Portrait of a troubled lady

In Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child, a novel concerned with the literary afterlife, a character observes that it is dangerous for a minor writer to attract the attention of a biographer: once their story has been told, further accounts are unlikely, no matter what the shortcomings of the original. Madeleine St John, the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was a minor writer of a distinguished kind; nevertheless, Hollinghurst's warning hovered over my reading of this carefully researched book.

Helen Trinca is a senior journalist at The Australian, and her investigative reach is impressive. Her exploration of her subject's family background is illuminating. St John's father was the maverick Liberal MP Ted St John, famous for criticising John Gorton in his maiden speech; her mother was Sylvette Cargher, a Romanian-French immigrant. When St John was 12, Sylvette committed suicide after years of alcoholism. Ted mishandled the way the news was conveyed to his daughters. For the rest of her days, St John blamed him for the death, which she persisted in believing was an accident.

Consequently, this pivotal tragedy deprived St John of her father as well.

Trinca vividly conjures the community at Castlecrag, the Sydney suburb where the St Johns lived in the postwar years. Peopled by intellectuals and artists, Castlecrag stood for ''modernity and liberalism''. St John's warm portrayal of sophisticated European immigrants in The Women in Black surely owes much to her neighbours in Castlecrag. Yet this progressive suburb, where houses were designed to blend with the bush, was also wildly romantic, with street names such as The Barbican and The Redoubt. In later life, St John would combine leftist leanings with an unshakeable admiration for the aristocracy - a talent for contradictory sympathies that might have originated in eucalypt-lined streets masquerading as a mediaeval castle.

After graduating in arts from the University of Sydney, St John married and moved to California, where her husband was pursuing postgraduate work. The counterculture was in full swing, and the marriage didn't last. In 1971 St John moved to London, where many of her contemporaries, including Robert Hughes and Clive James, were already shaping the cultural landscape. Germaine Greer notwithstanding, it was harder for female colonials to make their mark.

St John was further hampered by bouts of suicidal depression. The ashram she joined provided solace and community, and a series of ''jobettes'', supplemented by welfare, took care of the next 20 years.

Trinca reveals that in this period St John worked on a biography of Helena Blavatsky. It was never finished, and St John eventually destroyed the manuscript. But it released her into writing. Four novels followed quickly, including the Booker-shortlisted The Essence of the Thing (1997). In California, St John had claimed that ''Australia is my place''. Now she was furious when the media called her an Australian writer: Australia was only an ''accident of birth''. What had gone wrong? Trinca suggests that St John's animosity towards her father, intensifying rather than easing over time, spilt over to the country of her birth.

Yet The Women in Black, her only novel set wholly in Australia, is joyful and expansive. Set in 1960, it takes in a broad social swathe, and paints an optimistic picture of a country on the cusp of tremendous change. This grand design is conveyed with a breathtaking lightness of touch that can be traced to St John's gift for dialogue, for nothing aerates a narrative like talk.

Dialogue is equally central to the novels set in London. The airiness it brings caused foolish readers to dismiss her work. A.S. Byatt, however, astutely identified the sinister element in St John's later fiction, describing her conversations as the thin, Kafka-esque chat of people with ''nothing to say''. St John's vision had narrowed, darkened. Why?

The London novels skewer the bourgeois-boho Notting Hill set, the slice of English society that St John had made her own. Her depiction of its manners, limits, desires and - above all - its idiom is flawless. Here, then, are ''passing'' novels that display the author's perfect grasp of upper-middle-class Englishness; one can only imagine their psychological cost. The literary price is plain: they are novels that dare not risk the wider view. They go deep but not far. Reading them is like witnessing a bravura performance on a tightrope: on either side, the void. A lifetime of watching one's vowels separates them from the jaunty sweep of The Women in Black.

St John's novels came late in life, so the bulk of this chronologically ordered book is devoted to material that is only the lead-up to the main event. When it finally arrives, Trinca offers summaries of critics rather than fresh interpretations of St John's work. And while she appears to have left no significant stone unturned, her talent for portraiture is limited. Dozens of people pass through these pages but no one is memorable. Even St John remains half in shadow. Her perverse streak is well documented, her charm and wit less successfully conveyed.

What Madeleine inescapably communicates is the sadness of St John's life. So much of it was difficult and solitary and driven by old, grim events. From an early age, St John was given to engineering rows with those who cared for her. At age 64, she died alone with not even her beloved cat for comfort.

It is to be hoped that Hollinghurst's pessimism is misplaced, and that a study of St John's life that is itself a work of literature will eventually appear. If it does, it will owe much to Trinca's conscientious book. A small point bears querying, however. Describing an essay by St John about gardenias, Trinca remarks that the flowers are ''very French'' and ties St John's fondness for them to her adored Parisian mother. I'm not aware of the French attaching any special significance to gardenias, but they flower prolifically in Sydney gardens - in all likelihood, something St John remembered with pleasure.

Helen Trinca and Michelle de Kretser will be guests at the Sydney Writers' Festival, May 20-26 (swf.org.au).

MADELEINE: A LIFE OF MADELEINE ST JOHN

Helen Trinca

Text Publishing,

288pp, $32.99

The story Portrait of a troubled lady first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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