A Writer’s review of Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black.
“St John is reminding Australians to lighten up.”
“BUT she is a woman, although an Australian, so you know it is never after all only amusement on the part of a woman. The heart is always engaged, and so may be broken. And it will be my fault.”
So says the brilliantly observed Lithuanian anti-hero of this book, the divine Magda, marking out the emotional territory of Madeleine St John’s first novel.
Just out of school and awaiting her final examination results, when suburban Lisa takes a summer job at the city’s best department store in the ladies’ fashion section she encounters an array of women, their lives united by donning the same black dress on the shop floor.
Despite the uniformity of the title, St John fashions remarkable characters. There’s Magda, a ‘continental’ in charge of haute couture who embraces not only her love of high fashion, but continually reminds everyone around her about their good fortune to be living in a place such as Sydney at a time such as 1960.
Her unbridled positivity is counterpointed with the lovelorn Fay, past marriageable age but still dreaming despite everyone’s fears for her; and Patty, married and childless, confused about how she got into both states.
It’s Christmas, it’s hot, and the scene is set for conflict.
Yet it seem to take an age to arrive. Akin to the work of Jane Austen, The Women in Black avoids a classic story arc, as many comedies of manners do, and attempts to frame human behaviour in other ways.
Austen managed to instill her novels with light-hearted digs at the class system, the marriage game and how close genteel women in reduced circumstances come to ‘falling’. But where Austen does let some of her characters take the leap, in The Women in Black St John keeps her cast of women away from the brink.
I was reminded of Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’s seminal wartime Australia novel Come In Spinner as I was reading. This is not a surprise – both books focus on the lives and loves of a cluster of colleagues in a well-populated place of business in Sydney.
But I found myself yearning for Spinner’s stronger sense of drama. Exploring womens’ rights, abortion, prostitution and female identity, Cusack and James’s book courageously formed a much-needed stepping stone for the advancement of literature about women in this country. They were egged on by Miles Franklin, author of the much earlier My Brilliant Career, who the authors acknowledged as the ‘godmother’ of their collaboration.
Both novels include deft portraits of mid-century Australian marriages from a woman’s perspective. The sense of expectation and powerlessness, the giving and withholding of intimacy, the desire for equality that seems beyond reach, and the sense of being let down by and in competition with other wives and mothers in the pursuit of unattainable perfection.
“A political novel in the same way that a cartoon can be political.”
Yet I was met with a constant sense of Madeleine St John smiling at my reactions. Where I settled into another chapter anticipating Magda’s plan to capture a guileless Aussie gal into something sinister, like the white slave trade so often feared where immigrants were concerned in the 1950s, St John instead creates wonderful and humane character portraits of three-dimensional and extremely funny ‘reffos’, or, as we now call them, refugees.
St John was in her fifties when The Women in Black was completed, and it’s the book’s sense of maturity that makes it a worthwhile read.
It’s been accused of being anachronistic – a story about 1950’s sensibilities published in the 1990s – but St John had lived through enough of the twentieth century to blossom as a keen observer when the same rising conservatism reared its head ahead of the millennium’s turn.
With great gentility and pathos, she frames this emotional and literal austerity so it can be seen for what it is: overblown panic built on first world problems.
Like Magda, St John is reminding Australians to lighten up. The threats we perceive are not those that consume other parts of the world. We would do better to look at what’s actually in our lap, which is ultimately what all of the women wearing the uniform black – and their husbands and fathers – are brought to.
In that sense, I define The Women in Black as a political novel in the same way that a cartoon can be political, using a light touch when exploring serious issues. If the planned screenplay of the novel follows St John’s lead in this manner, and not simply her comedy, it will be worth watching.
A Writer has another look at an Australian classic.
LITERARY analysis of the Blue Mountains in NSW tends to focus, perhaps a little too much, on the works of Eleanor Dark and Norman Lindsay, the enduring foundation for writers which bears her name, and the iconic gallery featuring his.
Other writers’ works also emerged from the cool climate heights of the region, in fact one of Australia’s most popular and enduring novels was written in the tiny town of Hazelbrook, in a home which never became a writers’ retreat.
The story behind its creation is the story of two women, their daughters and niece, who escaped the wartime city in order to live and write, and in doing so, created a literary milestone…
This article was published in the June-July 2011 edition of Blue Mountains Life.
Come Home Spinner
The Hazelbrook tenants who created Australian Chick Lit.
In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour in May-June of 1942, Sydneysiders woke-up to the reality of imminent attack, and many headed for the Blue Mountains to ‘see out’ the war.
With two generations of men fighting in Europe, job opportunities for women were on the increase, and the city was flooded with American troops. Right in the thick of this changing world, two writers — Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981) and Florence James (1902-1993) — rekindled the friendship they’d started as undergraduates at Sydney University in the 1920s.
Florence had been ‘caught by the war’ in Sydney with daughters Julie and Frances while on a visit from London, and Dymphna was living with her sister and family at Coogee. In spring, 1944, the women hatched an escape plan of their own: to write full-time in the sleepy Blue Mountains village of Hazelbook.
Dymphna had retired early from teaching, suffering with multiple sclerosis. Florence needed a place to live while her husband Pym served in Europe. Combining Cusack’s small pension and periodic literary grants with Florence’s ‘allotment’ from Pym, in January, 1945, the families moved to ‘Pinegrove’ on the south side of Hazelbrook.
In this unassuming fibro cottage with views to the Sydney basin, James’ and Cusack’s ruminations on literature and social justice gave birth to the first international bestseller to present contemporary Australian women to the world.
They started with a children’s book — Four Winds and a Family — created in autumn, 1945.
An allegorical telling of the adventurous episodes of the Pinegrove residents, complete with writers Tess and Topsy (Florence and Dymphna), and youngsters Fan (Frances), Jay (Julie) and Dee (Dymphna’s neice, also called Dymphna), and various cats, goats and other animals, the book maps their ever-growing world of friendly neighbours and unfriendly school teachers.
They commissioned Nan Knowles to illustrate and sent the manuscript to a publisher the same year. Knowles’ work included a naive map (eventually the front endpaper) illustrating the part-real part-fantasy realm of Four Winds. It’s an enduring symbol of the secure world mother and aunt sought for daughters and niece at Pinegrove.
Emboldened by their success in juvenile fiction, Florence and Dymphna soon embarked on their magnum opus, the book they’d been talking into existence ever since leaving the city: Come in Spinner.
“We picked everyone’s brains,” Florence recalled when interviewed by Marilla North (editor of Yarn Spinners – A Story in Letters the letters of Dymphna Cusack, Florence James and Miles Franklin).
“Everyone” included local cleaning help Mrs Catherine Elliot (who regaled the authors about the realities of working as a barmaid in the inner city); and Blue Mountains Mayor Tom Walford (who explained the rules of popular gambling game ‘Two-Up’ in which ‘Come in Spinner’ is the call ending all bets before two pennies are spun).
Through the author’s letters, Marilla North was able to pinpoint the exact day that work on Come in Spinner began at Hazelbrook – Monday July 30, 1945, only a fortnight before the end of the Pacific War.
“Addressing issues like abortion, rape and prostitution, Cusack and James’ second collaboration placed female protagonists in the real world.”
“It took us two-and-a-half years to write,” Florence explained, “we didn’t write by each exclusively developing one character’s story. If one of us had an inspiration about it then she’d do that bit of the writing. Then everything had to be interwoven”.
“We worked five days a week when the kids were at school. At the weekends we had friends up and kept in touch with what was going on in Sydney. We went down there occasionally and very reluctantly…” Florence said.
In order to write without causing pain to her hands, Dymphna made use of a dictaphone she nick-named ‘Delphi’ (probably a reference to the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece into which prayers were whispered). Tom Walford arranged for local typist Joan Gray to produce manuscripts from Cusack’s reels.
The story of a trio of resident beauticians at the fictitious Marie Antoinette salon of the Hotel South Pacific, Come in Spinner explores their lives and relationships against a cross section of Sydney’s working and elite classes.
Seen objectively, beauticians Deb, Claire and Guinea are the natural evolution of the three girls in Four Winds and a Family, placed in a world much less secure, with no map to guide them save whatever moral compass their upbringing had given them.
Each of the women takes a journey through wartime Sydney, juxtaposed against the innocence that came before shortages and the black market, and a new world of gaining an advantage by any means.
In Four Winds and a Family the breeze is never strong enough to blow the girls into too much trouble, whereas Come in Spinner suggests life’s fortunes can be decided in a gamble. Addressing issues like abortion, rape and prostitution, Cusack’s and James’ second collaboration placed female protagonists in the real world, making it hot property even before publication.
Entered anonymously into TheDaily Telegraph’s novel prize of 1946, the families remained at Pinegrove while the authors edited their manuscript. In 1947, the cottage was sold, meaning eviction by June, even as editing continued.
Florence and her daughters sailed for England to be with Pym. A separation of almost a decade (apart from occasional leave visits) saw the marriage unable to survive the reunion. Dymphna moved back to Sydney and continued work on other novels, sailing for Europe herself in 1949.
Come in Spinner eventually won The Daily Telegraph award but was never granted the promised publication, considered too controversial for Australian release. The authors were awarded the thousand-pound prize, but had to extricate their work from the newspaper for Florence to offer it to publishers in the United Kingdom.
The William Heinemann company published Come in Spinner in 1951. It proved an instant international bestseller after a series of rave reviews in the United Kingdom and has never been out of print.
With its cast of female protagonists, and its omission from most literary criticism (despite an enduring popularity), the novel ranks amongst the first true examples of Chick Lit in the world.
In deference to regular Pinegrove visitor and the author of My Brilliant Career, Come in Spinner was dedicated to the woman whom Dymphna Cusack described as the godmother of the collaboration – Miles Franklin (1879-1954).
The drawn-out publication and success of Come in Spinner has tended to overshadow the other works which came out of Pinegrove. Two other novels by Dymphna Cusack (Say No to Death, exploring the affliction of tuberculosis, researched in part at Bodington TB sanatorium in Wentworth Falls where one of Dymphna’s friends was a patient; and Southern Steel, set in the industrial city of Newcastle) were substantially written while at Hazelbrook.
Another collaboration of sorts was Caddie – the story of a Barmaid written by the woman who came once a week for laundry and chat – Catherine Elliot. It was Dymphna and Florence who suggested to Elliot that she write her memoir in her own ‘voice’. Dymphna edited the manuscript, assisted Elliot in finding a publisher, and wrote the forward for the novel which became a classic and a popular movie in 1976.
In her capacity as an editor and literary agent, Florence James encouraged two further generations of female Australian authors, including Mary Durack and Nancy Phelan.
Come in Spinner was adapted as a mini series by the ABC in 1989. Times had changed enough for an unabridged version of the novel to be published in Australia by Angus and Robertson.
Dymphna had died in 1981, after spending three decades travelling and writing, mainly abroad, which meant Florence was tasked with editing controversial sections of the collaborative work which were removed before publication in the 1950s.
Pinegrove still stands at Hazelbrook, although its original acre is somewhat diminished by development and many of its pines are gone. It was renamed ‘Four Winds’ after becoming the home of Sheryl and Geoff Smith three decades ago.
There are traces of the literary hotbed the home was in the 1940s – the wall where Florence and Dymphna pinned-up a plan of the plot, characters and eight-day storyline of Come in Spinner is still there, off the sizeable living room which attracted the women to the house for their growing girls. The same room inspired Geoff and Sheryl to buy the house on first inspection.
The autumn weekday afternoon of my visit comes with an almost complete silence which must have been a godsend for a pair of writers, nestled as the place is away from the highway and railway.
Sheryl shares with me a copy of Four Winds and a Family given to her son by Florence James herself, who revisited the home for the making of a documentary not long before her death. On the fly leaf, a dedication reads: “A happy life at ‘Pinegrove’ – where Dee, Jay and Fan used to live – also did Tess – Florence James.”
‘Tess’ had come home, but what about ‘Topsy’?
“Why oh why did we leave Pinegrove?” Dymphna wrote to Florence, on the brink of an international career which took off in a cottage in Hazelbrook. It is not known if she ever returned.
Extracts from Yarn Spinners – A Story in Letters edited by Marilla North (published with the permission of University of Queensland Press). Now available in a collector’s edition.