Madeleine St John: A Stairway to Paradise

by Jennifer Bryce

With the adaptation for theatre of her novel The Women in Black, the writer Madeleine St John has been rediscovered. She would now be well into her seventies, but she died of emphysema some ten years ago. Having enjoyed The Women in Black, centred around a store very much like David Jones, Sydney in the 1960s, I recently picked up another novel by her, A Stairway to Paradise.


This book has been described as ‘a dissection of desire’ and, although some reviewers see it as about a love triangle, I think that, far more, it is about the nature of desire and love. It is set in London – probably in the 1990s, the exact time doesn’t matter. Two men, Andrew and Alex, both married, love Barbara. But the desire between Alex and Barbara is the focus of the novel. Andrew, Alex’s squash partner has done what is perhaps the conventional thing and divorced his wife – she and his daughter live in another country now and he visits for school holidays etc. Alex and Barbara have a brief passionate encounter. She says that they cannot continue because Alex believes he cannot leave his wife at least until his young son is at secondary school – many years away. Why not a clandestine relationship? Even though there is ‘grinding, abominable pain’ [p.114], they cannot practise deception because of the nature of love. Over time love changes ‘and we wouldn’t find out’, Barbara confides, ‘it wouldn’t be the real thing’ [p.167]. By the end of the book we can see the prospect of the ‘real thing’. Alex starts asking Andrew how divorce has affected his daughter and Andrew believes it hasn’t had a bad effect. The last chapter is written from the point of view of Alex’s two children. They’ve been well aware of their parents’ incompatibility and discuss when a divorce might take place – they seem to accept it as a part of life. An obvious happy ending might diminish the outcome of the book. Instead, the children arrive home and open the door – we know that divorce is going to be discussed and we know how desperately Alex and Barbara want to be together. And the front door becomes a metaphor for what will be faced by Alex and Barbara and Alex’s children: ‘the latch clicked, and the front door began – but slowly, heavily – to open.’ [p.185] End of book.