Navigating a river of sadness
Helen Trinca considers a writer who found life a ‘very mysterious business’
MADELEINE St John’s The Essence of the Thing was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997. On the night the winner (Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things) was announced, Carmen Callil compared St John’s novel about the end of an affair to Joanna Trollope, while AS Byatt suggested it should be read as if it had been written by Kafka.
The chair of the Booker judging panel, Gillian Beer, said of St John: ‘‘ Taking a very narrow social group, she uncovers profound differences of relationships within it.’’ Not so much deep as banal was the verdict of one literary critic.
Such conflicting views go some way to confirming St John’s talent. She could be as deceptive in art as in life. For decades she played with the emotions of acquaintances and intimates, family and lovers, mixing charm with dark cruelty. Her books do the same, with their glancing references to complex matters followed swiftly by a refusal to be serious. She is hard to pin down.
The Essence of the Thing tells a familiar story of a break-up, but are we being offered the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet or Notting Hill melodrama? Trollope or Kafka?
St John’s provenance is similarly elusive. At the Booker dinner she was announced as an Australian, but she disliked the label after spending more than three decades overseas. She was born in Sydney in 1941 and left in 1965 for California. Three years later she was in London. She never lived in Australia again, and visited only three times.
Unlike Clive James, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries, who to some extent built careers as Australians abroad, St John was never really identified as an expat in London. She told journalists she thought of Australia as ‘‘ an accident of birth’’ rather than as her homeland. She had been ‘‘ brought up on the idea that England was where I came from, in a deep sense where I belonged. Australia was a deviation of one’s essence.’’
St John’s mother, Sylvette Cargher, was French; her maternal grandparents were Romanian; and when she wasn’t passing as a Londoner she had a touch of Paris, with her considered style of dress and an accent that reminded one admirer of a French native who spoke English well.
Yet when she decided to write her first novel, St John turned for inspiration to the ‘‘ gothic’’ Sydney of her youth. The Women in Black (1993) depicts Australia at a turning point in the 1950s and 60s, and shows a deep understanding of, and affection for, the country.
It was the only time St John wrote of Australia. Her other three novels have the same effortless dialogue and wry humour, but they are unmistakably English in setting and tone. She may not have lived the professional, middle-class life of inner London that she depicted in her books, but she was an acute observer of a section of society struggling for meaning in a materialist secular world.
The Essence of the Thing was St John’s third novel, published after The Women in Black and A Pure Clear Light (1996), and before A Stairway to Paradise (1999).
St John had come late to fiction after two decades researching the life of Helena Blavatsky, the Russian-born 19th-century theosophist. She made several attempts to find a publisher for the biography before tearing up the draft. But when she turned to fiction she wrote quickly, finishing The Women in Black in a few weeks, just months before her 50th birthday in 1991.
By late 1993 she had another two short novels ready. They were ‘‘ both about 90s London . . . and extremely politically incorrect’’, she told her friend Judith McCue, to whom she would later dedicate The Essence of the Thing. It is likely Essence was written before A Pure Clear Light: when St John’s literary agent, Sarah Lutyens, offered the manuscripts to publishers in 1995, she sent Essence out first. Its getting-of-wisdom story follows naturally from the coming-of-age tale of The Women in Black, and the religious themes that are explicit in her other London novels are far less developed here.
Thirty-something Nicola Gatling works in publishing and is happily partnered — albeit with the odd moment of doubt — with Jonathan, a lawyer. They’d been walking out for slightly less than a year: it seemed to be going quite beautifully: except for that edge of anxiety or even of fear —‘‘Can it last? Are we actually — shall we — do you really love me?’’ never articulated but always there, like a drone note which was silenced only during the act of love itself.
Jonathan is a perfect model of English male strength and financial stability, but he’s also rather good at taking charge. St John herself was a sucker for a chap like him, and she is wickedly accurate as she almost mocks her heroine’s predilections: He’d arrived with some flowers for her, and a bottle of wine. ‘‘ Jonathan, you are nice.’’ ‘‘ Am I? Am I? Come here.’’ The dark blue smell of English serge: nothing else like it. Then the smell of Jonathan. Nothing else . . .
This cosiness continues until the perfectly average evening when Jonathan, without ceremony and with very little explanation, gives Nicola her marching orders.
St John always denied the novel was autobiographical, but she suffered a painful break-up after a short marriage to the Australian Chris Tillam in the 1960s, and again after an even shorter affair with the English rock musician Dave Codling in the 70s. The book’s focus on abandonment channels a recurring theme in St John’s psychology as well as in her writing. She was 12 when her mother took a fatal overdose, and she considered her father, the barrister and politician Edward St John, to have turned his back on her emotionally from that point.
The Essence of the Thing is thus much more than a tale of a broken romance and a politically incorrect heroine who is prepared to forgive a great deal in the name of love. It is also an exploration of the profound sense of loss that so often comes with being human. St John struggled in her life to accommodate that emptiness before she found meaning and structure in her religious practice. In 1972, as she battled depression in London, she wrote to her aunt in Sydney that life seemed ‘‘ a very mysterious business to me & not at all what I expected’’. In 1998 she told an old Australian school friend that she had always found ‘‘ The World’’ to be a ‘‘ very funny place, which we never quite get used to’’.
In this book St John’s canvas is domestic, her plot is all but nonexistent, and her characters spend as much time talking about the virtues of gloss paint over emulsion as they do about God and the universe. But her interest is metaphysical. She asks us to consider the essence of the thing: