LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[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…”
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…
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.
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.
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’).