The Matriarch by G B Stern

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Thanks very much to Daunt Books, who sent me this a while back. Their taste is impeccable; last year they reprinted one of my all-time favourite novels, Illyrian Spring, and they also brought Sybille Bedford’s marvellous A Favourite of the Gods and A Compass Error back into print. I knew, therefore, that The Matriarch was likely to be a gem, and I wasn’t wrong. It might have taken me an age to wade through, but it was worth every minute. As much as I adored the story, I was also delighted to finally be introduced to G B Stern, whose name has been on the periphery of my consciousness for some years thanks to her co-writing the two ‘Speaking of Jane Austen’ books of pleasurable literary criticism with Sheila Kaye-Smith. Little did I know that G B Stern was the bestseller of her day; widely read, widely praised and phenomenally prolific. Another victim of the death of the midcentury middlebrow author, it would seem.

The Matriarch is a sweeping saga of family life, touching briefly on the Napoleonic period and early 19th century before depositing us firmly in the late 19th and early 20th century for the majority of the action. The family in question are the Rakonitzes, a phenomenally wealthy Jewish clan whose tentacles spread across Europe as they breed and marry, breed and marry, breed and marry, within increasingly narrow circles. Dominated by the females, who live longer and rule over their often feckless husbands, they live on top of one another in lavish houses, with sons and their wives living with their mothers, grandsons and their wives living with their grandmothers, and eventually whole London streets becoming populated by loosely related family members, drawn irresistibly to one another.

The head of the clan from the mid 19th century is Anastasia Rakonitz, married to her first cousin Paul. Extravagantly generous and lavishly affectionate, there is nothing Anastasia won’t do for her family, provided they do things how she wants them done. She presides over the vast network of disparate family members – cousins, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, flung from the far reaches of Hungary to the Italian Riviera – as long as there is a speck of Rakonitz blood in their veins, then they are part of the clan and entitled to her protection. Living in a world of unimaginable wealth, peopled by exotic and cultured European relations, Anastasia’s fiefdom might be luxurious, yet its bars are made of iron. No Rakonitz can escape her clutches nor deviate from her will. Women who marry into the family must bend to her ways. Grandchildren must toe the line and marry who they are told. Anastasia’s word is always final.

But then bad investments bring the whole empire crashing down. The family is thrown across London as the big houses have to be sold up and less expensive accommodation found. Finally the younger generation, led by the valiant, vivacious Toni, who rails against the pernicious influence of her Grandmother, are free to pursue their own paths. However, despite finally having a house of her own, Toni soon finds that she can’t escape the Rakonitz blood in her veins. As she and her cousins try to forge a future without the wealth and family connections they grew up taking for granted, Anastasia and her contemporaries have to learn to adjust to a world that no longer falls at their feet. What does it mean to be a Rakonitz in this brave new world? And will being liberated from family ties really be the answer to the younger generations’ prayers?

The Matriarch is a brilliant exploration of the ties that families bind around one another, and of how difficult it is to escape from your heritage. It is also a witty and entertaining insight into London life across the class divide in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a very feminist one at that. Men are the cause of all trouble and die off before they have to pick up the pieces; the women are the ones who take charge and they carry things off admirably. As the novel progresses, the cast of characters becomes so huge that it would be impossible for me to begin to describe them all, suffice to say that each has their own interesting eccentricities, and part of Stern’s skill as a novelist is in being able to bring such a colossal menagerie to life. She really does sweep you into the dark, stifling, silk and silver filled home of Anastasia, teeming with eccentric Uncles and boisterous cousins, and the mentions of distant relatives in Hungarian castles and white-washed Riviera villas adds a wonderful exoticism and sense of scale to the spread of the Rakonitz influence across the continents. I was delighted to find out that this is just the first of several books in the ‘Rakonitz Chronicles’; I can’t wait to track them down and read on. What a discovery! Go, read and enjoy!

14 comments

  1. This is a truly accomplished review, wonderfully written. You are at the top of your form, Rachel.
    The span novel sounds daunting but you’ve made me want to discover her (up to now she’s been a name which crops up from time to time and gets muddled with Gertrude Stein!).
    I like stories of large families, like A Legacy, which this seems to echo. Because I loved that, I’ll have a go at The Matriarch. Thanks.

    1. Thank you Chrissy – what compliments! Do you know, I didn’t enjoy The Legacy at all, and struggled through it, which is why I didn’t write about it. It lacked the charm of the other two novels of hers I’ve read, unfortunately. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right place for it. I’m sure you’d love The Matriarch – it’s a real curl up and enjoy novel!

  2. Wonderful review, Rachel! I’m always a little skeptical of books where “men are the cause of all trouble” but, aside from that, this sounds like something I would adore. I’ve loved reading Stern’s thoughts on Jane Austen and can’t wait to try her fiction.

  3. Thanks for writing about this – most interesting. I see it was written in 1932, therefore no foreshadowing about this family being wiped out in the following decade. A later story, The Young Matriarch, is dated 1942. Hmm…you make me think I need to read this! Though my first thought was good heavens what a remarkable picture: what is that woman wearing and why is she smirking? Is that a parrot on the left or a silk folly? Are those fur barbells at her feet?

    1. I think you’d really enjoy it, Diana! No, no foreshadowing of a war. I’d be interested to see how that develops over the course of the ‘Chronicles’. I know; isn’t that picture hilarious? I couldn’t resist using it!

  4. I had never heard of it and it sounds such a landamark in feminist literature! What I don’t like about the book is exactly what you say: too much relations to keep track of. Usually, those kinds of books take all the joy away from reading for me. But anyway, being such an important work, I’d better read it.

    1. Oh, the people you actually need to know about are kept to a minimum, Elena, don’t worry! I managed to keep track easily. I hope you can get hold of a copy!

  5. I am stunned to learn that there are 45 books by GB Stern in the NYSociety Library, incuding all 4 parts of the Rakonitz chronicles. Who knew? How did it come to pass that we bookish types have not heard of her? It looks like I will be paying dues to that library for many years to come! Oh, and I am now reading Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives which I borrowed from, you guessed it, the NYSociety Library. Have read all the authors long ago and am so glad you pointed me in the right direction to get reacquainted with them

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