“You Australians are mysterious people, no one would guess that this is a place where people can also suffer. It is the constant sunshine, it hides everything but itself.”
The Women in Black in Madeleine St John’s wonderful, tightly written novel are a handful of women who work in Sydney’s Goode’s Department Store. The novel is set in the 50s; the women who work at Goode’s are required to wear black dresses, and these are still the days of “frocks,” “model gowns,” spinsters, and WWII refugees floating up as flotsam and jetsam in Sydney’s society.
The novel begins in November with two of the main characters: employees Mrs Patty Williams and Miss Fay Baines. Christmas is on the horizon and a young girl named Leslie Miles, who changes to her name to Lisa for her application to Goode’s, is employed for the busy Christmas and New Year’s seasons. Leslie/Lisa is a shy introverted, intelligent girl who has just taken her exit exams at school and who longs to go to university. The final main character is the glamorous Magda, “a Continental” from Slovenia, who takes Lisa under her wing, pays her attention, and introduces her to a wider, exotic world.
Both Patty Williams and Fay Baines have their private miseries and disappointments. Patty is married to Frank: a “bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Patty wants a child but that isn’t likely to happen as Frank is more interested in a night at the pub and a pint with his mates than sex with his wife.
Fay Baines is 28 and after a few unsatisfactory relationships with men, she’s come to a dead end in her life. She goes out at night with her friend Myra but Fay keeps meeting the same sort of men who want a good time and are not interested in marriage or a relationship.
Somehow the sight of Fay was not one that inspired thoughts about marriage, and this was grievous, for Fay wished for nothing else: which was natural, everything considered. Meanwhile men were forever getting the wrong idea
Then one night, Fay has an epiphany:
The fact was that Fay had had a dislocating experience on Saturday night: she had been at a party given by one of Myra’s cronies in a flat at Potts Point and she had suddenly, for no reason, become aware just before midnight that she was wasting her time: that she had in a sense met every one of the men there before, at every other party she had ever attended, and that she was tired of the whole futile merry-go-round: and what was worse than this, much, much worse, was that there was no other merry-go-round she could step onto
Over just a few weeks, amazing things happen in the lives of Patty, Fay and Lisa. Lisa, who comes from a narrow yet loving home, longs to be a poet, and is reading Anna Karenina. The book passes to Fay and she discovers that there’s more to life than parties and men who insist in groping her.
Women in Black explores the lives of a handful of women as they move to the next phases of their lives. Magda, her husband Stefan and his friend, Rudi, live in a parallel universe to their Australian acquaintances, and some of the book’s best scenes take place between these immigrants who, as they learn to adapt, have a great deal of ambition, and enthusiasm, combined with the outsiders’ view of Australian society:
“Give me you opinion of the cake, anyway,” said Rudi to Lisa. “I must say that in Melbourne, where I have been living so miserably, there are at least many better cakeshops than here”
“In Melbourne, they have more need of cake,” said Stefan, “having more or less nothing else.”
While the lives of Fay, Patty and Lisa are about to change, there’s the underlying idea that Lisa’s way forward is a change for Australian women in general. Lisa’s mother, another wonderful character, loves and supports her daughter, but the two females are subject to Mr. Miles who has yet to be convinced that it’s ‘worth’ spending the money to send a girl to university. The sea change for women is seen through the remark made by the “mysterious” Miss Jacobs, another employee of Goode’s.
A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation you know: you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or silly. , which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can: put their noses out of joint for them. It’s the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world.