Dress Down Sunday: Mosaic by GB Stern

3rd part of the Rakonitz chronicles

published 1930


Mosaic DD 1

[The 1920s: Tante Berthe Czelovar is entertaining young relations from England in her Paris flat]

“It is your fashion in England not to eat,” remarked Berthe, “and so you do not need corsets. But… I am well corseted. That is because I have always my own special Madame Girovan, and she is a genius! She reads my figure like a book. She understands it. She thinks and thinks about it at night, at day, and then at last she creates for me – but wait, I will show you. Between us, after all, there need not be any gene. We are all of one family.”

And Berthe showed them as much of Madame Girovan’s creation as was possible without actually disrobing herself.

“One pulls it so, and one pulls here, and then you see here it fastens, and from above, where support is needed… and the brassiere, you must adjust it so. Can you see? Here – if you put your head close up to me and look down – no? But I want you to see. It is wonderful…”

Mosaic DD 2

commentary: I could do months’ worth of entries on these books – I could do a months’ worth just on corsets, which feature a lot.

Earlier in Mosaic, Anastasia (the Matriarch from an earlier book) comes to Paris with young Toni, who is to be found a job – either as a corsetiere, or to learn to sort and match pearls. In fact she could do both – she can do pearls ‘in her spare time; for it goes along very well with a corsetiere interest – they are both decollete.’ Toni, always disinclined to do as she is told, will naturally do none of these things.

We also learn how Berthe (and then, under her influence, Freda) gets ready to go out:
Berthe completely finished and ready from the chin upwards… would be standing completely naked in front of the long glass, impressively moulding herself into her corset… Freda, wide-eyed, standing by… 

For years afterwards, when Paris was a glitter fading from the horizon of Freda’s memory, a dying glitter of silver and rose, even then Freda still brought an alien, a bizarre whiff of the continent into her life at home… by first doing her hair, then putting on her hat, and finally her corsets. [Her sisters] Melanie and Gisela could hardly bear to look on at such an affectation. It was the last of Berthe; the last Paris habit to die.
Berthe is a monster – an entertaining, hilarious, totally over-the-top yet totally believable character. She has her own view of the world and is determined to get her own way. Is it significant that ‘Bertha’ was originally what the B in GB Stern stood for? (She changed it to Bronwen.) This book tells her story from the 1880s through to the late 1920s. She is part of the complex tale of the Rakonitz and Czelovar families: the intertwining stories of marriages and deaths and births and love affairs and – always – strong women and fabulous clothes (described, I am happy to say, in great detail). The women are often unreasonable and even cruel, and they are fascinating. The men fade into insignificance in comparison. The women of the family are forever trying to impose an iron will on each other – but the results are often unexpected.

Stern writes so well about families – about their fights and their making up, about the small hurts and insults, and the love and affection that eventually will win out. And the books are hilariously, laugh out loud funny – I find her style endlessly attractive.

And I am, always, endlessly grateful to Hilary McKay (someone else who writes so well about families) for telling me about the books. There are multiple earlier entries on the first two books, The Matriarch and A Deputy was King.

One picture is from a 1922 yearbook.

The other is an advert from a collection of the programmes of the Boston Symphony (available, wonderfully, online via Flickr) – appropriately enough, as Berthe is fond of telling everyone how musical she is and how successful she could have been (‘I wanted to give them my Erl-king’).


  1. Corsets! I have to admit I'd never, ever want to wear one, Moira. But But they are fascinating, and what they say about our society is even more so. Sounds like this is a really interesting look at family dynamics, as well as a sort of peek at coming of age, in a way. Glad you enjoyed it.

    1. Yes - there's reading about corsets, and enjoying the details. And then there's wearing them - something it's just as well we have said goodbye to. And, yes, great book - she really is a marvellous writer.

  2. I confuse her with Vicki Baum (Grand Hotel).

    1. I always think I've read Grand Hotel, but I don't think I have. Worth it?

  3. I went back to see when this was published, and it's really quite a startlingly modern extract in style and content. The more things change, the more people stay the same....

    I'm reminded of that exhibit in the Undressed show at the V&A of the 1940s woman who had really fancy knickers and was sent to the harem while her husband talked ambassdorial shop with the women's husband - or something like that - and there was a complete language barrier, so to break the ice, she showed them her knickers (with appliqued hunting scenes -as exhibited in the show!) and they were so impressed that they showed her theirs (not as fancy), and they all got on really well afterwards.

    1. Yes, Stern's modernity is one of the striking things - so different from agonized shy misses in the more Anglo-Saxon novels of the time. Continental Jewish families so much more sophisticated and glamorous.
      Great story about the underwear...

  4. Reminds of Flora's friend Mary in "Cold Comfort Farm" and her wonderful lingerie collection. Also, the lingerie fashion show in the film version of "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day." The latter movie was softer and more romantic than the book, but it had such wonderful set decoration and clothes!

    1. Yes, the bra collection. Featured in an early blogpost http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/woman-who-collected-bras.html
      Yes - I felt exactly the same - the Pettigrew film didn't properly represent the book, but did look wonderful.

  5. P.S. Meant to comment, too, on the top illustration. It looks like a George Barbier, but without the pochoir color applied. That japonesque fan in the background is wonderful, and the foreground quilt looks like kimono fabric.

    1. Interesting - infuriatingly, I can't track down exactly where I found that image, and it doesn't come up on a Google Image search. I just have that reference to a yearbook...


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