‘Like Being a Detective’: An interview with Helen Trinca on Madeleine St John

Madeleine St John was the first Australian woman shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 1997, for The Essence of the Thing) - but until Text Publishing published her first novel, The Women in Black, in Australia for the first time (in 2009, after her death), she remained little known in Australia. Since then, Text has published new editions of each of her fourth novels, and The Women in Black has been canonised as a Text Classic.

Now, Helen Trinca, a senior writer for the Australian, has dug into the life and past of this enigmatic, posthumously celebrated writer, giving us an engrossing, sympathetic and impressively balanced account of an extraordinary life.

We spoke to Helen about the book.

Madeleine left behind few written records and deliberately destroyed many traces of herself before her death. She also had an incomplete understanding of the events central to her childhood – her mother’s illness, the relationship between her parents. How did you go about piecing together her story, given these obstacles? Was it a bit like being a literary detective?

Yes, very much like being a detective, or a very busy investigative journalist. I loved the puzzle and solving the puzzle – although one never solves the puzzle. I began with Madeleine’s friends. I knew Bruce Beresford was her literary executor and he suggested other names. One person led to another, so on it went. I found many people via the net – it is such a great tool.

Helen Trinca

Helen Trinca

One of the most wonderful discoveries was the cache of tapes that M made before she died in 2006. The tapes were made and held by a woman called Judith McCue in Chicago, but it was a fluke to find her and the tapes. The internet helped, of course. When I began, there was no archive, no correspondence in the library or anything like that. But I found about 80 letters over my two years of research: first I found the friends, then they found the letters they’d put away in the back drawers!

Getting the timeline right was also a challenge. I spent months trying to find out whether Madeleine had arrived in London in December 1967 or January 1968. It’s not a central fact – it’s just a fact that one needs! Anyone who wants their biography written should keep a timeline.

Madeleine’s mother, Sylvette, suffered from severe depression, alcoholism and eventually took her life, when Madeleine was still young. How did her mother’s illness and her loss affect Madeleine’s life – and her personality?

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Sylvette’s tragic death upon Madeleine and her younger sister, Colette. It was made worse by the silence that surrounded the death and the fact that both girls were never really told what had happened. Madeleine always denied that her mother had taken her life deliberately, or at least she was never truly convinced that it was suicide.

I don’t really want to psychoanalyse Madeleine – I’m not equipped to do that. But I think it’s true to suggest that M had issues all her life with intimacy. The book shows over and over how volatile she was in terms of her relationships. She would pull people into her through her great charm and originality, then push them away, often without explanation. Yet at the same time, M was very, very resilient, and a terrific survivor. But I think a child who loses a parent through suicide carries an almost impossible load.

The book – and Madeleine’s story – offers an intriguing and instructive series of insights into the way women’s lives have changed over the past half-century or so. Sylvette, an unfulfilled housewife, seemed to embody Betty Friedan’s ‘problem with no name’. You describe the ‘pre-feminist’ days at Sydney University, where ‘everyone knew the men would take the best jobs’ – and Madeleine was never published by the student newspaper she worked on. Her gender did seem to hold her back from the opportunities seized by her university compatriots of the time, like Clive James. Did you deliberately research this strand of the book, or did it emerge naturally? And how important was it, when looking at Madeleine’s life and work?

I didn’t deliberately research the ‘feminist’ issues in the book. I never saw M’s life through that filter, but the gender differences of that particular time emerged through my conversations with the wonderful women – and men – who were at university with Madeleine. They are a tremendous bunch of people, and I loved their values and their wisdom. Hope that doesn’t sound too corny, but they are all in their early 70s, and they were part of a very special generation. In many ways, the women did not have the lives they would have had if born 10 or 15 years later, but they are amazingly at home in their own skins!

I don’t think gender is all that important to M’s life and work – although her women are the strong characters in her books. But her books can’t be given a ‘feminist reading’ as far as I am concerned! The other question people often ask is whether being a woman meant it was harder for her to be published etc. I don’t think so: what held M back was her anger, her depression, her snobbery, her sadness.

I was struck by the attitudes to mental illness experienced by Madeleine and her mother, when unwell. Madeleine’s mother in particular seemed to receive little empathy and much judgement – and when she died, suicide was still an illegal act. Madeleine was admitted to an asylum where she was kept in a locked ward and heavily sedated following an overdose. Do you think these unsympathetic attitudes affected their mental health? And were you surprised to read about their experiences?

It was a dreadful time for the mentally ill. I was shocked to read Sylvette’s psychiatric records and then to read a little more about that period. I grew up in the 1950s and was aware of electro-convulsive therapy. My family regarded it as a terrible, barbaric treatment and we were very aware too of the tragedy of women who had ‘nervous breakdowns’.

I would really like to write more about this subject: I think one of the not-so-hidden stories of migration in Australia is the story of mental illness, through loss of identity, family, sadness and loneliness. My father migrated from Italy in the 1930s as a single man. He died many years ago, but sometimes even now, I start to cry when I think of the loneliness and isolation he must have felt as a young man, without English, in the years before he married my mother. Sylvette’s mental condition was surely amplified in some way by the fact that she was in some senses, the outsider, when she came to Australia in the 1930s.

Madeleine had a difficult relationship with her father. ‘When I learn to stop cringing before him I hope I shall learn to stop cringing before the rest of the world,’ she said. What was the nature of their conflict – and how did it shape her?

The conflict really dates to the time after Sylvette’s death when M felt strongly that her father, Ted St John, rejected her emotionally and actually. She felt he was disgusted by her, that he ridiculed her, and that he effectively stopped loving her and Colette. But her emotions ebbed and flowed, and she often wanted to impress Ted, and at time in her life had a more normal relationship with him. The dysfunctional relationship defined her for much of her life, yet they were not always estranged.

One thing I found impressive about the book was its balance – while you’re clearly sympathetic to Madeleine, you also identify her flaws and question her interpretation of many key events in her life, particularly her childhood. You’ve gathered information and opinions from varied sources, including those actively hostile or conflicted, like her hated stepmother and her ex-husband. How tricky was it to sift through those conflicting perspectives and arrive at a kind of truth?

It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. You start with the idea that if you talk to enough people, you will find the ‘truth’ but there are many truths and many shades in all our lives, and it is impossible to know how accurately you have rendered someone.

This is the first biography I have written and it was a challenge to filter material, to determine the weight to give particular information, and in a sense to deliver a verdict of some sort based on the evidence. I wanted to be fair to Madeleine and to Colette as well, but also to Ted and Val St John.

Biography is incredibly intrusive and in a sense you are exploiting your subject. I was heartened once when one of M’s best friends, said to me that biography was really one of the only ways to learn about human existence. In effect, she was saying that intrusion was a necessary part of our path to understanding.

Madeleine came late to writing, but when she began it, she fell in love with it. ‘After writing, everything else is boring,’ she once wrote. How did writing – and writing success – transform her life?

When Madeleine became a published author in 1993, at the age of 52, she was incredibly chuffed. It was not so much the celebrity that came, in a limited way, to her, but the pride of being a writer, the intellectual achievement of being published.

She came from a family who valued literary or professional achievement above money, for example, so being a writer was a great satisfaction to her. She also finally had some money – not much, but more than she had before. Her writing opened doors – she had an agent, and an editor, and publishers and a larger circle. But she was disappointed when she did not win the Booker Prize in 1997. Winning the Booker would have changed everything for Madeleine. But yes, she was very pleased to have those four little books in print.

It’s interesting that M was part of a big wave of young Aussies who went to London in the 1960s and made their mark in various ways – Clive James, Germaine Greer, Peter Porter, Bruce Beresford, Richard Neville, Robert Hughes – yet she is the only novelist among them. The others made extraordinary careers as commentators and writers and film-makers. She had a much smaller life and a much smaller circle but I think that allowed her to create fiction. She was the outsider, the observer. If she had had the sort of success of a Clive or Germaine, she would not have been able to construct her little world of her perfect books.

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