Madeleine St John

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Madeleine St John
Born (1941-11-12)November 12, 1941
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Died 18 June 2006(2006-06-18) (aged 64)
London, England
Language English
Nationality Australian
Notable works The Essence of the Thing
Years active 1993-1999

Madeleine St John (12 November 1941 – 18 June 2006) was an Australian writer, the first Australian woman to be shortlisted[1] for the Booker Prize for Fiction (in 1997 for her novel The Essence of the Thing).


St John was born in 1941 in Castlecrag, a suburb of Sydney, and schooled at Queenwood School for Girls, Mosman. She was born to Edward St John, the son of a Church of England clergyman.[2] Her French mother, Sylvette (Cargher), committed suicide[1] when St John was 12. Her maternal grandparents were Romanian Jews.[2]

She went the University of Sydney to study arts where she was a contemporary of Bruce Beresford, John Bell, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Arthur Dignam, Robert Hughes[1] and Richard Walsh whom her father defended in the first Oz obscenity trial in 1964.[3]

She married Christopher Tillam, a filmmaker, with whom she moved to San Francisco to live while he studied film.[1] The marriage ended after St John went to live in England during 1968, where she continued to live. She took a series of jobs in bookshops and offices. Eventually she stuck with a part-time job for two days a week at an antique shop in Kensington. During the following eight years she attempted to write a biography of Helena Blavatsky but was dissatisfied and destroyed the manuscript.

In the early 1990s she decided to write novels. Her first, The Women in Black was published in 1993.

Not used to the success her writing brought, she remained a very private person, almost reclusive in style if not in actuality.[4] She died aged 64 at St Mary's Hospital, London, of emphysema and was cremated at Kensal Green Cemetery.[5]

A biography Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, written by Helen Trinca, was published by Text Publishing in 2013.

Writing career[edit]

She wrote four novels. The first one, The Women in Black, published in 1993 and re-released in 2009, is a comedy of manners set in a department store in her native Sydney during the 1950s and the only one of her novels to be set in Australia. It was adapted into the 2015 musical Ladies in Black by Tim Finn and Carolyn Burns. The Women in Black has also been optioned by Australian director, Bruce Beresford, for a film, but the film is yet to be made.[1] The next three are a kind of trilogy based in London's Notting Hill, where she lived. The Essence of the Thing (1997) was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She was working on a new novel when she died.

Beresford writes that "a major strength of her writing was the accumulation of minutiae".[1] He says that "she was so furious over some minor point in a French translation of one of her novels that she refused to allow it to appear. Kamikaze-like, she stipulated in her will that there were to be no translations of her novels into any language".[1]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Beresford, Bruce (2009) "In memory of a friendship", The Canberra Times, 28 March 2009, Panorama, p. 9
  2. ^ a b "St John, Madeleine (1941–2006)", obituary by Christopher Potter, The Independent, 6 July 2006
  3. ^ Stephens, Tony (29 June 2006). "Madeleine St John – Writer Exposed British Mores". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 19 February 2008. 
  4. ^ "Madeleine St. John Biography". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Retrieved 2008-02-19. 
  5. ^ "Madeleine St John's life in pieces" by Helen Trinca, The Australian, 16 March 2013