By Helen TrincaNon-fiction Text Publishing
Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John
Madeleine St John was, in her lifetime, an underappreciated and little known Australian novelist – despite being the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for The Essence of the Thing). Her sparkling first novel, Women in Black, set in a Sydney department store in the 1950s, was not published in Australia until after her death. And yet her admirers include Bruce Beresford (signed on to film Women in Black) and Clive James; she has often been compared to Jane Austen. Her life was as extraordinary, complex and tragic as you could wish for a literary heroine.
Journalist Helen Trinca became fascinated with St John and has produced the first biography of this belated Australian literary icon. She has interviewed former friends and relatives, stumbled on to a series of tapes made by her subject and left for a future biographer and, through painstaking research, discovered facts about St John’s family history that she never knew herself. She sets St John’s story against the impact of her mother’s suicide when the writer was 12, her hostile relationship with her father, Liberal politician Ted St John, and the opportunities and obstacles for women at the time. The result is an intriguing, layered portrait of a woman and her times.
Reviewing Madeleine in the Monthly, Catherine Ford praised it as ‘not merely a history of a singular writer, it is also a trenchant interrogation of a period and a country’.
Unsentimental, sensitive, and a true animation of its subject, Trinca’s biography of Australian expatriate writer Madeleine St John illuminates both a life and a particular generation still culturally in thrall to the lure of London.
Careful, non-judgmental and thoughtful, it provides a clear-eyed view of the broader social implications of what it was to be a woman of that era. Madeleine steadfastly reveals St John’s character, the difficulties of her personal life, and late success as a Booker Prize-nominated novelist.
The non-fiction judging panel also wished to commend Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari, by Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation.
There’s a pleasing symmetry to a book about the life of an author who was shortlisted for the Man Booker, nominated in turn for its own literary prize.
Helen Trinca’s Madeleine is a biography of an important but forgotten figure in our literary past, Madeleine St John – a Sydney Uni contemporary of Clive James, and part of the 1960s London diaspora that included Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford and Robert Hughes – who made history as the first female Australian to be shortlisted for the Booker, that most prestigious international book award.
At the announcement of her nomination in 1997, the fact of her heritage drew interest in the Australian press to this unknown author who had willfully sought to cast off her Australianness. St John was furious at attempts by the antipodean media to reclaim her: ‘All but one of her novels catalogued the lives of inner London’s professional class, not the bush and the beach. The last thing she wanted to be was Australian.’ St John had been living in London for almost 30 years, and was, Trinca writes, ‘intent on presenting herself as more English than the English’.
It is a cruel irony that the neglect of her works locally – out of print for years, her name largely unknown – is due historically to that squeamish disregard for Australian cultural artifacts, a feeling St John herself appears to embody throughout the work, cultural cringe.
It is this irony that makes Madeleine of particular interest, Trinca’s work sitting at the intersection of two important and very current cultural debates: the recognition of female authors in prize lists, and Australia’s forgotten literary heritage.
Last year, Text Publishing began its Australian Classics series in an attempt to recognise and preserve important texts of our native literary history. Through the publisher’s championing of forgotten classic Australian literature, key works in St John’s oeuvre – including The Women in Black and the Booker-shortlisted The Essence of the Thing – are now back in print. Trinca’s investigation of the life of this neglected figure is a further instance of positive literary activism by Text.
These are the broad strokes that mark the significance of Trinca’s biography, and St John’s career itself. But the point of biography is to zoom in and magnify the complexities and peculiarities that make up the larger picture, and this Trinca does with insight and care.
Amongst the almost comfortingly familiar tale of a writer estranged in high school but blooming in the creative atmosphere of university – St John attended Sydney Uni and became notorious for her theatre review performances as well as being involved in the student newspaper Honi Soit, for which she was among the sub-editors but was never published – masks a dark, almost gothic childhood.
Growing up in Sydney’s Castlecrag, from a wealthy family listed in Debretts, whose father was friends with Gough Whitlam, the affluent childhood didn’t shield her from the emotionally abusive relationship between her father and mother, ending in her mother’s suicide when Madeleine was away at boarding school, when the writer was just 12 years old. This event, though curiously absent from her bright and witty fiction, reverberates throughout her personal life, and Trinca outlines the prickly, reclusive, explosive woman who pushed away those closest to her.
St John’s stepbrother Ed wrote once about his half-sister’s Booker nomination, ‘As she would put it herself, it’s a bizarre twist to a peculiar life.’ Trinca’s original research brings out engagingly this forgotten author’s bizarre and peculiar life, who shone more in her fiction, and who hated not wisely but too well.
Bethanie Blanchard is a writer and critic based in Melbourne.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist