The Women In Black by Madeleine St. John


I don’t usually write reviews for re-reads because they must be ace books* if I’m taking the time to re-read them, right? But there’s been a few exceptions along the way and The Women In Black by Madeleine St. John is one.

I’d forgotten just how charming this story is when I picked it up last Friday. My hasty re-read (it is a very short book) was prompted by my theatre engagement that evening – Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Ladies in Black.

Set in a department store in Sydney called Goode’s in the late 1950s, the story traces the lives of four women working in the Ladies’ Frock Department.

“Goode’s stayed ahead of the competition by means of a terrific dedication to the modes.”

St.John’s story has been adapted for the stage and the marvelous Tim Finn wrote the music and lyrics. Finn kept the Australian flavour of the story, including the dead-pan humour, and added a light touch of Broadway dazzle. Importantly, none of St. John’s dry wit was lost – Finn stayed faithful to the very best of St.John’s lines and for the most part, the script hardly differs from the novel.He’s a Bastard is, without question, the most memorable musical number I’ve seen in decades.

“Mrs Williams was a little, thin, straw-coloured woman with a wornout face and a stiff-looking permanent wave. Her husband Frank was a bastard, naturally. He was a bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.”


My re-read reminded me of what shines in this deceptively simple tale – it’s a Cinderella story with a feminist riff. It’s also a coming-of-age story (no matter what your age). And while the novel may appear full of window dressing froth and sparkle, St.John’s words have a deeper message – eloquent observations on class, women’s role in society and immigrants finding their place are delivered with St. John’s biting, quick dialogue.

“A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in Creation you know; you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or at least 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.”

4/5 Both the book and the musical – charming, funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

*Jenny, you are the only person I know who re-reads books that you initially struggled with/ didn’t like – I honestly don’t know how you do it. It’s an admirable reading quality and one that I’m quite sure I’ll never possess.

11 responses

  1. The only book that I can think that I’ve re-read that fits that description is The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, and it’s now my favourite book of hers. And it was more about analysis than reading, if that makes sense. But apart from that one? I do, however, persist and finish books that I don’t like or am struggling with if there is some other reason for it, other than just finishing, eg I will learn something, it needs to be given a chance to do what the author has intended.

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