April 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Madeleine: The life of Madeleine St John’

By Catherine Ford

Madeleine: The life of Madeleine St John, Helen Trinca, Text Publishing; $32.99

By Helen Trinca

Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John – the Sydney-born novelist, who decamped to England during the ’60s, fleeing family and much else that she loathed about Australia – isn’t merely a history of a singular writer, it is also a trenchant interrogation of a period and a country.

St John was born in 1941, the oldest daughter of a mismatched French–Australian union that broke down. Her Parisian mother, Sylvette, adrift in the “unspeakable” semi-rural exile of postwar Ryde, and raising children through “empty afternoons in empty houses”, succumbed to alcoholism, psychosis and, finally, when Madeleine was 12, suicide.  Madeleine and her sister, never directly informed of her death, were left to intuit their mother’s end, an act of malign cowardice on the part of their father that brought harrowing consequences for them both. They saw out their motherless childhoods in a boarding school they despised – Madeleine likened it to Lowood, Jane Eyre’s wicked and fateful prison – from which they watched their oblivious father, the parliamentarian Ted St John, remarry. Amid such prolonged, gothic suffering, St John scorned and spurned her fellow students, these “great, lumping, uncultured, country hick girls”. These alienating experiences formed the author’s psychic bedrock, the fatal shelf on which, it seems, so many good things and people were later dashed. She died alone, from emphysema, in 2006. Banishment, abandonment, grief, the suffering of one’s intellectual and class “inferiors” and the brutal dismissal of friends were all scenarios that St John, perhaps not surprisingly, re-created in her adult friendships, her one failed marriage and in her fiction.

Trinca’s interviews with family, cast-off friends, literary agents, editors and St John’s ex-husband suggest she was an extremely difficult woman to love. But the author’s four short novels – elegant, transcendent works – all call on the above wounds and transform them by a miraculous grace mostly absent in St John’s personal interactions into moving and sophisticated fictions. She began them late, at 50; they are redemptive counterpoints to a largely blighted life.  Trinca, a journalist by trade, sadly doesn’t draw deeply on the novels for either pleasure or elucidation, but she is very good at keeping St John in focus; she rides the violent rollercoaster of her subject’s moods with admirable sangfroid.

Having been a talented hater, a bully, an inveterate cat-loving, proletariat-loathing snob, who chain-smoked and used the English class system to her advantage – living in penury, Madeleine pilfered food from Harrods and lived in shabby-chic, pre-Thatcherite social housing, while turned out in cashmere sweaters and Charles Jourdan shoes – St John makes extremely good, if troubling, copy for a biography. Any mournful bitterness she left is well alleviated by taking up her novels.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

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