Madeleine St John's masterpiece The Women in Black more optimistic than its author

Madeleine St John: sharp, clever, well-read and needy.
Madeleine St John: sharp, clever, well-read and needy.
Art students at work preparing the Orientation Week issue of Honi Soit at the University of Sydney. Marie Taylor, Jane Iliff, Madeleine St John and Sue McGowan watch Clive James typing while the editor, David Ferraro, and Helen Goldstein plan other pages, 23 February 1960.  Photo: B. Newberry

Art students at work preparing the Orientation Week issue of Honi Soit at the University of Sydney. Marie Taylor, Jane Iliff, Madeleine St John and Sue McGowan watch Clive James typing while the editor, David Ferraro, and Helen Goldstein plan other pages, 23 February 1960. Photo: B. Newberry

Madeleine St John was impressed by Hugh Jackman's performance in a 1998 production of the musical Oklahoma! in London's West End, but she was disappointed to learn Jackman was Australian. As her biographer, Helen Trinca, writes in Madeleine, an Australian friend that year found the expat author "hostile to Australia, a terrible snob and judgmental", perhaps more so since her novel The Essence of the Thing was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997 (and lost to The God of Small Things by Indian author Arundhati Roy).

We can only wonder how St John would feel about Tim Finn's Ladies in Black, the musical adaptation of her first novel, The Women in Black. She died in London in 2006 aged 64 after a lifetime of smoking. Film director Bruce Beresford, a friend from their student days at Sydney University, says, "I suspect she'd have driven everyone mad over the adaptation and the lyrics". However, she was "thrilled" by his request to make a film based on the 1993 novel after Clive James praised it as a comic masterpiece. (Barry Humphries loved it too.) After many years' delay, Beresford and co-producers Sue Milliken and Allanah Zitserman hope to shoot the film next year.

Beresford says St John's snobbery didn't apply only to Australia but "was really her high standards and applied to everything. She started writing, she told me, as she was working in a bookshop in London and thought 'I can write better than most of the people we're selling"'.

St John was a late-blooming writer who lived on an emotional rollercoaster between fury and despair. She blamed her father, the barrister and Liberal politician Edward St John, a witty but cold and critical man, for the depression and suicide of her French-born mother, Sylvette, when Madeleine was 13. His remarriage further alienated father and daughter.

Her life was a series of escapes, first to university and the bohemian pleasures of student acting (she is remembered for her singing, dancing Lola Montez); then to the US with her filmmaker husband and, when their marriage failed, to London, where she eventually took British citizenship. She had sporadic jobs in offices and shops and lived frugally in a sparse but chic housing association flat.

Everyone knew St John loved literature and music. Publisher Richard Walsh once recalled her as "the first person I knew who read Proust". Some knew she worked privately on her own writing, obsessively researching a biography of Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, that didn't find a publisher. Her religious search took her from an ashram back to the Anglican church of her childhood and coloured her writing.

The Women in Black looks home to Sydney in the late 1950s, an optimistic romantic comedy about an ensemble of women selling cocktail frocks in a department store like David Jones. St John cleverly dramatises the meeting of conservative Anglo-Saxon Aussies with European migrants who opened them to sophisticated attitudes, cultural experiences and romance.

As well as drawing on her upbringing in Castlecrag, St John told Beresford she used details from the family of her friend from university days, Colleen Chesterman, whose father was a proofreader. Chesterman, who had Christmas jobs in department stores and went on to be an academic, says her mother welcomed St John to their Kingsford home.

"I like this one the best of Madeleine's books because there's more truth and sense of lived experience in it than the others. She is really astute about that era," Chesterman says.

Buoyed by her acceptance as an author, St John quickly wrote three more novels, all set in London, sharply observant of social class and fractured relationships: A Pure Clear Light (1996), The Essence of the Thing (1997) and A Stairway to Paradise (1999).

"Madeleine was very sharp and clever, well-read, needy and demanding of her friends," says Chesterman. "She wanted to project herself as a woman of mystery," says her husband Michael Chesterman, now an emeritus professor of law, who inspired an unrequited youthful crush in St John. "She said I could never be creative because I'd had too happy a life."

As she sickened with emphysema, St John lost energy for writing, never finishing her fifth novel. She argued with friends, relatives and her loyal literary agent and publisher. Beresford still saw her on visits to London. In the last weeks of her life he took her out, trailing her oxygen cylinder and still smoking, to a Schumann concert at Royal Albert Hall.

"She was difficult and combative but maybe we just never got into that many rows," he says. "She could be very witty and funny and good company. We were both interested in classical music, so we had something we could always talk about."

The Herald's obituary noted critics had compared St John's writing with Chekhov, Muriel Spark, Anita Brookner and Jane Austen. St John herself once said: "We won't know for a hundred years the truth about whether it's any good. It's one of the things about literature; you just can't tell until you're dead."

Ladies in Black is at the Sydney Lyric Theatre January 3-22.

This story Madeleine St John's masterpiece The Women in Black more optimistic than its author first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.