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The Women in Black

A Novel

“The book I most often give as a gift to cheer people up.” —Hilary Mantel

“A deceptively smart comic gem.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Witty and delicious.” –People

The women in black, so named for the black frocks they wear while working at Goode’s department store, are busy selling ladies’ dresses during the holiday rush. But they somehow find time to pursue other goals…

Patty, in her mid-thirties, has been working at Goode’s for years. Her husband, Frank, eats a steak for dinner every night, watches a few minutes of TV, and then turns in. Patty yearns for a baby, but Frank is always too tired for that kind of thing.

Sweet, unlucky Fay wants to settle down with a nice man, but somehow nice men don’t see her as marriage material.

Glamorous Magda runs the high-end gowns department. A Slovenian émigré, Magda is cultured and continental and hopes to open her own boutique one day.

Lisa, a clever and shy teenager, takes a job at Goode’s during her school break. Lisa wants to go to university and dreams of becoming a poet, but her father objects to both notions.

By the time the last marked-down dress is sold, all of their lives will be forever changed.

A pitch-perfect comedy of manners set during a pivotal era, and perfect for fans of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Women in Black conjures the energy of a city on the cusp of change and is a testament to the timeless importance of female friendship.

Chapter 1 1
At the end of a hot November day Miss Baines and Mrs. Williams of the Ladies’ Frocks Department at Goode’s were complaining to each other while they changed out of their black frocks before going home.

“Mr. Ryder’s not so bad,” said Miss Baines, in reference to the floor manager; “it’s that Miss Cartright who’s a pain in the neck, excuse my French.”

Miss Cartright was the buyer, and she never seemed to give them a moment’s peace.

Mrs. Williams shrugged and began to powder her nose. “She always gets worse at this time of the year,” she pointed out. “She wants to make sure we earn our Christmas bonus.”

“As if we could help it!” said Miss Baines. “We’re run off our feet!”

Which was quite true: the great festival being now only six weeks away, the crowds of customers were beginning to surge and the frocks to vanish from the rails in an ever-faster flurry, and when Mrs. Williams was washing out her undies in the handbasin that night she had a sudden sensation that her life was slipping away with the rinsing water as it gurgled down the plughole; but she pulled herself together and went on with her chores, while the antipodean summer night throbbed outside all around her.

Mrs. Williams, Patty, and Miss Baines, Fay, worked together with Miss Jacobs on Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks, which was next to Ladies’ Evening Frocks, down at the end of the second floor of Goode’s Department Store in the centre of Sydney. F. G. Goode, a sharp Mancunian, had opened his original Emporium (“Ladies’ and Gents’ Apparel—All the Latest London Modes”) at the end of the last century, and had never looked back, because the people of the colony, he saw straightaway, would spend pretty well all they had in order to convince themselves that they were in the fashion. So now his grandchildren were the principal shareholders in a concern which turned over several million Australian pounds every year, selling the latest London modes, and any modes from other sources which looked likely. Italian modes were in the ascendancy at present. “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 the poses might change with the years, but that ad always ran in the bottom left-hand corner of the women’s page in the Herald: I believe the space was booked in perpetuity, and the caption had long since become a city-wide catchphrase. Goode’s stayed ahead of the competition by means of a terrific dedication to the modes. They sent the buying talent abroad for special training at the great department stores of London and New York. When the new season’s clothes came into the shop twice a year the staff worked overtime, pricing and displaying, exclaiming the while.

“Never mind if it does retail at £9.17.6,” said Miss Cartright, “this model will vanish within a fortnight—you mark my words!”

And this they duly did.
This reading group guide for The Women in Black includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The women in black, so named for the black frocks they wear while working at an upscale department store called Goode’s, are run off their feet selling ladies’ cocktail dresses during the busy season. But in Sydney in the 1950s, there’s always time to pursue other goals . . .

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The Women in Black is set over six weeks in the late 1950s. What themes in the novel are still relevant today? Would you consider this book a modern classic?

2. The Women in Black has been described by critics and readers alike as hilarious and a comic masterpiece. What are some of the funniest moments in the text? How does Madeleine St John craft scenes of such warmth and humor?

3. The Women in Black is set against the backdrop of great societal change in 1950s Australia—from evolving roles for women to an influx of postwar European refugees. How does St John use her characters to illustrate these changes? Keeping in mind that St John herself left Australia for England and the US, are there places in the text where her feelings and attitudes about her home country emerge?

4. Compare Patty’s marriage to Frank with Magda’s marriage to Stefan. Other than the fact that neither couple has children, how are these relationships similar? What do you think Madeleine St John is trying to say about happiness in marriage?

5. Fay Baines lives by the motto “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again” (page 15). In the realm of romance, this motto doesn’t work for her (until it does). Fay does not have family around to offer emotional support during her unhappy times. What advice would you offer Fay?

6. Discuss Stefan’s ironic statement “Naturally we are cultivated, we reffos, we are famous for it, or rather notorious, it is one of our most despicable qualities” (page 94). How do Stefan, Rudi, and Magda’s appreciation of the finer things in life set them apart from the Australian characters in the novel? What do you make of their desire to share that appreciation with others?

7. Early in her friendship with Lisa, Magda thinks, “It was very nice to have the charge of so ignorant a little girl, for she, Magda, could teach her everything” (page 60). Contrast this with Mrs. Miles’s comment to her daughter, “If only you knew what being grown-up can be like, you wouldn’t want to do it any faster than you have to” (pages 98–99). Discuss how each woman influences Lisa in her own way.

8. Nearly all of the details of Miss Jacobs’s life remain a secret, even her name. What do you think she is supposed to represent? Who do you imagine she is mailing letters to on Christmas Eve when Mr. Ryder spots her (page 121)?

9. Both Stefan and Rudi stand in stark contrast to the Australian men in the novel. Discuss the ways in which the Australian men are as trapped as the women. Do any of the men in the book defy the roles set for them?

10. When Lisa falls in love with one of Magda’s model gowns, she is hit by “the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to one’s deepest notion of oneself” (page 65). Have you had a similar feeling about an item of clothing before? Discuss.

11. “Change is the law of life,” remarks Mr. Ryder in the closing pages of the book (page 208). What do you imagine Lisa, Magda, Fay, and Patty will be doing the following Christmas?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. For Lisa, William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” is mysterious and enticing. Read the poem in full and discuss why St John might have made reference to it in the novel. Discuss, too, her reasons for including allusions to other literary works such as Anna Karenina and Emma.

2. In 2018, The Women in Black was adapted into a film by Bruce Beresford called Ladies in Black. Watch the film and discuss how it compares to St John’s novel.
Photograph © Susan Greenhill

Madeleine St. John was born in Sydney in 1941. In 1965 she moved to the United States and attended Stanford, and later moved to England to attend Cambridge University. In 1993, she published her debut novel in Australia, The Women in Black. She is author of three other novels including The Essence of the Thing, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. St. John was the first Australian woman to receive this honor. Madeleine St. John died in 2006.

“Department store particulars are part of the charm of The Women in Black, a deceptively smart comic gem that tracks four women through the pandemonium of one holiday season in 1950s Sydney. Laced with a fierce intelligence that captures the limited options for women and postwar xenophobia views, it’s also a love letter to department stores of yore.” --Susan Coll, New York Times Book Review

"When I need a mental escape from a stressful situation, I often fantasize about wandering around one of the grand department stores of my New York City childhood... Most of those palaces of consumption are gone but, fortunately, Scribner has recently published the first American edition of this tart, beguiling novel." -Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“A witty novel set in a posh department store in 50s Sydney, where four women are at work in Ladies Dresses. The author unpacks their secret yearnings as they wake up to—and resist—the limitations of their lives. Delicious.” –People Magazine

“Like the deceptively simple (but perfectly crafted) little black dress, this delicious and sly masterpiece works its magic from the very first sentence. Once you slip into its folds-- full of hope and new beginnings, of luck and laughter and love-- I dare you not to catch yourself smiling, and wanting to twirl, for days and days and days.” –Sarah Blake, author of The Guest House and The Postmistress

"A little gem... shot through with old-fashioned innocence and sly humour." 
Vogue

"A highly sophisticated work, full of funny, sharp and subtle observations...a small masterpiece." 
Sunday Times (UK)

"There is something special about The Women in Black. St John's tone is a joy: brisk, perfectly managed and, in its disdain for clutter, oddly life-affirming. She casts an airy spell with the deftness of her prose, which moves gracefully, swiftly and with perfect manners... conjures a Sydney on the cusp of modern promise; a place where her characters can meet the future with a bright face and step out of the past like an old dress, where limits can be lightly shaken off." 
Delia Falconer, Australian

"Seductive, hilarious, brilliantly observed, this novel shimmers with wit and tenderness." 
Helen Garner, author of Monkey Grip and The Spare Room

"A delicious book. Funny and happy, it's like the breath of youth again."
Jane Gardam 

"A witty little gem of a tale... instantly transports readers back to a more genteel era." —Kirkus

“Funny and light, this story moves quickly as each character navigates the 1950s-era challenges of being a working
woman in a male-dominated society with limited options for the happily ever after they all strive for.”Booklist

 

“A striking debut novel of wit, charm, female friendships and universal dreams... a delightful and uplifting slice-of-life view." --Shelf Awareness, starred review