Previously published as Women in Black now a major film directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Julia Ormond, Angourie Rice, Rachael Taylor, Ryan Corr, Shane Jacobson, Susie Porter, Alison McGirr, Noni Hazlehurst and Vincent Perez
At the very end of the Ladies’ Frocks Departments, past Cocktail Frocks, there was something very special, something quite, quite wonderful; but it wasn’t for everybody: that was the point. Because there, at the very end, there was a lovely arch, on which was written in curly letters Model Gowns.
Written by a superb novelist of contemporary manners, Ladies in Black is a fairytale which illuminates the extraordinariness of ordinary lives. The women in black are run off their feet, what with the Christmas rush and the summer sales that follow. But it’s Sydney in the 1950s, and there’s still just enough time left on a hot and frantic day to dream and scheme…
By the time the last marked-down frock has been sold, most of the staff of the Ladies’ Cocktail section at F. G. Goode’s have been launched into slightly different careers. With the lightest touch and the most tender of comic instincts, Madeleine St John conjures a vanished summer of innocence. Ladies in Black is a great novel, a lost Australian classic.
Madeleine St John was born in Sydney in 1941. Her father, Edward, was a barrister and Liberal politician. Her mother, Sylvette, committed suicide in 1954, when Madeleine was twelve. Sylvette’s death, Madeleine later said, ‘obviously changed everything’.
St John studied Arts at Sydney University, where her contemporaries included Bruce Beresford, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Robert Hughes. In 1965 she married Chris Tillam, a fellow student, and they moved to the United States where they first attended Stanford and later Cambridge. From Cambridge, St John relocated to London in 1968. The couple did not reunite and the marriage ended.
St John settled in Notting Hill. She worked at a series of odd jobs, and then, in 1993, published her first novel, The Women in Black (adapted for the stage and screen as Ladies in Black), the only book she set in Australia. When her third novel, The Essence of the Thing (1997), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, she became the first Australian woman to receive this honour.
St John died in 2006.
‘Seductive, hilarious, brilliantly observed, this novel shimmers with wit and tenderness.’ Helen Garner
‘A major minor masterpiece, a witty and poignant snapshot of Sydney the year before yesterday.’ Barry Humphries
‘A delicious book. Funny and happy, it’s like the breath of youth again.’ Jane Gardam
‘St. John casts an airy spell with the deftness of her prose, which moves gracefully, swiftly and with perfect manners.’ Delia Falconer
‘Funny, affectionate, moving and written with a light, comic touch.’ Monica McInerney