Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Unseen Influencers: The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John

I remember reading a review of this book when it was first published. The review was in a free magazine that was given away at many stations; I used to take a copy if it was handed to me, but it never had much content that I thought worth reading. I read the book section in one issue, and saw a review of The Women in Black. The book’s outline did not sound very promising - sales assistants in the dress department of a Sydney department store in the 1950s are not what I would normally want to read about - but my radar picked something up. I had learned to respect these inner promptings so I bought the book.

My radar chose well. On one level the book makes a passable light read; on another level it acts as a teaching guide by providing examples of unseen influences of a positive kind. I did not immediately realise this: the insights came to me gradually in the following years.

The most significant character in The Women in Black is called Magda. She has a very beneficial influence on her fellow workers and their lives and families: deliberately or unconsciously she arranges their affairs so that they all get their heart’s desire. She is a wonderful example of someone who is the exact opposite of an energy vampire and a saboteur; she is a giver and a facilitator and everyone around her benefits from knowing her. The ripple effect spreads throughout her sphere of influence.

The positive effect that Magda has on the people around her reveals itself in both very small and very large ways. 

Magda befriends a young temporary sales assistant called Lisa. Lisa eventually gets the glamorous model gown of her dreams, and her father withdraws his objections and accepts that university is a suitable place for such a clever girl. The original cost of the beautiful frock had put it way beyond Lisa’s reach and her father had not been open to the idea of her going to university, but the obstacles dwindle and melt away. 

Magda invites Lisa to one of her parties, where she encounters salami for the first time. Lisa tells her mother, who says that she has never heard of it but will see if she can find some. Her father says that the salami is not bad and wonders what it is made from. Thus Magda enhances Lisa’s life and she does the same for her parents.

Magda is just being herself and doing what comes naturally when she takes an interest in people: the last thing on her mind is the thought of any reward. Her dream is to have a designer dress boutique of her own, and she is well on the way to realising her ambition. She has good relationships and a good life, so there is not much that anyone can do for her. What do you give to a woman who seems to have everything she wants?

Lisa gives her a wonderful present: she knows something about the country that Magda left after World War II to start a new life in Australia. Magda has learned that most Australians know very little about Europe, obscure Balkan countries in particular, so she is delighted to find someone who has actually heard of her home country. Lisa had ‘by chance’ taken an optional module at school after her exams, and learned some basic facts about European countries. The giving on both sides is painless: they are just doing what they are good at. This is the way it should be.

Magda plays the part of a fairy godmother: she makes people’s wishes come true. It is important to understand that what her colleagues and their families want is realistic both in terms of their lives and what the world has to offer, and they are definitely not the sort of people who are never satisfied. One man wants to meet a cultured Australian girl – if there is such a thing. Another colleague wants to settle down with the right sort of man. There is nothing wrong with a young girl’s setting her heart on getting a beautiful frock for special occasions. 

The name Madeleine St. John has very significant, family-related associations for me. I thought at first that it was a pseudonym as it seemed too good to be true, but it was the author’s real name. I was not surprised to learn that there was much ‘bad luck’ in her family and that her life was filled with pain and suffering; many of the elements in the biographical material that I found seemed very familiar.

Madeleine St. John’s father is of particular interest to me because of what I have read about the Brontës’ and Alcotts’ fathers. Edward St. John was a famous political activist and reformist who campaigned on behalf of many causes; Patrick Brontë was an energetic campaigner on a wide range of religious, social and political issues; Bronson Alcott was a man with a mission, a famous philosopher and ardent reformer who championed many causes and issues. Why did the creative daughters of these men suffer so much? What was happening below the surface of the families while the attention of these men was taken up with outside causes?

Madeleine St. John’s mother’s parents were Romanian Jews who fled Paris for Australia a few years before the start of World War II. Someone with this background seems rather a strange choice for a man like Edward St. John, who was the son of a Church of England canon and rather an establishment figure. Because of what happened in my own family, I often wonder in such cases how they came to meet each other and who had been wishing for what. 

The marriage turned sour; Madeleine St. John’s mother became depressed and Madeleine and her sister were sent by their father to a school that Madeleine likened to Jane Eyre’s Lowood. Their mother killed herself when Madeleine was twelve. Why do such factors recur again and again in writers’ lives?

Edward St. John is an interesting name by the way: it makes me think of St. John Rivers (and Edward Rochester) in Jane Eyre. Like St. John Rivers, Edward St. John was said to be cold and distant.  Charlotte Brontë said that her character Shirley was her sister Emily as she would have been had she been blessed with money and health. Was Magda in The Women in Black Madeleine St. John’s mother as she should have been?

Madeleine St. John became estranged from her family and suffered from illness and a lack of money in later life: unlike the characters in The Women in Black, there was no happy ending for her. She died at the age of 64. All we can do for her now is to learn from her book and try to be a positive unseen influence in our own and others’ lives.