In 1997, the Booker Prize shortlist included a work by an Australian woman for the first time. Literary Australia was chuffed, but also surprised. Who was this Madeleine St John, published by Fourth Estate? Why had hardly anybody heard of her before, even though she had published two previous novels and received plaudits from Clive James, a contemporary from her Sydney University days? After some frantic reading, opinions began to be expressed. The overseas recognition meant that St John could not be totally dismissed, but demurrals were voiced nonetheless. The shortlisted novel, The Essence of the Thing, was not about Australia, far less the bush or heroic masculinity. It lacked self-importance and -indulgence – two things guaranteed, then and now, to gain critical approval. Oh, it was charmingly written, but a little on the slight side, perhaps?
To which the riposte might be: as slight as Jane Austen. St John certainly belongs to the same tradition. Her protagonists are detached, wry, catty observers with an indubitable sense of style. Her sparse but elegant prose, coupled to the subject of a woman’s desertion and devastation, had impressed the Booker judges, even though the publishers had not even thought of entering the work for the competition. Arundhati Roy won the prize that year, but the shortlisting made St John’s reputation. It led to sales, reprints, and ultimately to this biography.
Helen Trinca has worked in journalism and has co-written two books examining the issues of work and industrial conflict. As she notes in her acknowledgments, her decision to venture into the very different territory of literary biography came from the way that Madeleine St John obsessed her. The journey may well have begun with her unabashed admiration of the novels, aided by the fact that her subject was highly quotable, with an acid wit. Much of the enjoyment to be had in this biography comes from St John’s letters, which are epistolary delights that have been kept and treasured by the recipients. Madeleine could also be good company. When someone was in favour, she entertained superbly, though not with food. One of the many novelistic moments in this novelist’s life is an exquisitely frugal dinner party at which the guests were each served half a lettuce leaf with tomatoes and sour cream.
St John also had one hell of a story – with the emphasis on hell. It is to be hoped that Trinca avoided the biographer’s curse: that eerie, even haunting transference that occurs when the subject starts to affect the psyche – ‘the madness’, as Charmian Clift’s biographer Nadia Wheatley once described it to me. To identify too closely with St John would be particularly fraught, for she was famously troubled and difficult. Even her literary executor, Bruce Beresford, admitted that he was one of the few friends who never quarrelled with her – but then he saw her seldom and was planning to film her work.
Difficult is not a word that could be used to describe St John’s novels. They are precisely the opposite, most notably her debut, The Women in Black (1993), her only novel with an Australian setting and Beresford’s pick for film treatment. It is one of those rare books that seems perfect in form, style and content, like Gregory Day’s The Patron Saint of Eels (2005). Both are deceptive in their lightness of tone, their joie de vivre expressed in words. This apparent levity is the product of an utter dedication to technique. Brio is actually harder to write than high seriousness, let alone tragedy – about which St John was very well informed. Were it not for the novels, her existence would have been very grim indeed.
For St John, words were about keeping the darkness at bay. Trinca treats this aspect of the life with great acuity. Her subject was privileged to have attended Sydney University in the 1960s, a time and place where bright minds met and mingled: Germaine Greer, Clive James, Bruce Beresford. She was also born into a world of Anglo-Saxon Australian privilege, and a family of some gifts. Her father Ted was a lawyer and maverick Liberal politician; her half-brother Ed St John became a noted rock journalist. But these influences pale beside the defining event of her unhappy life: the suicide of her mother, Sylvette, when she was twelve.
Sylvette was the child of Romanian Jews, who had come to Australia via Paris. In pre-World War II Sydney, she was exotic and vibrant. She caught the eye of Ted St John, the son of a Vicar, from an old English family listed in Debrett’s. It was a marriage of opposites, not helped by their wartime separation or the rigidity of 1950s sex roles. Depressed by domesticity, Sylvette drank, which only increased her misery. The mores of the time dictated that a difficult woman, one who did not comply, was to be medicated into passivity. The alternatives – divorce or a reconceiving of gender relations – were simply unthinkable. Small wonder the next generation of women – the Madeleines and Germaines – grew up furious, if not actual furies.
Ted St John was a typical Australian male. He inherited the unthinking assumptions of patriarchal privilege. Masculinity meant the repression of emotions. Intimacy with women was to be feared, with homosociality the rule. In The Women in Black, all the Australian men are screaming arguments for feminism – although, because of St John’s narrative treatment, they inspire more ironic laughter than outrage. In real life, however, she found nothing funny about her father. It might have been better for her if she had, but that was their mutual tragedy.
The fathers of feminists might be adorable from a child’s viewpoint, but the grown woman finds little to understand, let alone forgive. Greer wrote the superb Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989) about the bastard who fathered her and in doing so she contained him: she had the final, authorial word. She attained the kind of objective distance from her father that proved impossible with with Ted St John. Both men were obtuse to a fault. But while Reg Greer merely lied and was indifferent, St John did far worse – while believing he acted for the best. He could be fearless and moral in Parliament, and did much pro bono work for good causes as a lawyer, but he utterly failed the women in his family. He simply could not cope with his wife’s mental collapse. So he packed his two young daughters off to boarding school, and packed his wife off for shock treatment. After Sylvette took an overdose of sleeping pills, he proved totally incapable of responding to his children’s shock and grief. He got on with his life, remarrying too quickly but nonetheless successfully. The damage he had done to his daughters was permanent.
In later life, Ted St John would refer to his daughters’ mental problems as ‘disabilities’. He thus put them in the same category as his first son by his second marriage, who had a cognitive impairment. Madeleine would comment on her brother, chillingly: ‘Nice work, God.’ Ted’s new wife Val tried hard to manage a new household and two stepdaughters, but became severely stressed herself. She is quoted as claiming that Madeleine ‘made me lose three babies’. These days infection or genetic damage would be blamed for the miscarriages, not a difficult and disturbed teenager, already burdened with grief. Val, in later years, would show the capacity for forgiveness, something it seems Madeleine never achieved.
St John sought escape, first at university, which proved to be a rare sunny time in her life. But her education did not leave her employable, except as a helpmeet. She married her first love, film-maker Chris Tillam, who took her to the Northern Hemisphere, but the marriage foundered and she ran ‘home’ to England, the green and ancestral land of her father. It was a typical destination for talented Australians, from Dame Nellie Melba to Nick Cave. Here expatriates could find a supportive audience for their art, even if they were competing with the Empire’s finest. Some Australians, such as Henry Lawson, found England unlikeable both in people and climate. The ‘wild run to London’ arguably destroyed Lawson, another Australian man who could not cope with a mad wife. St John, in contrast to Lawson, adored England, probably not least because it was half the world away from her father. In London, she found a niche, which served for the rest of her life.
Had St John known early in life that she could have claimed Jewish identity, she might have found refuge in Orthodoxy – she had a pronounced mystical streak. Instead, she chose to become more English than the English, losing her accent and trying rather too hard not to resemble a colonial. So well had she assimilated the cultural cringe, imposed from above by the colonial masters, she felt that to be Antipodean in England was to be essentially inferior. Trinca depicts her as a fearful snob, who is forever citing her family’s listing in Debrett’s and who became enraged when the Booker publicity identified her as an ‘Aussie’. Not for St John the role-playing of James, Greer and Barry Humphries, who made a virtue of their difference, like licensed jesters at the court of Blighty.
Over 60 years earlier, the radical Australian writer Randolph Bedford had encountered expatriate women, now assimilated, and expressed his disgust:
I met two girls who were born Australian and become English. They loafed in fluffy tea gowns in a heated sitting-room where the air was as unnatural as chiffon. I was so depressed by the change from healthy women to demoralised dummies, that I left the house feeling the shame of a cat going home in the dawn.
Tea gowns and chiffon were not for our heroine. St John might have had severe mental problems, but she was never a dummy. Instead, she chose squat-land, bohemia, not to starve for her art, but simply because it was convenient and she liked it. She flirted with Indian mysticism, hippie musicians, and devoted years to an abortive biography of Madame Blavatsky. The failed project undoubtedly honed her prose, so that The Woman in Black emerged from the process of publishing a glorious butterfly.
St John’s three subsequent novels were concerned with the English. This was a move made by numerous expatriate writers, who discovered that, as Lionel Lindsay put it, ‘the British public is not a scrap interested in outside things’. But in the process of changing their background, assimilating, these expatriates also tended to lose what made them distinctive in a hard, competitive, publishing market. Fergus Hume was never as successful when he left the Melbourne scenes of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) for London locales. Other detective writers, like J. M. (James Morgan) Walsh, even rewrote their Australian novels as English, not necessarily an improvement, given that setting often determines action in the crime genre. Relocation can sometimes bear literary fruit. Consider Christina Stead’s masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children (1940) – another novel by a women with a dire Australian father – which was based on Stead’s childhood in Sydney, but was set in America. St John’s later novels would be fine work, written with an outsider’s sharpness of observation. They sit comfortably within the genre of the English social novel, from Joanna Trollope to the divine Barbara Pym. But The Woman in Black is unique.
St John had time for no more than four novels, for she was, like her mother, heading for self-destruction, in her case via smoking, which she continued to do even after she contracted emphysema. A near anchorite in bustling London, she took solace in her cats and the Church of England. Here she might again be compared with Pym, a fellow Booker shortlistee and a devout Anglican. But Pym would surely never have remarked, as Madeleine did when asked to visit a sick parishioner: ‘I go to church in order to worship God, not to do social work.’ Had the message of the New Testament completely bypassed her? The comment is utterly self-damning, and is another genuinely chilling moment in the biography. Pym would have written it down for use sometime in a novel – and then visited the ailing parishioner herself, muttering under her breath but doing her duty.
Much wrong was done to Madeleine St John by her upbringing. She never forgave nor fully transcended it, although her art soared high. The rage of a bereft twelve-year-old would recur throughout her life, directed against her husband, her family members, anyone who got a little too close to her. She had to reject first, lest she be rejected. Nobody expects a great writer to be a great human being as well, but it has to be said that Madeleine the person comes across as horrid. The best part of her – to paraphrase an observation Martin Amis made about his father, Kingsley – was her writing. It is a credit to Trinca’s research and the empathy she displays in this fine biography of a difficult woman that at the end the reader goes to the shelves and takes out the copies of St John’s books.
Randolph Bedford, Explorations in Civilisation (Angus & Robertson, 1914).
Gregory Day, The Patron Saint of Eels (Picador, 2005).
Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Text, 2012).
Germaine Greer, Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (Hamish Hamilton, 1989).
Lionel Lindsay, Comedy of Life (Angus & Robertson, 1967).
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (Miegunyah, 2010).
Meg Tasker and Lucy Sussex, “That Wild Run to London’: Henry and Bertha Lawson in England’, Austrailan Literary Studies, 23:2 (2007) 168-86.
J. M. Walsh, The Man Behind the Curtain (Cornstalk, 1927; John Hamilton, 1931).
Nadia Wheatley, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (Fourth Estate, 2001).