…In a typical chronicle of the Israelites, it would be taken for granted that the girls did not count at all…if they give birth to a boy who will grow into a man, they have fulfilled their destiny in the only possible way. When you have heard more about the adventure of being a Rakonitz, you will recognize why I have called them the very topsy-turvydom of Jews. It was a family of women bucaneers [sic]. They were thrown forward, and the men receded a very little bit into dependence.
GB (Gladys Bronwyn) Stern is a “lost lady” of literature: well-known in her time, but little heard of today. She was born in London in 1890 and at the age of 16 traveled with her parents to the continent and studied in Germany and Switzerland. She was a novelist, memoirist, playwright and short story writer; several of her novels were turned into movies. The Matriarch is the first book in the Rakonitz Chronicles, a semi-autobiographical account of the Rakonitz, Bettleheim and Czelovar families, who are well-to-do cosmopolitan Jews with various family members having settled in England, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Austria.
To say this is a sweeping generational saga of three families gives an idea of the breadth of characters. In fact, there are so many a detailed family tree is provided in the back of the book. However daunting a read this seemed at the beginning-the narrative is constructed in such a way that the generations and their stories are told together rather than in a linear pattern of one generation building upon the last-it works very well. The narrative has the feel of conversations at big family gatherings where the oldest person tells anecdotes about old uncle Saul with the smelly pipe who knew all the important people and who was important himself or beautiful cousin Elizabeth who refused an arranged marriage scandalizing the family when she married for love or the great-granddaughter Toni who decided to work for a living to support her family when her father died.
The action moves from Vienna to Paris to London to Italy, Russia and to Central and South America, beginning with Simon and Babette Rakonitz who marry in the early 19th century. The wealthy, upper class Rakonitz family are very assimilated, but retain elements of their religion. The story takes in the larger cultures and societies in which they live that make the novel so interesting. They are a well-accepted noteworthy family having made their money in the diamond and other precious gems trade. The women hold the family together, especially after the financial tragedy that robs each household of their husbands, uncles and fathers.
Against the backdrop of tradition that each family member is expected to accept, the younger generations fight for their personal independence against loyalty to the family name. And some try to balance both, making life difficult when cracks appear in the family armor that call for intervention. This is not a somber or dark tale of prejudice or oppression, but a story of a dynamic family that is engaged in living life to the fullest and that through the generations is fully invested in the world around them.
Title: The Matriarch
Author: GB Stern
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics
Device: Trade Paperback
Challenges: Classics Club