Madeleine St John

Booker short-listed novelist

Madeleine St John, writer: born Sydney, New South Wales 12 November 1941; married 1965 Christopher Tillam (marriage dissolved 1972); died London 18 June 2006.

Madeleine St John wrote four novels in her short writing life. She was 52 when the first, The Women in Black, was published in 1993. The other three followed soon after, and form a loose trilogy set in contemporary London; Notting Hill, where she lived most of her adult life, particularly favoured. The Essence of the Thing (1997) was short-listed for the Booker Prize. She also left behind an unfinished manuscript.

Language and a questioning faith are the two poles of St John's created world, as may also have been true of her domestic world. In a last letter, to her beloved vicar, Father Alex Hill, she wrote: "If I have managed to be a Christian at all, it is due to the marvellous Book of Common Prayer." Beneath the sly and witty veneer of her writing, she explores questions that are basically theological: we must do the right thing, but how can we tell what the right thing is? This question is at the heart of all of her novels.

In 2002 Madeleine St John prepared strict funeral instructions. She was very ill for at least the last decade of her life. Emphysema made her a virtual recluse, though her illness did not stop her smoking. Her tin of Golden Virginia was often to be seen next to her inhaler, and later, her oxygen supply. Her reclusiveness was furthered by the fact that she lived, for the last 20 years of her life, on the top floor of a house owned by the Notting Hill Housing Trust. She called herself a housing trustafarian.

She claimed to be a de facto recluse for lack of money - not that St John ever complained of her lot - but her isolation was not entirely outside her control. St John could be very entertaining company, but she had a habit of casting anyone who got too close into outer darkness, usually for reasons entirely opaque to the one cast out. She could just as easily reel friends back in, and for similarly mysterious reasons. She lived by a strict moral code, the rules of which were only truly clear to herself.

This week, the strict funeral instructions were ingeniously and subversively carried out by Fr Alex. Though no reference was to be made to her life, Fr Alex managed to circumvent this by speaking of her before the service began, a sly and witty ploy that Madeleine would surely have appreciated.

The control and desire for anonymity were typical St John qualities. At her death, her always Spartan flat was found to have been even further denuded. An obviously brand-new address book contained the telephone numbers of only a handful of people.

Her estranged sister, Collette, has written that St John's writing emerged out of a life full of an "enormous amount of pain and suffering". Madeleine St John was born in 1941 in a smart suburb of Sydney called Castlecrag. Her father, Edward St John, was the son of a Church of England canon and a descendant of many famous St Johns, including Ambrose St John, who converted to Rome and was a close friend of Cardinal John Henry Newman, and Oliver St John, who challenged the legality of Charles I's so-called ship money.

Edward St John, too, challenged unfairness where he found it. As a distinguished QC and a renegade Liberal MP, he spoke out against apartheid and nuclear armament. He almost single-handedly undermined John Gorton, drawing attention in the House to the Prime Minister's rackety private life; he later resigned. Edward was said to be a cold and distant father, though Madeleine admitted that he had given her a lot, including a love of literature. But the relationship deteriorated. The rift grew and the estrangement became permanent. Edward St John died in 1994.

Madeleine's adored mother, Sylvette, was born in Paris. Sylvette's parents were Romanian Jews - Jean and Feiga Cargher - who arrived in Paris in 1915 and fled for Australia in 1934. At first, Sylvette and Edward were happily married, but the marriage turned sour. Sylvette was a depressive and committed suicide in 1954 when Madeleine was 12.

At the instruction of their father, Madeleine and her younger sister had been sent to a private school that Madeleine likened to Lowood. It was there that the news of their mother's death was broken to them by the headmistress, who told them that they were never to speak of their mother again. Madeleine never referred to this event in public, observing only that the death of her mother "obviously changed everything". Edward St John remarried. There were three sons from the second marriage.

Madeleine read English at Sydney University, graduating in 1963, the year, according to Philip Larkin that "sex began". In Sydney, 1963 was the year the satirical magazine Oz was first published. Its editor, Richard Walsh, was a contemporary from university. Perhaps coincidentally, Edward St John was to defend him at the first Oz obscenity trial in 1964.

Other contemporaries from that remarkable year at Sydney University included Germaine Greer, Clive James, the film director Bruce Beresford, the poet Les Murray, the historian Robert Hughes, and John Bell, Australia's foremost Shakespearean actor. It was at the university dramatic society that Beresford first met St John. (He is her literary executor.) "I remember being very struck by her verbal ripostes and observations about our associates."

Honi Soit, the student paper, described her performance as the whip-cracking courtesan Lola Montez as a "roly-poly barrel of fun", a description that would amaze anyone who only knew the older St John, but, as a friend of hers recently observed, "You should have seen her when she was young."

For all her wit and brilliance - Richard Walsh remembers her as the first person he knew who had read Proust - St John had few close friends at university. She said later that she had the "somewhat laughable idea that university was a place where nothing happened but a devotion to the truth and an attempt to understand it". She was unusual amongst that libertarian society for being an avid churchgoer, a lifelong habit, and for having a famous father.

Soon after graduating, St John married a fellow student, Christopher Tillam, who became a film-maker. They lived in California briefly, before she went on ahead to England, where her husband was to join her. He never arrived and divorce followed. St John never remarried.

As an outsider, St John was fascinated by the English. She said that England "was everything one had hoped for and has continued to be so":

I was 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.

Though she never had much money, she found the pre-Thatcher years suited her well enough:

I had a succession of little jobs in bookshops and offices. There were plenty of jobs if you got bored.

But the jobs eventually dried up - except for a couple of days a week working in an antique shop in Church Street, Kensington - and St John realised that her CV "looked like a nightmare". She spent the next eight years attempting to write a biography of Madame Blavatsky, a manuscript she ultimately destroyed.

Her first novel came more easily. She wrote it, in long hand, in six months. The Women in Black is a perfect-pitch comedy of manners set in the ladies' cocktail section of F.G. Goode, a department store in 1950s Sydney. Though St John claimed she could never "pull off" anything autobiographical, it is hard not to see some of her in the protagonist Lesley Miles, the clever girl (" 'A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all Creation', said Miss Jacobs") hoping to go up to university, and who changes her name to Lisa.

A Pure Clear Light followed in 1996 and A Stairway to Paradise in 1999. But her third novel, The Essence of the Thing, is probably her masterwork: "a further chapter", as one of the characters remarks, "in the gruesome, yet frequently hilarious saga of the island people who had given the planet its common language and virtually all its games".

Christopher Potter

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