LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Nobody quite knew for whose sake it was that she set up Zillah expensively as a corsetière in Bond Street. Anyhow, Zillah did not remain a corsetière for long, because a fashion in West End palmists and exotic seers began to rage, and Zillah, possibly by her address, possibly by the ‘z’ in her name, began by mistake to attract people to her premises who wanted the future, not corsets. Zillah Korischelski was an opportunist, and did not see why her supply should not meet the popular demand; so the corsets gradually sank out of sight, and all the most wonderful Eastern draperies accumulated by the Rakonitz travels were required to drape Zillah’s parlours of mystery…
They were sitting in Zillah’s Eastern Parlour, where she received her clients, when there were any. A crystal and a little heap of sand and a black velvet cushion lay on the table, symbols of divination.
observations: I love the idea of simply becoming a fortune-teller because people mistake you for one.
I explained in this entry how I came to read this book (thank you Hilary McKay) and how much I loved it, and this entry took a first look at corsets as they affect the family.
Zillah is an outlier of the Rakowitz family, and not a very popular one, but one of the great enjoyments of this book is that people are always having rows and disagreeing, but carry on seeing each other all the time anyway, calling each other darling: there is no cutting oneself off in this family.
The book is markedly un-sentimental: Stern is describing the way this family is, and she makes it clear that the setup is not great for everyone, that some of the characters are bullied out of happiness. Perhaps they are not allowed to marry where they choose, or perhaps they are like Susie Lake: all she ever wanted, and didn’t get, was a ‘sitting-room of her own, arranged to her own taste, and with no elaborate Venetian glass candelabra on which to clean away youth and happiness.’
The War passes without too much disturbance – ‘Leslie Moss, the father of the Colleens, got his majority with almost incredible quickness, and after that, a bullet through his head’. Afterwards it becomes even more marked that it is the women of the family who keep things going, who are the wage-earners, the people who manage and cope. ‘The new era, and the boys had not yet settled down to jobs, after the War.’
The family for long periods had been extremely wealthy, but this changes dramatically part way through this book. Life becomes very different – and very difficult, and these difficulties are not under-played. But refreshingly there is no indication that there is anything shocking in people working or doing their best to solve the financial problems – no snooty attitudes to ‘trade’ or to the idea of the young women helping. I think it would be different in many very English books of the era.
There are similarities with another of my favourite books, A Legacy by Sybille Bedford.
The top picture is one I used on the early days of the blog, an entry which for a long time was one of the most–visited pages on this site. So always worth bringing it out again.
The fortune teller, picture from the Library of Congress, is actually an actress called Pauline Frederick playing Potiphar’s Wife in a ‘pageant drama’ – perhaps an early version of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.