Sunday, 16 November 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Matriarch by GB Stern

published 1924



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES








[The Matriarch, Anastasia, has a man restoring her carpets, and is telling him family stories]

She sat by him while he worked, and told him all about her cousin Marie, ‘poor Julius Czelovar’s eldest child’.… Uncle Julius had never been happy with Aunt Gisela, who was an overbearing woman, as all the Bettelheims’ were – ‘Except my mother, who was an angel,’ said the Matriarch firmly. ‘You remember my mother?’ 

The Persian carpet-maker did not. 

‘So, of course, it was the best thing that Marie could have done; the best thing. But Aunt Gisela one day came to see me about the whole affair, when I was in Paris, and she actually brought along, for my Truda, a corset – “pour lui faire du ventre”, she said. I must say, it was black satin embroidered in forget-me-nots, but Truda would never wear it, she said a “ventre” did not appeal to her.’ Anastasia laughed heartily, and the Persian carpet-maker laughed too; he understood French. ‘Poor Marie had no dowry; and you know, young man, girls were not allowed a choice in those days; her mother’s choice fell on August Goldstein, and Marie had two younger sisters growing up, Henrietta and Laura; three unmarried grown-up girls were not to be thought of…’



observations: I explained in this entry how I came to read this book (thank you Hilary McKay) and how much I loved it. It is a great read, but also it is full of clothes – Stern tells us properly what the characters wear. There is a minor character who keeps wearing gowns with very fancy names: ‘Peacocks will dream tonight’ , and Toni – who has a flair for choosing and selling clothes which will stand her in good stead when the rest of the family has money troubles – knows them:
“Tulips-in-my-garden —Three shades of pink, mauve and blackish-red … Yes, we had the offer of it,’ put in Toni, professionally.

(It’s rather like the Soupir d’Automne in Agatha Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train, here, published a few years later.)

However, it’s not at all clear what was special about the corset mentioned above. The French phrase means ‘to give her a stomach/belly’. Variations in women’s shapes, and the desirability of different sizes, is something often mentioned on the blog, but actually wanting a large stomach seems very unlikely. I’m hoping expert blog friends Ken Nye or Daniel Milford-Cottam may be able to throw some light.

The Matriarch of the title gets stranger and stranger – chatting away about family history & corsets to the carpet man is the least of her problems. Her eccentric spells come in fits, and there is this lovely description:
And then – smell of rain in the air; a wind getting up behind the stillness; distant tramp of feet that could be felt rather than heard; a spirit of goblin unease … They found it difficult to describe how they knew a ‘bad fit’ was coming on.
There are also great scenes where family councils are taking place, and the children try to find out what is happening – which young sprig of the family has committed some terrible transgression, or failed at something, and what must be done about them. (Sent to South America seems to be the best idea.) Again, this reminded me of Agatha Christie, where a lost ne’er-do-well son is often a feature. What a shame for the novel-writers of today that such scenes are lost in history.

It also seems an even bigger shame that this book is lost and forgotten – I’m sure many many people would enjoy it.

The picture of a black corset is an advert from Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

16 comments:

  1. Moira - Eccentric or not, the Matriarch just seems like such an interesting character! And there are some major plot points (like the ne'er-do-well son and the family council) that we really don't see any more. Admittedly they aren't necessarily relevant to today's world, but sometimes I miss them...

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    1. Sometimes there's nothing like a good old-fashioned story is there Margot? And this is such a fabulous example...

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  2. I would read that as a joke about Giesela's command of French, using the word "ventre" instead of "taille" for waist or figure. Bellies are anatomy. Waists are fashion, but since my French is nothing to write home about either that's just a guess.

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  3. Could this be a corset with an allowance for pregnancy?

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    1. Not in this particular case I don't think but that does raise an interesting question as to what women would have done in pregnancy....

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  4. A week at least now without being enticed or intrigued by one of your books. I hope the run ends tomorrow, but at least I haven't felt compelled to add to my TBR pile which is no bad thing.

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    1. Yes I am doing you a favour - but still, must try and do some more crime, I haven't been reading so much of it lately, because of the way my TBR pile (shrinking fast!) was arranged. But I am missing my fix of bad deeds....

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  5. Was "ventre" a polite way of saying "bust"? (And I'm sure there were maternity corsets that you could let out.)

    Lady at dressmaker's: 'On ne porte plus de gorge. Qu'est-ce qu'on fait donc?'
    Dressmaker: Madame, on ôte la ouate.

    Old joke. (Bosoms are not worn! What to do? Chuck out the padding.)

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    1. My French-speaking friend said the phrase did only seem to come up in relation to people getting fatter, just as you'd think. But perhaps it was a mis-speaking as Ken suggests. "To give her a bust" or "waist" sound much more likely.

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  6. Moira, the title of this book has got me curious; more so since the matriarch chats away about family history, though not so much about corsets, as well as the conversations at the family council, all of which should make this book an interesting read.

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    1. Anyone who loves family books will love this one... it's very funny and warm-hearted.

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  7. The names of the gowns remind me of Lucile's Gowns of Emotion - remember the Corelli thing I recommended? (In fact, check out this preview... http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=vPMFKTqzEgcC&pg=PA203#v=onepage&q&f=false )

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    1. Yes I really must read that: Lucille's Gowns are obviously full of entries for the blog....

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  8. Girdles I understand, but corsets? What was the attraction of corsets? oh well, I will be thankful that it is mostly in the past.

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    1. It's always a mystery isn't it - how could an arbitrary decision be made that women had to wear these things? And women obviously went along with it and imposed the rules on themselves....

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