A few years ago I picked up a small small book in a second-hand bookshop. It was plain, simple and unadorned, but I picked it up because I had spotted the name of a Virago author. G B Stern, and because its title made me curious. I hadn’t read any of her books before, though I had the two that were reissued as Virago Modern Classics on my shelves, but I decided it was worth taking home.
I loved that book. I fell in love with her fiction, written with such intelligence and wit, and I have to tell you that her multiple memoirs – where she writes of anything and everything that has captured her interest – are sublime.
I can understand why she’s still relatively obscure; because she wrote a great many books, because they are wildly diverse, because, and because – I am given to understand – some of the are not as strong as the others. I have to say though, that I have yet to pick up one of her books and not be smitten.
I heard great things about ‘The Matriarch’, I read that it was inspired by the author’s own family history, I saw that she returned to the same family in a number of later books, and so when The 1924 Club arrived I took it as a sign that it was time for me to meet The Matriarch and her family.
The story opens early in the 19th century, and sweeps forward and across Europe, as the fabulously wealthy Rakonitz family prospers and grows. The women of the family reign over houses and homes, where sons bring wives home to live with their mothers, grandchildren belong as much to the whole family as to their parents, and that there are other ways to live is not even contemplated. Meanwhile, the men go out to do business, and are free to indulge what ever interests they may have.
The stream of names, of relationships, of conversations, of family occasions could have been overwhelming; but there was such warmth, such vibrancy that I was completely captivated. I might not have been able to tell you who was who, or what was significant, but I saw the whole picture and it was glorious.
It was at the start of the 20th century, when Anastasia Rakonitz, married to her first cousin Paul, stood at the head of her family, that the story proper began. She adored her family; she was generous, she was demonstrative, she was practical, and there was nothing that she would not do for each and every one of them.
But there was no way but her way; and she would not even contemplate that the family would not always live together and do things as it always had.
Her word was law. Her family had everything they could ever want; except the freedom to set their own courses in life.
Some of her family were oblivious; some of them were comfortable; but for some of them life was difficult.
Imagine the position of a daughter who could not snare a suitable husband, and who when she did could not present her mother with a grandchild. Imagine the position of the bride of a son who had ‘married out’, who would not have the home of her own that she had anticipated, who would be trapped in a house ruled over by another woman who did things so very differently to the woman who raised hers.
There were cracks, but it was a string of bad investments that swallowed the family fortune and destroyed a way of life. The big houses and the family treasures had to be sold, and simpler accommodation had to be found, and simpler ways of living established.
Anastasia’s health was beginning to fail, she couldn’t entirely comprehend what her family’s crash would mean; but she fought to hold her family together, and to live by the principles that had served her and her forbearers so well or so very long.
But her menfolk abandoned her; one took his own life, one fled overseas, one succumbed to ill health ….
That meant that her grandchildren, no longer wealthy, no longer able to rely on family connections, had to establish themselves in a changing world. Through their efforts, the family stayed afloat. They took on more and more responsibility, but they were still treated as the children of the family.
Toni, the eldest child of Anastasia’s eldest child, worked hard to establish herself as a businesswoman, and she found success and she felt pride is what she was able to achieve. But she still loved her family, she wanted to restore pride in her family, she wanted to clear the debts that ‘The Uncles’ had left behind.
On one hand she was a modern woman; on the other she was the woman that Anastasia had raised and moulded.
Could she reconcile the two?
A wealth of stories, relationships, events and incidents, is wrapped around this central story. Some are in the foreground, some are in the background, and it feels a little messy sometimes, but it feels like life. And because the story was so well told, the details so well told, the descriptions so very vivid, I was pulled right into the homes and the lives of this colourful, exotic, suffocating family.
I loved some of them, I was infuriated by others; but I believed in them all.
I would have liked to learn a little more about some of the family, about some parts of the family, but there is only so much that can be fitted into a single book.
The story starts slowly, but it gather pace and by the end it is utterly compelling.
That G B Stern could paint such a vibrant picture of a family, on such a grand scale, with so many intriguing details to pick out, is wonderful.
It works as a study of the ties that bind families together, of the way those ties can pull you back, and of why we sometimes need to loosen or escape those ties.
It works as a study of the power of women; it was women who ran the home and family, and it was women who had to take charge when the family found itself in crisis, and find new ways of living for themselves, for their parents, for their children.
And it works as family saga; full of wit, colour, and intelligence.
I have two of the sequels – and I need to track down two more.