The London Scene by Virginia Woolf

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I love reading other people’s impressions of my home city, and I particularly enjoy experiencing the London of the past through the eyes of those who actually walked the streets when horse drawn cabs were the main form of transport and the glowing orbs of gas light along the newly cut Embankment were a novelty. I can’t imagine a London without the London Eye, without the crush at Oxford Circus tube station, and without Southbank and its brutalist architecture, but there was a time before all of these and there will be a time in the future when the London I know now will have become a thing of the past, and new structures would have become my Eye and my Southbank. Such is the ever changing nature of cities; constantly evolving to the needs of new generations, they dissolve and are rebuilt again and again upon the footprints of the past.

Woolf’s choices of topic in this very pretty volume of essays are rather eclectic; from the long gone docksides to the all too familiar scenes of frantic, surging crowds of shoppers on Oxford Street, she offers a snapshot of her London, already much changed in the early 1930s from what it must have been in her Victorian youth. There are many observations expressed beautifully in the way only Woolf can, that elevate the banal to the sublime: ‘what with artificial light and mounds of silk and gleaming omnibuses, a perpetual sunset seems to brood over the Marble Arch – the garishness and gaudiness of the great rolling ribbon of Oxford Street has its fascination.’ Westminster Abbey becomes a thing of ethereal beauty through her pen: ‘Lights and shadows are changing and conflicting every moment. Blue, gold and violet pass, dappling, quickening, fading. The grey stone, ancient as it is, changes like a live thing under the incessant ripple of changing light.’ The statues of the Houses of Parliament take on a life of their own: ‘white statues, gazing from white eyes at the old scenes of stir and bustle,’ and Hampstead is captured perfectly: ‘Hampstead has always remained not a suburb or a piece of antiquity engulfed in the modern world, but a place with a character peculiar to itself.’ There are so many delightful observations that had me contemplating familiar sights in new ways, and determined to go and revisit the sights Woolf so evocatively describes.

However, there was one aspect of this collection of essays that left me feeling disappointed. The more I read of and about Woolf, the more I am disgusted by her snobbery. I remember reading the marvellous¬†Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light several years ago, and being shocked by the highly unpleasant prejudices Woolf held towards the working and middle classes. Here these attitudes rear their ugly heads once more; the ‘middle class woman…grab[s] and pounce[s] with disgusting greed’ and the shop assistants live in ‘little villas out at Croydon and Surbiton…not so badly after all, with a gramophone and wireless, and money to spend at the movies’ – because obviously that is all middle class people aspire to. Her life in the day of a ‘typical’ Londoner is that of an upper class woman with a horrid little maid, who spends her life at leisure gossiping and enjoying the endless whirl of London life. No working class people feature – apart from the horrid little maid – despite the majority of Londoners in the early 1930s ¬†living hand to mouth in decrepit housing, with a shopping trip to Oxford Street or the tube fare to Hampstead to poke around in Keats’ House an impossible dream. Woolf makes no attempt to see the London beyond her own highly privileged milieu, and her assumptions about the mean little lives lived by the grasping middle classes left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. For the London Woolf describes is a London of rose tinted glasses and unthinking privilege, revealing through what it omits a city of massive social divide and convenient blindness of the rich to the needs of their impoverished neighbours. Plus ca change, it seems.

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!