The Matriarch (1924) is a family saga told in a fragmented way, weaving together vignettes, sketches and anecdotes that read like a series of family legends passed on from one generation to the next.
The book follows the Rakonitzes, a cosmopolitan, wealthy Jewish family, from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, in Vienna, Paris and London. Populated by a variety of characters, the story slowly comes to centre around Anastasia Rakonitz, the eponymous matriarch.
Married to her first cousin, Anastasia produces a prodigious number of children and grandchildren, and slowly but surely asserts her power as the head – and the heart – of the family. Extravagant and charming, but utterly interfering, the matriarch rules over every decision each family member has to take. She spares no effort to help her family, but everything has to be made according to her will. And she has a clear predilection for the men in the family: while the sons and grandsons are spoiled, the daughters-in-law and granddaughters are ignored, exploited and treated as mere assets to be negotiated with in exchange for family connections.
By the time Anastasia is getting old, however, a series of bad investments wipe off the family fortune. Mansions and furniture have to be sold up, and the family members spread over smaller accommodations. To make matters worse, the men in the family either die of heartbreak over their losses, kill themselves, or disappear. A short while later, the Rakonitzes are badly hit again during the First World War. The women in the family, left behind or dragged down by feckless husbands, have to take charge over the mess. They struggle alone to stay afloat.
Despite being still treated as children, the women of the younger generation (and, in particular, Toni, Anastasia’s eldest granddaughter) take on the responsibility of making ends meet. She works hard to detach herself from the matriarch, to help her mother, and to establish herself professionally. Moreover, she is determined to clean the family’s name and to pay the debts her great-uncles had left behind.
Meanwhile, Anastasia never gets to fully understand the full scale of her family’s collapse. Furthermore, her mind gives signs that she might be suffering from dementia. As her old ways of holding the family together no longer have any effect anymore, the matriarch refuses to acknowledge the decrease of her influence and power, and becomes even more extravagant and uncontrollable. The family constantly has to come and fix the mess she ends up creating.
The charismatic female characters are the highlight of the book for me: they drive the story forward. Despite told in an episodic, sometimes convoluted way, the novel manages to cover a large portion of European history, providing us with a rich, textured portray of life in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The conflict between family allegiance and personal freedom is at the heart of the novel: precisely when she finds herself finally free to live her life as she wishes, Toni is struck by the full realization of what this freedom may represent, and what it may cost. Whatever happens, she is, after all, a Rakonitz, and she will drag her family history with her wherever she goes. Moreover, Toni is torn between two incompatible paths: either she assumes her role as a ‘modern woman’, or she takes over the role of the matriarch. The book’s charm, in the end, lies precisely in her precarious struggle to reconcile these roles and the contrasting ideals they seem to represent.
“It was a family of women buccaneers.” The Matriarch, G.B.Stern
“Nevertheless, she went her way, and nothing stopped her, not even disaster. Moreover, she was one of those lucky beings who did not fritter energy on regret or self-reproach or any futile form of might-have-been. Those were little twigs that catch some at the skirt and hamper the feet, but she swept them on with irresistible force.” The Matriarch, G.B.Stern
They were nearly all like that – the men of the family. And the Czelovar men, too. Weak and irresponsible and careless, so that their women, loving them for their lordliness and easy good-nature, knew that they must not depend on them; must never depend on them, except in decorous outward appearance of weakness leaning upon strength. The Matriarch, G.B.Stern
They were a tribe of nomads, and they settled and moved on again, and were legally granted other nationalities, and bought other people’s houses and gardens, and left them again, and they spread and spread without rooting, and scattered and scattered without rooting; but, invincibly, the face survived. Just that one inspiration, by some strength and for some purpose it survived, and you never could tell where it would break through, or in whom … – The Matriarch, G.B.Stern
Anyone can be chivalrous to a fallen enemy, but perhaps it takes Toni Rakonitz, prone and beaten, to be chivalrous to a victorious enemy. – The Matriarch, G.B.Stern
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 1987, 320 p. Goodreads
- Daunt Books, 2013, 272 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1924
- Original title: Tents of Israel
- The book is the first of a series of novels based on G. B. Stern’s own family – the ‘Rakonitz Chronicles’
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for 20 Books of Summer & All Virago/All August.