The Women in Black is a favorite of Clare Chambers, author of Small Pleasures, the novel I discussed in my last post. Published in 1993, it was Madeleine St. John's first novel and for me, an introduction to a writer I had never heard of before. I was riveted by the end of the first chapter, quickly falling in love. And since the first chapter is only two and a half pages, the spell happened fast. That's because there were several embedded messages to me, the reader, within the dutiful discharging of a first chapter's traditional business, to provide the where, when, and with whom.
It introduces us to Goode's Department Store in Sydney, Australia at the beginning of a Christmas season sometime in the late 1950's, an exact year not given. The employees at that department store wear the regulation black nylon frocks the store provides, and thus, right away, we understand the significance of the title. We meet two of them in these first pages, Patty Williams and Fay Baines, and we learn the name of the department they work in, Ladies Cocktail Frocks, but first, we are treated to a vision of Patty Williams at home "washing out her undies in the handbasin that night" when she has "a sudden sensation that her life was slipping away with the rinsing water as it gurgled down the plughole" (1)…
And with that, here is the first message from the narrator: Dear reader, I mention the business of washing soiled undies on the first page because I want this novel to have the appearance of being about mundane concerns, yet, between you and me, that is not my true business. The sentence goes on in this way: "; but she pulled herself together and went on with her chores, while the antipodean summer night throbbed outside all around her" (1-2). Message number two: My characters will feel immense emotions, but when necessary, it will be my language that will express what they themselves lack the words to describe.
Of course, this is always the purpose of a third person narrator; she stands slightly behind each character, helping him or her to put into words inchoate, difficult to express feelings, but here, the reach is so bizarre, undies to the throbbing antipodean night, we know immediately we are in the company of an unusual mind.
The narrator goes on to describe the department store's newspaper ad: "'I got it at Goode's,' as the caption said, on that insufferable drawing of a superior-looking lady preening herself in a horribly smart new frock before the envious and despairing gaze of her friend—the frocks and poses might change with the years, but that ad always ran in the bottom left-hand corner of the Herald: I believe the space was booked in perpetuity…" (2) Clearly, the narrator is opinionated as well as unconventional, and this irreverent point of view suffuses the pages, creating a humorous and wickedly subversive tone.
There's even a third message to the reader; it's a subtle one but it gives a zing of pleasure if you catch it: the "I" in "I believe the space was booked in perpetuity…" It is the only place in the entire novel the first person point of view appears; everything else is in an omniscient third person. And what classic novel of female desire does this remind you of? Flaubert's Madame Bovary where the narrator refers to himself as "we" only in the first chapter of an otherwise third person narrative.
Anna Karenina, another classic story of a woman's struggle in matters of love and matrimony, is also in play as two employees are reading it. And indeed, love and matrimony are also the concerns of The Women in Black, even though its narrator's humor dispels any partnership with tragedy. Indeed, as she probes deep into the psyche of her characters, shifting between the lives of four Goode's employees, two of them in Ladies' Cocktail Frocks, one in Ladies' Model Gowns and a young temporary hire, a woman named Lisa who shuttles between the two during this Christmas season, it is also a portrait of 1950's Australian culture. The narrator mocks and ridicules, and we have a sense of the provincial airlessness of that place in those times. And just as that "throbbing, antipodean night" is uncommonly paired with the soiled undies, Lisa, is paired with women who, at first glance, appear to be her opposite.
When Lisa is introduced to Fay and Patty, the two women who manage "Ladies' Cocktail Frocks," she tells them she has just taken the exams that immediately distinguish her as a high school graduate of high academic standing and Patty, duly impressed says, "'You want to be a teacher, do you?'
'Oh no, I don't think so,' said Lisa. 'I'm going,' she said, believing that she was obliged to offer a truthful account of herself, 'to be a poet. I think,' she trailed off vaguely, noticing the horrible effect of her candour [sic]…
"'No, I mean,' amended the confused girl, 'I'd like to try to be a poet. Or perhaps,' she added, in the hope of deflecting Patty's amazement, 'an actress.'
'An actress!' cried Patty, 'an actress.'
And Lisa saw at once that she had only magnified her initial error, and that she was now suddenly an object of open ridicule; for the appearance she presented in her black frock and utilitarian spectacles, thin and childish, was so far from their conception of the actress that the two women both now burst into laughter" (30-31). And here is another parallel with Flaubert's masterpiece: when young Charles Bovary enters the classroom for the first time, he is laughed at because of his ridiculous looking cap. cap=poet.
What so delighted me throughout this novel is the tone. In the exchange with Lisa, the artful phrasing, obliged to offer a truthful account of herself,combined with the dramatic paragraphing and punctuation, is the work of a narrator who wants to trash earnestness. Her objective is to strip each character down to her essential desires, to reveal the buried joy or sadness so she will be vulnerable, wanting, hungry to discover what, for her, is the path to something true. And with the help of a Balkan-Slovak contingent, piloted by the saleswoman in Ladies Model Gowns, the formidable Magda, that's exactly what happens.
St John, Madeleine. The Women in Black. New York: Scribner, 2009.