The Matriarch by G.B. Stern (1924)

The Matriarch by G.B. Stern

British writer G.B. Stern (1890 – 1973) published a five-volume Jewish family saga collectively entitled, confusingly, both The Rakonitz Chronicles, the first three volumes published together in 1932, and The Matriarch Chronicles in their expanded 1936 form. 

This overview of The Matriarch, the first in a series and the best-known work by Stern is excerpted from A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie: The Fiction of Vera Caspary by Francis Booth ©2022. Reprinted by permission.

Born in London as Gladys Bertha Stern, she was later Gladys Bronwyn, and wrote mainly under her initials. She was a friend of Somerset Maugham, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, and Noël Coward, she wrote over forty novels, as well as plays, short stories, criticism.

Extremely prolific and largely forgotten, Stern was the author of over fifty novels and memoirs, the best known of which were the five novels collectively known as the Matriarch series: The first was The Tents of Israel (1924), published in the U.S. and later known more widely as The Matriarch.This was followed by the other volumes in the series: A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), Shining and Free (1935), and The Young Matriarch (1935).

As noted above, the first three books were collected in a single volume as The Rakonitz Chronicles, in 1932, and all five volumes were finally published together as The Matriarch Chronicles. Stern also published a play version of The Matriarch in 1931. Rakonitz was the name of Stern’s maternal grandfather, and the Chronicles are loosely based on her own family.

According to Rabbi Julia Neuberber’s introduction to the Penguin edition, Stern did not like the word “Jew” and preferred “Israelite.” In 1947, Stern converted to Catholicism.

Like Vera Caspary’s Thicker Than Water, though far longer, the Chronicles are a family saga covering a dramatically changing world, beginning when the Rakonitz family diaspora begins at the end of the nineteenth century.

All the Rakonitz women were happiest in Cosmopolis. Imagination cannot easily picture them in a setting of brown ploughed field on a whipped grey morning after storm. Instead, spacious drawing rooms, with parquet floor throwing back the glitter from the Venetian crystal candelabra, brocade hangings, and a polished grand-piano – these were more natural than nature to Babette and her descendants. They scattered from Vienna, certainly, but always to other big cities, capitals of the world; Paris, Budapest, Constantinople, Venice, London – Anastasia was the first Rakonitz in London.

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g.b. stern in 1949

G.B. Stern in 1949
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Indomitable, cosmopolitan Anastasia, who presides over the family from her exotic home in West London is The Matriarch of the title, “at the age of sixty, in full blossom, at the very height of her mental and physical powers, brilliant, tireless, despotic, at the apex of the family triangle.” Anastasia has not always been the Matriarch, however:

“The Matriarch first began to assert itself in Anastasia, when she insisted that her eldest son and her eldest son’s wife – poor, pretty little Susie Lake, who had so longed for a home of her own – should, as a matter of course, well with her in the same house, sharing her table and controlled by her wishes.”

For Susie, coming from an English suburb, “into the very Rakonitz stronghold itself, into the house of the Matriarch, life was a tragedy and the bewilderment.” Instead of her own house, Suzie now has only her own room, which does not at all seem like her own.

“Heavily furnished by more exotic and profuse taste than her own, on the top floor of a house resembling some foreign palace within, with its antiques used as though they were commonplace; heirlooms thickly clustered about with anecdotes less conventionally romantic than broadly ludicrous; treasures brought from distant cities, not via the medium of shops, but by real people – real relations; dark, heavy furniture, and chandeliers that were a thousand dropping crystals that swayed and reflected light; portraits of ancestors . . . No wonder Suzie marveled how such a fantastic caravanserai could still manage, from the outside, to look almost like every house in Granville Terrace.”

Both metaphorically and physically, the incoming Jewish family have integrated, like Amy Levy’s, into formal, wealthy West London twentieth-century society but internally, behind, as it were closed doors, they are still Middle European, nineteenth-century Jewish. Anastasia’s daughter and youngest child, Sophie is as frightened of the Matriarch as her daughter-in-law Susie; always having given precedence to her older brothers, she feels ignored.

All she can do to assert her place in the family is to try to have a son. “If she did not bear a son who was also Anastasia’s first grandchild, she determined to kill herself.” Worse, she has married the wrong kind of man. “Not only a stranger, and a Gentile, but, from the point of view of Rakonitz, such a ludicrous stranger!”

Not only is he an Englishman, “and what was known as a profligate, without any sense of family,” he is “an artist by temperament, although not overmuch by virtue of work and creation; but carrying all the suspicious attributes of an artist as they were in the late nineteenth century.”

In the 1936, five volume-in-one re-issue of The Matriarch Chronicles, we are less than fifty pages into a book of nearly one thousand pages at this point; a Jewish family saga indeed. Stern dedicated it to John Goldsworthy, in admiration of his The Forsyte Saga; Caspary was a big admirer of the fictional Forsytes; when she first lived in London with Hope Skillman in the 1920s they visited Fleur Forsyte’s house in Belgravia – always the most expensive and exclusive part of London – and when she went back to live there again in the 1950s, far more financially secure now, she had was proud to tell Hope that she had a house round the corner from Fleur.

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A girl named Vera can never tell a lie

A Girl Named Vera Can Never Tell a Lie on Amazon (US)*
and Amazon (UK)*
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. 

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