In Sydney, the Ladies’ Paradise is named Goode’s

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. 1993.

St_John*Sheepish*. Before starting Book Around The Corner, to me, Australia meant kangaroos, sun and INXS. Starting from nearly zero, my knowledge of the country and its literature could only improve. After reading Lisa’s review about The Women In Black, I decided I wanted to read it too and it soon joined other friends on the TBR.

The Women in Black are the salespersons at Goode’s, a department store in Sydney that can be compared to the Galeries Lafayette. They wear black clothes provided by the store. We’re in the 1950s, and we follow a group of sales clerks in the Ladies’ Frocks Department and the Model Gowns areas during a few weeks around Christmas.

Fay is 30 and still single. Patty has been married to Frank for ten years and still works since they don’t have children. Frank was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate. Poor Patty. Magda is an immigrant from Slovenia married to a Hungarian immigrant Stefan; she works for the Model Gowns Department and feels slightly superior. Lisa is about 18 and works at Goode’s as a temp while she’s waiting for the results of her Leaving Certificate. The novel is split into fifty-five very short chapters, sharp like scenes in a sitcom. (Fifty-five? Does the novel happen in 1955?) It has the same upbeat feeling as the Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.

For me, reading this was puzzling at times. Most of all, it’s strange to read a story around Christmas time where the characters complain about heat, go to the beach, want a bathing suit as a Christmas gift and wait for results to their exams. Try to buy a bikini in December in France. I had to research Australia on Wikipedia when the prices were mentioned in £; I was sure the money was AUD so, what was that? I discovered they changed from £ to AUD in 1966. Good to know, I like to go to bed less stupid than I got up. Then, there were the sizes of clothes!

Patty Williams’s frock was an SSW as we know, whereas Fay Baines was an SW, but Miss Jacobs was a perfect OSW, especially around the bust.

What? This sentence left me guessing the women’s figures from slimmest to fattest. I also assumed that the Leaving Certificate is the Australian equivalent to the French baccalauréat.

Another interesting aspect was the attitude toward European immigrants. Well, not all of them, Continentals. I’ve never heard that word used in other circumstances than followed by breakfast. I suppose it covers immigrants from Europe that are neither British nor Irish. They live in different neighbourhoods, eat different food and don’t expect to marry outside of their community. Except for Rudi, Madga and Stefan’s friend, who wants to marry a real Australian girl.

I don’t know Madeleine St John, but I’m sure of one thing: she speaks French. Stefan, Rudi and Magda used to communicate in French before switching to English after they immigrated to Australia. Their English is tainted with mistakes Francophones make when they speak English, like “I am enchanted to meet you” or “I can recommend the chocolate pudding here, it is formidable.” Formidable sounds like a faux ami; in French, it means fantastic, not dreadful, unless you also use formidable while meaning awesome? Madga often includes French words and expressions in her sentences although I suspect it is more out of snobbery. After all, she works in the Haute Couture section of the store, she needs to have class! However Ms St John uses French words or references in her descriptions, as in “Up here, all was luxe, calme et volupté, with nice pink lights and pink-tinted mirrors which made you look just lovely, and the thick grey silence underfoot of finest Axminster.” Luxe, calme et volupté comes from a poem by Baudelaire, L’invitation au voyage.

The novel speaks about another era, at least for Australia and other Western countries. Lisa’s father doesn’t want her to go to university, even if she has stunning grades and a full scholarship. She’s a girl, what’s the point? Here is Patty’s doctor about her childlessness:

The physician regarded his patient with some despair. It was too bad. Here was a woman well into her childbearing years with no baby to nurse: it was entirely unnatural. She had lost all her bloom and was therefore not likely to attract another man who might accomplish the necessary so if her husband failed to come up to scratch her life would be wasted. It was too bad, it really was.

What is she? A cow?

The department store closes at mid-day on Saturdays and all the shops are closed during the weekend. Sydney is a dead city until Monday. We forget that there were times when you couldn’t shop on Saturday afternoons. Patty will stop working if she can prove her usefulness and get pregnant. Rudi is always happy and the reader can only suspect that he’s seen so horrible things before leaving Hungary for Australia that he’s grateful to just be alive and free. Other problems are mere inconveniences.

All these details just show you how much I enjoyed reading The Women in Black. I needed a light and funny read after Under the Volcano and I got a good one. Thanks Lisa. I’ll read That Deadman Dance that you virtually gave me for Christmas in a few weeks.

You can find another review HERE, in French, from a French blogger who now lives in Australia.

  1. March 22, 2013 at 12:01 am

    I am delighted that you liked it:)

    We always find it fascinating that those from the Other Side of the Equator are so bemused by Australia’s summer Christmas – because of course we are not the only ones to have it, there is all of southern Africa and South America too. Perhaps it is because we enjoy such relaxed Christmases? We in Australia are very good at relaxed living:)

    I am very interested in what you say about St John knowing French so well: in the 1950s and 60s almost everyone who went to secondary school learned French. Australia was resolutely British and our education system was much like theirs, and so French was on the curriculum. (Mind you, French was the so-called International Language then, in the way that English is now, and the argument was that if you could speak French, you could converse with educated people from all over the world). But what is interesting is that Lisa/St John speaks it well: she must have been fortunate with her teacher because Australians were less able to afford to travel then, in the days before passenger jets, and few teachers spoke French themselves or could teach it well. My own French teacher was woeful – when my Mother (who speaks French fluently) corrected my accent or grammar, my teacher corrected it back again!

    I have a new biography of St John to read which will be interesting. Apparently she had a difficult life … I will be reading and reviewing it soon.

    PS You will find That Deadman Dance very different!

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    • March 23, 2013 at 1:24 am

      I’d have the same reaction to a description of Christmas on the Ile de la Réunion, which is France. It’s just that, from infancy Christmas means cold, hope for a bit of snow, Christmas markets, St Nicolas in heavy clothes, etc…

      I knew about French being a sort of international language but thought it had stopped after WWI. That might explain why older generations in France never bothered to learn English.

      What you say about teachers was true here too: my father always says that his English teacher had never set a foot in England, which is far more closer from France than France from Australia. If I understand David Bellos properly (I’m still slowly reading his Is That a Fish in Your Ear?) it comes from applying to living tongues the same methods at to Latin and Greek. Learning the language was more about translating skills than actually learning how to speak it, which was useless since nobody spoke it anyway. Maybe she wrote it better than she spoke it.

      About your mother correcting your French pronounciation and your teacher correcting it back. Same thing happened to me with my children’s primary school teachers. And I recently corrected my daughter about mispronouncing Angry Birds (the game) and she told me that she’d keep saying “angry beerds” anyway since every one at school laughed at her when she said it properly. *sigh* At least, I can only prove her on the internet that I’m right.

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      • April 9, 2013 at 12:13 am

        St John’s mother was born to Romanian parents in France. St John’s ashes were spread in France … She would have grown up hearing French and she visited France when she was living in England. She’s known for her ear for dialogue … I think it’s one of the strengths of the books.

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        • April 10, 2013 at 11:29 pm

          Thanks for this info. I understand better now. Romanian is a Latin language and she was in a French speaking environment.
          I’m not much into writers’ bio but you just proved it can be really useful. 🙂

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          • April 11, 2013 at 5:27 am

            LOL Emma … I think it can be but I can understand not being into them. I can’t help myself though!

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  2. March 22, 2013 at 3:53 am

    Emma: I read this a few years ago and really liked it. I have another couple of titles from this author on the shelf, so I need to get back to her soon. I would have guessed that you’d like this, BTW.

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    • March 23, 2013 at 1:25 am

      I’m not surprised you liked it either. I’d like to read more by her.

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  3. leroyhunter
    March 22, 2013 at 11:59 am

    I got used to “hot” Christmases as a kid, switching back to “cold/wet” ones was not a welcome experience.

    This sounds really good – quite an acid edge to it, if i’m picking that up right? Older people in Ireland (I mean 60s and up) would probably refer to “Continentals” – not in a derogatory way, but in a sense of “they’re different”. I don’t think people of my generation think the same way at all – travel isn’t such a novelty (or restricted to the wealthy) any more.

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    • March 23, 2013 at 1:26 am

      You were living abroad as a kid, right?
      I didn’t feel she used “continental” in a derogatory way but more like these people were a different species. No good or bad, different. Like Catholics in America?

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      • March 23, 2013 at 1:39 am

        What needs to be remembered when responding to the way Australians reacted when huge numbers of migrants from Europe arrived postwar, was just how isolated Australia was geographically and more importantly how monocultural it was. My husband growing up in suburban Melbourne, says that when his school was visited by one of the Russian athletes giving a talk during the 1956 Olympic Games, it was the *first* foreign language speaker he had ever encountered. As a little boy he was simply astonished by this because everyone around him was Anglo-Saxon, because at that time the migrants and displaced people coming from Europe tended to congregate in the inner city where rents were cheaper and factory work was available. So different to my more cosmopolitan experiences as a child!

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        • March 23, 2013 at 10:46 am

          That’s an interesting anecdote. It’s hard for me to imagine, since I’m younger, coming from a region with a lot of immigrants and near borders. My grand-mother knows three languages and the other knew two, all because of geography and history, education has nothing to do with it.
          For the Internet generation, it must be even harder to imagine

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      • April 9, 2013 at 12:15 am

        I wrote a little about this in my review of The women in black … Aussies were somewhat derogatory to continentals and their “weird” ways and food. They were sometimes called “reffos” ie refugees and not always in a positive way!

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        • April 10, 2013 at 11:32 pm

          I have to read your review.
          I think that in all countries, immigrants are always looked with suspicion at the beginning. Same here for the Italian, the Polish, the Spanish, the Portuguese and later the Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian.

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          • April 11, 2013 at 5:28 am

            I guess that’s true really … I feel a bit better now!

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  4. March 22, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    I try to alternate reads that way too. The Maupin comparison is interesting, and a big draw actually as I used to love Maupin’s Tales of the City. There’s always a place for well written light fiction, and as the second quote shows just because it’s light doesn’t mean it can’t deal in more serious issues.

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    • March 23, 2013 at 12:06 am

      Yes, and St John is in exactly that category. Some people call her Australia’s Jane Austen because of her irony, but I think she’s more like Muriel Spark.

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      • March 23, 2013 at 12:42 am

        I’d second that, Lisa

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        • March 23, 2013 at 1:30 am

          I should try another Spark.

          PS: I love when you reply to each other like that in comments. This place feels like a cozy literary salon when you do that.

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        • April 9, 2013 at 12:20 am

          I’m not sure I totally agree … Austen wasn’t all light was she? I didn’t see it as bitter as Spark, but I haven’t read enough Spark. I did see St Jogn casting an acerbic eye on people’s behaviour which Austen did. I think there are many Austens and different readers see different ones … I love asking people who are the new Austens and they come up with different ideas depending on the Austen they see. I guess it’s partly why she is so loved!

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      • March 23, 2013 at 1:29 am

        I liked her better than Muriel Spark. At least from the two I’ve read.

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    • March 23, 2013 at 1:28 am

      I loved Tales of the City, I have the whole series at home.
      Djian wrote a series called Doggy Bag, based on the writing technique of sitcoms. It’s a good read too. (Despite the name, it’s only available in French, I’m afraid)

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  5. March 23, 2013 at 9:19 am

    I liked this wehn I read it last year and, of course, that it’s set during Christmas season adds something special to it, shows how we take things for granted – snow, cold – while somewhere else that’s not all the association.
    I was also interested in the way she wrote about foreigners.
    I wouldn’t have compared her to Muriel Spark but maybe there are some elements. She’s the far more gentle writer though.

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    • March 23, 2013 at 10:28 am

      I think in her portrayal of the women at the store, St John is every bit as cruel as Muriel Spark can be. Those unsophisticated women had been denied an education because of their gender and were simply trying to make a living (and in some cases a career) in an era when there were few options for women – and she sneers at them and their attitudes as if their limitations are their own fault. St John, like many another expat, is very patronising about Sydney being a cultural desert, when of course, although it wasn’t London or Paris, it wasn’t.

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      • March 23, 2013 at 10:52 am

        I don’t think she looks at these women with contempt.

        I thought she pictured very well how oppression on women also come from women themselves: Patty’s mother is awful to her and so are her sisters. Lisa’s mother is the open-minded one, ready to go around her husband decision to let her go to university. In a way, St John shows women have to help themselves.

        If she pictures Sidney as a cultural desert then her description of Melbourne is even worse.

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        • March 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm

          *chuckle* Oh yes, Sydney people have a real hang-up about Melbourne, forever comparing the two cities and of course finding themselves superior!

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          • March 23, 2013 at 12:54 pm

            Here it’s Paris vs Province.

            You should see Parisians coming to Lyon on a business trip (2h by train): they don’t arrive before 10 am (but never fail to schedule you meetings in Paris at at 8:30am or 9am) and book a taxi at 4 pm because they don’t want to come home too late (but don’t mind you staying in meetings until 6pm in Paris)

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            • March 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm

              So it’s not only hapless tourists who have to put up with Parisians being ‘difficult’!

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        • April 9, 2013 at 12:23 am

          I agree Emma .. And Lisa and I had a bit of a discussion about this on her review. I think she was commenting on society, not viewing the women with contempt at all. I don’t think she would have given the ending she did if she’d seen them that way?

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          • April 10, 2013 at 11:34 pm

            I agree with you about the ending. That’s probably a point that link her more to Austen than to Spark, btw.

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  6. March 23, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    I felt the tone was overall not as sarcastic as Muriel Spark. Her characters could keep some dignity, if you know what I mean.

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  7. Brian Joseph
    March 23, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    Though you mention that the tone is light this sounds like a great character study. I think that meaningful characterizations are the key to making a book like this work.

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    • March 24, 2013 at 8:57 am

      It’s a nice read and probably an accurate picture of women’s life at that time. In a way, they were freer before getting married but could not really enjoy their freedom as they had this threat over their heads “what if I become an old maid?”

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  8. April 9, 2013 at 12:29 am

    Loved your review Emma … Not sure how I missed it coming through … But perhaps it was due to Easter … I was busy at the National Folk Festival for the first two days of Easter. I think I’ve made most of the comments I want to in responding to others, but I thought I’d fill you in on sizes. Those sizes were still around when I was a young girl but by the 1970s they were well on their way out. SW meant Small Women, so SSW was Small Small Women. You can probably guess what OSW meant … It’s probably partly why we went to those numbers … 10, 12 etc instead! Trouble is our numbers don’t mean the same as America’s, and other countries. Now you can go to bed tonight even smarter! You nev know, it might be a trivia question!

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    • April 10, 2013 at 11:38 pm

      Thanks for the explanation about the sizes. I never wondered if we had experienced a change in that department in France. I need to ask my mother.

      It seems to me that lots of things have changed in Australia. I’m not talking about the normal changes due to technology, changes in mores and this. I’m more thinking about deliberate changes like changing the currency, the clothes sizes, (and miles to km?)… I wasn’t aware of this.

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      • April 11, 2013 at 5:34 am

        Yes, now you put it that way, there have been … The currency and Kms and also Kgs instead of Llbs were all about decimals … And thy can’t have been political given the USA doesn’t have decimals weights and measures, and England is different again too. I think our governments were quite visionary really. Dress size, though, that’s another thing!

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