Madeleine St John: A Pure Clear Light


Don’t tell anyone, but Gert’s heart sank to her boots when she read the judges’ statement for the Stella Prize longlist:

“Many of them address urgent national issues with particular relevance to women, at a time when women are fighting to be politically seen and heard, and to secure their positions in the public sphere,” Walker said.

“The writing on this longlist takes a strong stand against issues such as racism, offshore incarceration, violence against women and alcohol abuse.”

A drowsy numbness pained Gert’s sense as she contemplated reading these books.  But she cheered up when she read this about the agenda for the Scunthorpe Literary Festival in Madeleine St John’s A Pure Clear Light:

‘The agenda this year…is an all-out confrontation with the crypto-philistines. Who aver that contemporary English writers – egregiously, novelists – have failed to deal with the great issues of the day. You know, the issues.

‘Oh, yes, those issues.’

‘Right. So the idea, as I understand it, is to have one posse demonstrating that English writers are dealing with the issues; and another demonstrating that it is not in fact the business of literature to deal with issues.’ (87)

And a good time was had by all at the festival:

Blood on the floor wasn’t in it…. As literary festivals went, Scunthorpe had an edge. A lacerating, lethal-in-certain-cases edge. Nicola Gatling, assistant to the Director, spend the afternoon succeeding the debate administering to the walking wounded, while the Director himself saw to those requiring intensive care… (135)

Was there ever a cleverer, more light-handed treatment of life’s big “issues” – love, marriage, sex, adultery, family life, childhood, religious faith, the transitoriness of life, how to know what it is to act rightly – than this book? Think Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Thomas Ellis – Madeleine St John is right up there with them. Women in Black is her best-known book in Australia, and has been made into a musical currently showing in Melbourne, but I liked this better. A few snippets:

The children were beautiful. Even he could see that. Being with them was like drinking the purest, most sparkling spring water. It was just their taste which was abominable – in food, entertainment, toys – abominable, execrable. How could this be?

‘What can it mean?’ he asked Flora.

“’I suppose it’s simply a sign of original sin,’ she said. (167)


‘You know Simon– there’s this knife-edge feeling, with blokes like him, everything looks so cushy – well, cushy enough– but you get this feeling that, well, one false move – one moment of inattention, or one small miscalculation – and it could all go so wrong.’ (230)


Janey was growing up. Childhood was streaming away from her in long glittering shreds….(141)

The scene where 5-year old Thomas teaches a group of drunken actors to dance the Hornpipe is hilarious, and there’s a very surprising sermon on algebra. Another terrific book. Gert is on a roll!


4 thoughts on “Madeleine St John: A Pure Clear Light

  1. Like you I prefer issues to be subsumed by the story and not the other way round. Having said that, there is space for good polemical novels, whether political, environmental or rights-centred. Just not exclusively.


    1. Of course there are great ones, maybe including some of the ones on the Stella list. But to describe them only in terms of their themes seems very heavy handed. 1984, for example, certainly “takes a strong stand” but that’s not the first thing you want to say about it.

      Liked by 1 person

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