A Pure Clear Light, later this year.