In The Women in Black the hopes and dreams of four women converge in the Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks section of an upmarket Sydney department store. They are all sales assistants in Goode’s which prides itself on catering to the kind of women who like to be seen in the latest London and Italian designs.
Fay Baines has had enough of men who treat her as just a good-time girl. Approaching her thirties and fearful of being left on the shelf, she longs for a man who will desire her but treat her with respect and — crucially — be willing to marry her.
Patty Williams also feels there is something missing in her life. She’s married but there’s not much romance in evidence. Husband Frank isn’t violent or cruel, just “a bastard of the standard-issue variety ….insensitive and inarticulate” who comes home tipsy after work and wants the same meal every night. Patty longs for a child but there’s scant hope of that since Frank doesn’t show much interest in her sexually.
Though these women spend their days surrounded by stylish clothes, they are forced by their employer to wear unflattering black dresses. Their own dress sense tends to be flashy in the case of Fay or dowdy in Patty’s case. Neither women are a match for Magda, the goddess of the elite Model Gowns corner of Ladies Frocks. She rules over this haven of elegance with its elegant sofas, mahogany furniture and bottles of Veuve Clicquot for its discerning clientele.
In the eyes of Fay and Patty, Magda is a “god–awful woman”, the kind of woman with a superior air who always gets what she wants. Worse still, she’s not even Australian. Secretly however they envy her svelte figure, tailored clothes, and perfect coiffeur.
Into this trio steps Lesley Miles (a name she hates so tells her colleagues to call her Lisa) a temporary assistant taken on to help with the Christmas rush. Her ambitions lie beyond the shop — if she gets good results in her leaving exams, there’s a chance she could get a university place. Over the course of a few months she sheds her gauche schoolgirl identity, discovering through her friendship with Magda a world of new experiences and sophistication in food, music and fashion.
The Women in Black is an utterly delightful novel that focuses on the lives and relationships of four women. Madeleine St John writes with tenderness about their dreams and frustrations but also exposes the limited possibilities facing women in a male dominated 1950s Australia. Only Magda and Lisa look to a future beyond the department store and beyond the domestic sphere. Lisa’s dreams of a university place may however all come to naught because her working class father doesn’t see the point of all her exams and talk of college when she’s just a girl.
Meanwhile Magda is carefully plotting the day when she can turn her back on Modern Gowns. She and her husband Stefan are émigrés from eastern Europe, who assiduously learned the language, idioms and ways of their new country and taking advantage of every opportunity it offers. Now Magda plots her next move — to reign supreme over her own business, an “extremely exclusive and exorbitantly expensive frock shop.” in an upmarket area of Sydney.
St John has an instinct for comedy and a wonderful ear for dialogue that is never more evident than in Magda’s character. The chapters showing the interactions between her and her husband Stefan are glorious, a mix of Australian idioms and Hungarian brio that reveal their total delight in the enjoyment of of good company, music and conversation. On a side note, Stefan is the only male character in this novel who treats women as equals — all the others take little interest in the wishes of their female partners.
The Women in Black can easily be read as a fairly story — the transformation of ugly duckling Lisa into a graceful cygnet — or as a delightful behind the scenes portrait of a department store. Either way it is a hugely entertaining novel. But if you read between the lines and look carefully at what St John has to say about male-female relationships and attitudes towards “foreigners” it becomes even more of a gem.