Monday, 10 November 2014

The Matriarch by GB Stern



aka The Tents of Israel


published 1924







And Toni went to the theatre with Danny, to see The Count of Luxemberg. She wore a new yellow evening frock that her mother had made her just before the crash; and oh, how she enjoyed herself! The family never knew about that stolen evening. They would have said, of course, aghast at such a dreadful proceeding, that Toni was heartless; that she had not loved her father; that she did not respect their mourning; that she did not care. But Toni had quite suddenly felt that she could not bear the lowered atmosphere any longer. All through her life she was to hunger for pleasure, as a countryman, in town, hungers for the smell of grass. ..

She forgot that Uncle Louis was angry with her ; she forgot that they were appallingly poor, with a quaking uncertainty about next week’s meals.… Oh, it was such a jolly play; the music was so lilting and intoxicating, especially the waltz; she revelled in her yellow dress, so filmy and so bright, after the wear of stuffy and monotonous black; and her feet, in their silk stockings, felt quick with twinkling dances.




observations: The author Hilary McKay is pretty much revered round here – her Saffy’s Angel featured on the blog in the early days here, and the whole oeuvre of the Casson Family came up on one of our favourite books list. (The picture below is an impressionistic version of the Cassons dressed for a funeral.) So when she sent me a message via Twitter: ‘I love the Clothes in Books blog, and noticed tonight you do not list G B Stern (The Matriarch). You would love those books!’ - well, I was a) thrilled to bits, and b) set out to find the book asap. 




Then when I got it I found the introduction was written by Linda Grant, another great favourite of this blog (I Murdered My Library here, Upstairs at the Party here and here.) So I was pretty much guaranteed to like The Matriarch, and I most certainly did.


GB Stern (1890-1973) was a woman, Gladys, and was a best-selling author in her day. She was at the centre of London literary life, a friend of HG Wells, Rebecca West, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, but now seems totally forgotten – Linda Grant says that her Times obituary said she was ‘too studiously light and amusing’. You don’t have to be incurably frivolous to wonder what’s wrong with being amusing…

Judging by this book, she most certainly was – it is witty, clever, hilarious and full of wonderful observations. And not ‘too light’ at all – although funny and iconoclastic, it has a real view of the sadnesses and realities of life, the way one person’s decisions can affect another.

The Matriarch was part of a whole series of books dealing with a cosmopolitan Jewish family, who were based on Stern’s own relations. This book deals with the Rakonitz relations living (mostly) in London from the late 19th century till the year of publication, 1924. There are uncountable uncles, aunts and cousins, with branches of the family in Vienna, in Paris, in San Remo, all mentioned frequently. It is quite hard to keep them straight, and work out which generation they all are, but Stern says at the beginning that you don’t need to, just go along with the story. So that’s what I did, and it was just terrific. The Matriarch is Anastasia Rakonitz: the other main character is her grand-daughter Toni, and the story moves around their families and homes. They are rich, cultured, not-very-observant Jews: they live a lavish and emotional life. The Matriarch bosses them all around: the family tries to decide who will marry who – sometimes the young people are acquiescent, sometimes they are not. Babies are born, wives die, husbands marry again. Money comes and goes. They all live on top of one another: ‘Members of the Rakonitz family did not live alone; it never occurred to them that one might live alone.’ There is too much cousin-ly inter-marrying. The whole family becomes very real, astutely observed and very funny. 

There will be more entries….

The Count of Luxembourg (spelling varies) was a very popular operetta by Franz Lehar.

The top picture is by Joszef Rippl-Ronai, and is called Young Girl Dressed in Yellow. The other yellow dress is one we chose for Noel Streatfeild's wonderful Theatre Shoes. 

10 comments:

  1. Love your enthusiasm, if not the book. Must be so rewarding when an author gets in touch like that.

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    1. It was great - I really love and admire her books. And yes, she correctly guessed my tastes - what a compliment!

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  2. Moira - Oh, how lovely that you got the word about this one. Must indeed have been a thrill! And the book sounds like a great insight into life during that era and into the world of that one family. I like the style in the bit you've shared too. Not overly wordy but at the same time, flowing and not too sharp if I can put it that way. Isn't great to have this kind of new discovery?

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    1. Yes exactly, a whole author that I'd never heard of - and there are two more books about this family, as well as endless other works by her. (We'll ignore the fact that I don't NEED any more books!)

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  3. Moira: I thought the second painting with the little yellow dress perfectly captured the spirit of the excerpt. It is a dress made for dancing.

    Written in 1924 it would have no sense of the impending fate of European Jews. Did it give you any sense of the loss in human culture as well as human life that later occurred in the Holocaust?

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    1. Thanks Bill. Yes the timing of the book did make for thoughtful reading. In her dealings with WW1, she mentions that due to absurdities of frontiers and birth, some of the cousins were on opposite sides to each other or treated as enemy aliens. And yes, there was a feeling for how much these families had to offer: their energy, their cosmopolitan ways, their love of other languages and culture, their interest in music and the arts....

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  4. Sounds interesting, but not one I will add to the pile anytime soon. I do look forward to more entries.

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    1. Too many books and too little time, Tracy. I am going to read more books in the series - I just ordered some more...

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  5. There will be an event on G.B. Stern, in which I'll be taking part, at Jewish Book Week, Kings Place, London, on Feb 22, with Julia Neuberger and Anna Sebba.

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    1. Thanks, that sounds great. I'll make a note of the date - I will have read some other of her books by then....

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