Wednesday 18 July 2012

An Australian Fairy Tale

Lesley hates her name, and decides to change it at the first opportunity. The first opportunity comes when she gets a job as a Sales Assistant (Temporary) at FG Goode, Sydney's most prestigious department store, and she transforms herself into Lisa – but still looks like a badly dressed, under-nourished child. Lisa, as we must now call her (though her bewildered mother finds this hard to cope with), is awaiting the results of her Leavers Certificate examinations, and is hoping to go to university, despite her father's opposition. Poised on the edge of adulthood and a new life, she divides her time between Ladies' Cocktail Frocks and Model Gowns, and listens to the black-clad women who work there.

The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John, is very funny and very charming. The women are beautifully created. There's the elderly Miss Jacobs, who is in charge of alterations and is never seen without her tape-measure and pins, and unhappy, faded Patti, married for 10 years, but still without a child and, much to everyone's surprise, still working – this is the 1950s, when married women are expected to stay at home. Then there's Fay, who wears too much make-up, and has had a somewhat chequered love life (she's been unlucky, says her friend Myra), but underneath it all is a nice, homely girl, who desperately wants to get married and have children. Then there is Magda, the buxom Slovenian refugee who presides over the exclusive, and very expensive, Model Gowns.

Magda, sophisticated, slightly Bohemian, utterly exotic in suburban Sydney, has a heart of gold, but the other women are deeply suspicious of her and her foreign ways:

Magda, the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed, was the most overwhelming, scented, gleaming, God-awful and ghastly snake-woman that Mrs Williams, Miss Baines and even, probably, Miss Jacobs herself had ever seen, or even imagined. Magda (no-one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname) was just a terrible fact of life which you ignored most of the time... Magda was the kind of woman who always got what she wanted: you could tell. Because Magda (Gawd help us) was a Continental: and weren't they glad they weren't.

She's an unlikely fairy godmother, who turns Lisa into a pretty, slender, stylish, young woman, rather than a plain, gawky schoolgirl, and opens up an exciting new world, introducing her to fashionable clothes and looks, along with new ideas, new foods, and new music. And she also works her magic on Fay, setting her up to meet Hungarian Rudi, whose past life, appears to have been more than a little disreputable, but who is now anxious to find love and security by marrying a nice Australian girl.

Generally, however, the men might as well be absent – indeed, in many ways there are: Lisa's compositor father works nights, so she and her mother rarely see him, while Patti's husband returns home only to eat and sleep, then disappears after a night of unexpected connubial bliss. H turns up two weeks later in Ladies' Cocktail, in what must be one of the funniest reunion scenes ever:

Australian author
Madeleine St John
Tell him to go to hell,” said Patti.
Now, now, said Miss Jacobs. Frank at last opened his mouth. “I've been to hell,” he said. “I've just come back. But I didn't have me key. I just came back here to get the front door key from you, that's all.”

'The Women in Black', which should not be confused with Susan Hill's 'The Woman in Black', is the most delightful fairytale which, as all such stories should, has a happy ending, and it's very funny, while exploring attitudes towards women and foreigners which would be considered most un-politically correct today, but were were common-place in the middle of the 20th century. I hadn't heard of Madeleine St John, but apparently she wrote three other novels, which I'm hoping to find, because I enjoyed this so much.


  1. What a wonderful sounding book. I love your first sentence. I went through a short phase of calling myself a new name when I went to college. And then, I came upon a girl in the dorm that was called the nickname my mother called me, and I felt terrible. Dropped that fake name like a hot potato!
    Thank you for introducing me to an author, and a book. I'm really looking forward to reading this.

  2. Nan,this captures captures that feeling of wanting to be grown up, but not quite knowing how, and changing your name seems the right thing to do - I guess we've all felt that with a different name, we'd be a different person!