The Women in Black | Madeleine St John

Delightful, funny, charming! The Women in Black was the tonic I needed this week.

I could gush on and on and on about this gorgeous little story about a group of women who worked at Goode’s Department Store in Sydney in the 1950’s.
Of course, Goode’s was based on David Jones and the staff still wear black to this day.

During the 70’s, as a child, I was a regular visitor to DJ’s. After our family orthodontic trips to Macquarie Street specialists we would sometimes walk around Hyde Park to DJ’s or we would walk in the other direction and stroll down Martin Place before catching the train home again. I remember saving up my birthday money to buy something special from DJ’s when I was 11 – my first copy of Jane Eyre!

St John’s descriptions of the departments, the weather and the busy hustle of the sales evoked so many childhood memories that I felt a little overwhelmed. Even Mr Ryder’s solitary stroll down Martin Place on Christmas Eve felt like a personal experience.

St John so captures the mood & character of this time that you feel transported back there in an instance – I could feel the summer heat – all gritty and sweaty & I could smell the trains & the dust and I knew that feeling of relief when you  were ushered into DJ’s by the doorman- into a place of cool tiles & marble, with polished wooden bannisters and perfumed scents trailing after the immaculately dressed women. It was another world.

So many authors from this time seem embarrassed by our innocent post-war history. It was not a cosmopolitan time. We were not trendy, worldly or sophisticated. So many people of St John’s era, including St John herself, left Australia for the Continent.

I was expecting this book, therefore, to be cynical and disparaging. It was not.

Thank you to Text Classics for making this book readily available again.  

An irresistibly charming debut novel set in a department store in Sydney in the 1950s.

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 Christmas rush. But in Sydney in the 1950s, there’s always time to pursue other goals…

Patty, in her mid-thirties, has been working at Goode’s for years. She’s married to Frank, who eats a steak for dinner every night, watches a few minutes of TV, and then turns in, leaving Patty to her own thoughts. She wants a baby, but Frank is always too tired for that kind of thing. Sweet Fay, wants to settle down with a nice man, but somehow nice men don’t see her as marriage material.

The glamorous Magda runs the high-end gowns department. A Slovenian émigré who met her Hungarian husband in a refugee camp, Magda is clever and cultured. She finds the Australians to be unfashionable, and dreams of opening her own boutique one day.

Lisa, a teenager awaiting the results of her final exams, takes a job at Goode’s for the holidays. She wants to go to university and secretly dreams of being a poet, but her father objects to both notions. Magda takes Lisa under her wing, and by the time the last marked-down dress has been sold, all of their lives will be forever changed.

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