Sunday, 15 March 2015
Mother’s Day: A Deputy Was King by GB Stern
[Events in 1921: Anastasia the Matriarch hears that her grand-daughter Toni is to be married]
“You will fetch for me at once,” she commanded Maxine, on hearing the news. “Elsa and Henrietta; also Gustava who, Heaven knows, is not much help, but she will think she has a right to be here. You will also fetch Susie, so that I can hear all about it, and I do not care if Haidee comes or not, but telephone her, so that she need not imagine that nothing is being done. Yes, and also Wanda, who should have been married long ago herself, if she had had any sense, and if she had listened to what I say; but first, fetch me Elsa, you comprehend? I cannot understand why Susie is not here already, but she has no consideration…”
[Aunt Elsa arrives]
Aunt Elsa, quivering from head to foot, her toque rather awry, crying a little, but honouring the occasion by her best, still, black silk coat, a-glitter with jet trimming – commanded Maxine to stand out of the way, and let her go straight upstairs; and not to enter the room, because her elders had important matters to discuss, but to remain handy in case they wanted anything fetched, and to keep a look-out for Aunt Henrietta, to whom she herself had already telephoned, and who might be here at any moment, and to send for Gustava…
observations: This Mother’s Day entry concerns women who act as mothers to their extended families: Toni is marrying without reference to her family, what her grandmother describes as a toad-in-the-hole (ie hole in the corner) marriage: so all the aunts have to be gathered in to discuss the matter. (Among them, Susie is Toni’s actual mother.)
Revered children’s author Hilary McKay introduced me to the works of GB Stern last year – there’s a certain rightness in that, as I think her Casson family books are the great modern family novels. Stern’s books are about families and the women who run them, and about clothes. The Matriarch provided three blog entries: the first one is about Toni, the bride above. (She wears a yellow dress at two key moments regarding the men in her life…) A Deputy was King is the sequel to The Matriarch, and is just as good.
Toni meets a very English man (a perfectly respectable one, not too toad-in-the-hole) and marries him, and they live a wild and reckless life. They discuss whether to have children, and end up with three: one section of the book is called The Young Matriarch – Toni is a careless mother, and the children seem to spend most of their time in the care of relatives and staff, but she does have the family matriarchal role of organizing everybody and being involved in all kinds of things.
A lot goes dramatically wrong, and the action of the book moves to Italy. There is a whole section concerning disputed ownership of a Chinese coat which – obviously, what would you expect? - is going to need a whole blogpost to itself. There is a fabulous new cousin called Loraine, who is hideous and wonderful – ‘I am a nomad!’ - a completely inspired and totally believable, but monstrous, creation.
The clothes details – as Hilary McKay promised me – are terrific. I particularly liked the ‘expensive ugliness’ of a special kind of lace called 'blonde', which the older ladies kept in huge quantities to make into petticoats for ball dresses. And there’s a mind-bogglingly impressive trimming: ‘not exactly sequins, and not wholly chenille, and not entirely beads: the three warred for place on the strips of lace sewn firmly on to stiff satin.’
I learnt from the first book not to worry too much about how everyone is related to everyone else - Stern doesn’t even attempt to provide a family tree – and accept it as a large bustling Jewish family, spread around Europe, taking a great interest in each other’s affairs. There is a quite affecting moment later on where one of the Aunts above cries, because she has realized that the young people are being too nice to her: instead of being shocked by her diktats and moral decisions, and trying to argue with her or challenge her, they talk to her soothingly and pay no attention whatsoever, going their own way.
So for Mother’s Day, this is a family with a whole line of mother-like figures available to the next generations down, and to their spouses, children and servants: they might be right or they might be wrong, but they will always be there for the rest of the family.
The picture of the group of women – they seemed just like a collection of Rakonitz aunts - comes from the Bain Collection; the woman on her own is from the LSE Library.