Madeleine: A Life Of Madeleine St John

Helen Trinca

Madeleine: A Life Of Madeleine St John
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Madeleine: A Life Of Madeleine St John

Helen Trinca

The compelling story of Madeleine St John, one of Australia’s finest female novelists.

At the age of fifteen Madeleine saw herself as a painter and pianist, but Ms Medway peered down at Madeleine during her entrance interview in 1957 and announced: ‘You know dear, I think you might write.’

Madeleine would write. But not for some time. The Women in Black, a sparkling gem that belied the difficulties that had dogged her own life, was published when Madeleine St John was in her fifties. Her third novel, The Essence of the Thing, was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize, and she continued to write until her death in 2006.

Helen Trinca has captured the troubled life of Madeleine St John in this moving account of a remarkable writer. After the death of her mother when Madeleine was just twelve, she struggled to find her place in the world. Estranging herself from her family, and from Australia, she lived for a time in the US before moving to London where Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Bruce Beresford, Barry Humphries and Clive James were making their mark. In 1993, when The Women in Black was published, it became clear what a marvellous writer Madeleine St John was.

About the author:

Helen Trinca has co-written two previous books: Waterfront: The Battle that Changed Australia and Better than Sex: How a Whole Generation Got Hooked on Work. She has held senior reporting and editing roles in Australian journalism, including a stint as the Australian’s London correspondent, and is currently Managing Editor of the Australian.


In 2012, Text Publishing released its Classics series, the aim of which was to shine a spotlight on some of our nation’s literary milestones, many of which had grown dusty in our archives, either due to institutional neglect or a frustrating public apathy towards Australian writing. Included in the series was Madeleine St John’s most successful novel, The Women in Black. Now, Text is releasing a new biography of St John, who passed away in 2006, by distinguished journalist Helen Trinca.

Funnily enough, St John was hardly the poster girl for Australian writing. Her deep ambivalence towards the country of her upbringing and her bold defection to England as a young woman fed the kind of cultural cringe that dogged Australian art throughout the twentieth century.

This biography doesn’t suffer any such inferiority complexes: it is expertly researched and fair in its portrayal. St John isn’t cast in an overly positive or negative light. Instead we are presented with a long-troubled writer whose volcanic moods drew people to her as much as pushed them away. Trinca’s prose is deliberately plain but still able to masterfully conjure the affluence of 1950s Sydney, its lonely housewives and lost migrants, as well as the shabby chic of 60s London and its bohemian share houses, heady with casual sex and marijuana.

St John was the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize but her name has faded from public consciousness. Given the fact that St John wrote what Trinca labels ‘upmarket chick-lit with attitude’, it’s anybody’s guess why she isn’t as canonised as her male contemporaries Clive James and Bruce Beresford. The establishment of women’s initiatives like the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and indeed the Text Classics series, should hopefully begin to redress this imbalance so that a new breed of readers can acquaint themselves with the gifted and enigmatic woman in black.

Emily Laidlaw is a freelance writer.

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