Sunday, 14 December 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Matriarch by GB Stern: Part 3

published 1924



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES










Nobody quite knew for whose sake it was that she set up Zillah expensively as a corsetière in Bond Street. Anyhow, Zillah did not remain a corsetière for long, because a fashion in West End palmists and exotic seers began to rage, and Zillah, possibly by her address, possibly by the ‘z’ in her name, began by mistake to attract people to her premises who wanted the future, not corsets. Zillah Korischelski was an opportunist, and did not see why her supply should not meet the popular demand; so the corsets gradually sank out of sight, and all the most wonderful Eastern draperies accumulated by the Rakonitz travels were required to drape Zillah’s parlours of mystery…


They were sitting in Zillah’s Eastern Parlour, where she received her clients, when there were any. A crystal and a little heap of sand and a black velvet cushion lay on the table, symbols of divination.





observations: I love the idea of simply becoming a fortune-teller because people mistake you for one.

I explained in this entry how I came to read this book (thank you Hilary McKay) and how much I loved it, and this entry took a first look at corsets as they affect the family.

Zillah is an outlier of the Rakowitz family, and not a very popular one, but one of the great enjoyments of this book is that people are always having rows and disagreeing, but carry on seeing each other all the time anyway, calling each other darling: there is no cutting oneself off in this family.

The book is markedly un-sentimental: Stern is describing the way this family is, and she makes it clear that the setup is not great for everyone, that some of the characters are bullied out of happiness. Perhaps they are not allowed to marry where they choose, or perhaps they are like Susie Lake: all she ever wanted, and didn’t get, was a ‘sitting-room of her own, arranged to her own taste, and with no elaborate Venetian glass candelabra on which to clean away youth and happiness.’

The War passes without too much disturbance – ‘Leslie Moss, the father of the Colleens, got his majority with almost incredible quickness, and after that, a bullet through his head’. Afterwards it becomes even more marked that it is the women of the family who keep things going, who are the wage-earners, the people who manage and cope. ‘The new era, and the boys had not yet settled down to jobs, after the War.’

The family for long periods had been extremely wealthy, but this changes dramatically part way through this book. Life becomes very different – and very difficult, and these difficulties are not under-played. But refreshingly there is no indication that there is anything shocking in people working or doing their best to solve the financial problems – no snooty attitudes to ‘trade’ or to the idea of the young women helping. I think it would be different in many very English books of the era.

There are similarities with another of my favourite books, A Legacy by Sybille Bedford.

The top picture is one I used on the early days of the blog, an entry which for a long time was one of the most–visited pages on this site. So always worth bringing it out again.

The fortune teller, picture from the Library of Congress, is actually an actress called Pauline Frederick playing Potiphar’s Wife in a ‘pageant drama’ – perhaps an early version of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

12 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, I love idea of cashing in on people's fascination with a particular trend (whether it's fortune-telling or something else). There's wit there, and realism that as you say, doesn't bemoan anything. That 'deadpan' writing style is appealing too.

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    1. That's a very good description Margot, and exactly why I liked it.

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  2. I think I can safely pass on this one, thanks.

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  3. "...some of the characters are bullied out of happiness." I really liked that line, Moira. In reality, you don't need much to be bullied out of happiness and into a state of despondency. I look forward to reading the excerpts you reproduce. It gives me an idea, however brief, of the way different authors write and they make their writing look so simple.

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    1. Thank you Prashant, what kind words. And yes, the concept of losing happiness, one way or another, is all too prevalent. We must try to choose to be happy...

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  4. This book must be about my Jewish family. Everybody argued, usually loudly, often yelling. Years-old family disputes surfaced sometimes, or new dramas ensued. It was just part of life. But everyone talked to each other on the phone, visited, had holiday dinners together.

    They all were smart, opinionated about everything, well-read, up on the news and witty. They were all humanitarians and made a social contribution well into their later years. The arguing was just part of their lives, the manner of being. In the long run, they cared about each other and missed each other when the inevitable happened. They all lived to old age, and quite healthily, but loudly and with opinions.

    I miss them all, even with the arguments.

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    1. Of course you are right, this is very much a book about Jewish families. I love your description of your own, how lovely. I think you would enjoy this book....

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  5. And I loved the Yiddish thrown in, my grandparents, granduncles, mother and aunt's first language. Oh, the way my mother would use that language to scold us or tell us funny things. The words are still part of my vocabulary and slip out at strange times. But I love those words. (And then there are the curses from the Irish Catholic side of the family.) That confuses friends.

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  6. This book sounds better and better, but I still probably won't pursue it. Not too long though. I love the two images you used.

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    1. Thanks Tracy - I was really pleased with those two....

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