A Book for G. B. Stern Day: Another Part of the Forest (1941)

A few years ago I spotted a book by a Virago author I had hardly read among the literary biographies in the library. I picked it up for a look, not really meaning to bring it home until I had found and read some more of her novels, but when I saw that it hadn’t been out of the library for decades I had to bring it come, and when I began to read I was captivated.

It wasn’t a conventional autobiography, it was the first of a series of books where the author talked about people, places and things she loved, moving from subject to subject and back again as one thing made her think of another.

I didn’t learn a great deal about the facts of her life, but I learned a great deal about the people she loved, the places she visited, the things she collected, the dogs who were her companions, the books she read and loved …

That book had to go back to the library but I started to hunt down the volumes that followed it.

‘Another Part of the Forest’ picks up where that book left off – the author comments that she was ready to start on this book as soon as this one was finished – but time passed, the world changed, and so this book feels a little different. It was written in the early years of the war, by an author who loved to travel and socialise but has accepted the sense of settling down and living quietly in the English countryside.

When I read that first book began to feel that I was among the crowd at a literary cocktail party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I didn’t know her but I loved listening to her talk, and I was sure that if I did know her I would like her. This book feels like a quieter party, with that same raconteur telling more stories; different stories more suited to different company at a different kind of gathering.

This time she speaks of childhood memories, recalling seaside holidays, and the discovery of authors who would be lifelong favourites.

“Broadstairs meant the kingdom of shells among the rocks at low tide, shells pearl and pink and purple, flawless in form and tiny as tropical butterflies and fish; it meant lumps of chalk twinkling on the powdery sands through the sunlit rock archway at the foot of a flight of rocky steps, dark and uneven and smelling of seaweed, that plunged adventurously downward from the parade right through the cliff. It was because one or other of us nearly always slipped down those steps that we were not allowed iron spades. We were also not allowed to take off our shoes and stockings or bather for the first three days – an inexorable rule, and probably a very silly one. Those stairs are gone now, and the way down to the sands is frank and open and concrete. I suppose it is all for the best. At the Bleak House end of the bay was a little inn and a rough jetty and a lifeboat shed, and a couple of figure-heads against the tarred wall; one, I think, a highlander of the Waterloo period. A steep cobbled path led up to the cliff, winding coyly past a house called Cosy Nook which I thought the most beautiful name a house could have =, and mentally adopted for my own future habitation; then , with a dark thrill, it ran past Bleak House – or we ran past it, for our nurses declared it was haunted; Dickens had lived there, we were told, but Dickens meant nothing to me till I was thirteen, when for four or five years he meant everything ….”

Authors and books fall into stories quite naturally, sometimes in passing and sometimes considered at more length.

G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.

It is for Jane Austen that the author creates a box labelled ‘perfect’ – for authors with a small but flawless body of work who should not be lost among literary giants. Her knowledge and passion was wonderful, she wrote about the author and her characters so naturally, she made me think and she made me want to pick up the books again.

“I asked Paul to stop. We were just outside Pleshey, and I saw a house that I wanted. Paul obligingly drew up, but cancelled my gratitude by the remark: “It’s beyond your means.” I think indignation was justifiable: !it’s not beyond my means because I haven’t got any. So I can never go beyond my means. And that house just suits me.” He agreed that it was a good house, sober and not gaudy; old brownish bricks; the architecture in the style of a Jane Austen house, with a drive up to the white pillared porch and entrance, and bow windows round at the side, bow windows harmonious and inevitable. ‘”I believe there are few country parsonages in England half so good,'” said General Tilney in ‘Northanger Abbey.’ “‘It may admit of improvement, however. Far be it for me to say otherwise; and anything in reason – a bow thrown out perhaps; though, between ourselves, if there is one thing more than other my aversion it is a patched-on bow.”‘ A smaller building at the side of the garden, the “littlest house” which the biggest house had spawned in accordance with all my earlier psychological observations, was shaded by a richly-coloured copper beech; I think here must have been the stables where Mr. Bennet kept the house which his wife would not allow Jane to ride when she went to visit the eligible Mr. Bingley; rain threatened, and Mrs Bennet hoped her beautiful daughter would catch cold and have to satay that night. I cannot refrain from all these Austen ruminations, for the house was of just the right size, sobriety and gentlemanliness for the Bennets or the Morlands. It was not a noble enough mansion for Sir Thomas Bertram, or Darcy, or the Elliots; but, on the other hand, too big for the Dashwoods after their change in fortune; for it was clearly stated that when Willoughby offered to give Marianne a horse, Elinor sensibly and priggishly pointed out that it would involve their mother in much extra expense and trouble, as there were no stables attached to the cottage, and moreover an extra manservant would have to be hired to jog along behind Marianne on her rides.

Paul drove slowly by . “I shall buy it,” I said firmly. And he repeated: “It’s beyond your means.” “There’s no tax on dreams,” I said …’

This is a book full of people, places and houses, and with less room left for the thoughts and ideas that I remember from the first book; understandably given the times and circumstances when this book was written.

I was happy to read more about the author’s collections. She collected paperweights, and deployed them to hold down the pages of her manuscript as she wrote this book out of doors. She also collected sticks, and I loved reading her account of striding out with one that had a light embedded at the top. She loved dogs, and, though she thought that six was enough, when her husband brought home another puppy in May and said it was an early Christmas present she couldn’t quite accept the justification but they worked out another one.

There are so many things in this book – big things and small things – that I could pull out.

In case you are wondering where the title came from:

‘In the spring, a year ago, I was wandering with a friend in Savernake Forest. I cannot tell how early or how late in the spring, for the season had poured down  rain and sun in absent-minded fashion, so that some of the flowers had been dilatory in appearing and others had hastened along sooner that was reasonable, though not too soon for welcome. Therefore on that glorious morning, wood anemones and primroses and violets and the first bluebells were all out together. conquering the green moss; the branches is the trees, not yet impenetrable with foliage, allowed the sun to pass through and slide softly down the tree-trunks into pools and puddles of golden light. I cannot remember that any birds were singing; my impression was that this delectable wood lay around us in clear silence. My companion remarked that it gave her a lovely slippery feeling of something not beyond but beside its own beauty, as though the whole scene was about to vanish at any moment; and I exclaimed, led by this remark to sudden discovery: “Of course. It’s Act III, Scene IV. It’s another part of the forest!”

I am so glad that I picked up that first book, that I found a new literary friend, that it led me to this second book, that I have the third book on hand….

The Matriarch by G B Stern (1924)

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.

d0ff8d6a3b4f2ef592b67665a77444341587343The 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.