[Aged aunts Letti and Berthe are entertaining young relations from England in their Paris apartment]
Letti staggered in with the albums, busily dusted them, and they were plumped down in front of Val, Berthe sitting beside her to explain, Letti leaning over her other shoulder, Helen poised nonchalantly on the table, surveying her ancestors upside down….Val flipped over page after page, stopping every now and then for a luscious explanation from Berthe, or to give a shout of recognition at the sight or Truda in a particularly dressy blouse… Pretty little Susan Lake, the first Goyisher girl to marry into the Rakonitz family, looking sweet and modest and religious under a hat that had practically everything on it that a hat could possibly hope to have in this or the next world…
[Helen] pulled off her hat, and held it, a fantastic two-cornered shape, flat and black, across her knees… With her Punchinello nose, her black and…white Chanel jumper cut into lozenges and diamonds, each posture as though it were snipped by a pair of flashing scissors, she might well have been a figure from an ultra-modern form of harlequinade.
commentary: I’ve already done an entry just about corsets in this endlessly rewarding book. The hats also are overflowing in Mosaic – there’s a nice 1885 mention of a ‘high bonnet with a bird’s wing on one side’, and endless trouble arises from the fashion for directoire hats ‘whose crowns were one inch in depth, very disconcerting for the Rakonitz ladies with their heritage of thick hair.’
But all the clothes descriptions are wonderful throughout.
And then there is this on mourning, after a rather distant connection has died:
Papa did not think it necessary to go into full mourning… he went into Peter Robinson’s and asked for grey gloves, and the shop-walker, a very polite young fellow, said to him: ‘Grey gloves, sir? That will be in our Semi-Bereavement Department.’ We simply couldn’t stop laughing…Me too.
On another semi-bereavement occasion – light purple colours are the key - the bridesmaids at a wedding:
were quietly dressed in mauve taffeta; but for the dinner and dance in the evening, they changed into full evening dress, white satin with broad mauve velvet ribbon running round the edge of the bodice, and a fringe of violets, and mauve cotton stockings with lace-work up the front, and mauve leather shoes… and mauve suede gloves - right up the arms.
Which sounds rather festive, but then ‘nobody cared very much for the elderly Czelovar-Bettelheim relation who had recently died’.
(The picture, by Giovanni Boldini, via the Athenaeum, shows a dress that is probably far more revealing than those of the bridesmaids, but is nicely dashing, and all those chairs in the way of the dancing looks exactly like a wedding…)
The characters are described as fully as their clothes, and their (many) foibles are treated with kindness. Berthe, one of the key characters in the book, whose adult life is followed throughout, is the kind of person you can recognize completely – as she gets older she is forever boasting about the great singing career she could have had, and about all the men who were in love with her.
On her 67th birthday she finally made a stand at ’20 years ago’ and did not depart from it: ‘Helas, it is too late to start now!’The descriptions are funny, Berthe is sharply skewered, and the descriptions of her singing are absolutely hilarious. But there is a kindness that is missing from, for example, George Eliot’s dealing with the singing of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda, or the despised music of a character in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows.
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.
The harlequin photo is from a much later date than the extract, but the hat and diamonds seem right, and Helen was always way ahead in fashion…