Here is Sofka, in a wedding photograph; at least, I assume it is a wedding, although the bride and groom are absent. Sofka stands straight and stern, her shoulders braced, her head erect in the manner of two earlier generations. She wears a beautiful beaded dress and an egret feather in her hair. It must have been attached to a hat but the hat is hidden by her coiffure, which is in itself hat-shaped. Behind her stand her two daughters, beautiful also, but looking curiously tubercular; perhaps those wide-eyed pleading smiles add to this impression. The daughters are in white, with ribbons in their long hair, which I know to have been red. Sofka’s eldest son, her pride and joy, smiles easily, already a lazy conqueror. In his white tie and tails he has the air of an orchestral conductor. He stands between the two girls, an escort rather than a brother, as he was to prove on so many occasions. The sickly and favoured younger son is nowhere in sight, unless he proves to be one of those touching and doomed-looking children seated cross-legged in the front row, the girls, with hair of unimaginable length, clutching posies of flowers, the boys in long trousers and jackets of a satiny-looking material, gazing soulfully at the photographer. Yes, Alfred must be the one on the right. All around them are lesser members of the cast, relations by marriage: a stout and equally beaded woman, several jovial men, a youngish woman with a cascading jabot of lace and an expression of dedicated purpose and, on the extreme left, edging her way into the centre, a pretty girl with a face like a bird. None of these people seems to have as much right to be in the picture as Sofka does. It is as if she has given birth to the entire brood, but having done so, thinks little of them. This I know to be the case. She gazes out of the photograph, beyond the solicitations of the photographer, her eyes remote and unsmiling, as if contemplating some unique destiny. Compared with her timeless expression, her daughters’ pleading smiles already foretell their future. And those favoured sons, who clearly have their mother’s blessing – there is something there too that courts disaster. Handsome Frederick, in his white tie and tails, with his orchestral conductor’s panache: is there not perhaps something too easy about him, pliable, compliant, weak? Able to engage his mother’s collusion in many an amorous escapade, but finally dishonourable, disappointing? Does Sofka already know this? And little Alfred, seated cross-legged between the girls who must be cousins and with one of whom he will shortly fall in love: do those eyes, heavy and solemn, shadowed with the strain of behaving well, bear in them the portent of a life spent obeying orders, working hard, being a credit, being a consolation, being a balm for his mother’s hurt, a companion in her isolation? For her husband, their father, is absent, gone before, dead, mildly disgraced. Gambling, they say. In any event, he was an older man, scarcely compatible, out of reach to his young children, amused by his young wife but easily bored by her inflexible dignity. Out of it, in every sense.

And now I see that it is in fact a wedding photograph. The bride and groom were there all the time, in the centre, as they should be. A good-looking couple. But lifeless, figures from stock. Above the bridegroom’s shoulder, standing on something, perhaps, Sofka gazes ahead, with her family’s future before her. No one to touch her. As it proved.

I have no doubt that once the photograph was taken, and the wedding group dispersed, the festivities took their normal course. I have no doubt that great quantities of delicious food – things in aspic, things in baskets of spun sugar – were consumed, and that the music struck up and the bride and bridegroom danced, oblivious of their guests, and that the elders gathered in groups on their gilt chairs while the children, flushed with too many sweetmeats and the lure of the polished parquet floor, ventured forth until restrained by nurses or grandmothers. I have no doubt that as the evening wore on the cigar-scented reminiscences induced many an indulgent nod, a nostalgic smile never to be recovered in the harder commerce of daily life. I have no doubt that those anonymous and jovial men (husbands, of course) relaxed into the sweetness of this precarious harmony, as if they had at last found what married life had seemed to promise them, and their golden smiles, their passive decent good nature, the sudden look of workdliness their faces assumed as their lips closed voluptuously round the fine Romeo y Julietas and they lifted their heads a little to expel the blueish smoke, reminded their wives – censorious women, with higher standards – why they had married them. Sofka would be at the centre of this group, of any group. Handsome Frederick would be dancing, sweeping some girl off her feet, making suggestions which she would not dare take seriously, and perhaps neither would he, with his mother watching him. Later, perhaps, or so the girls would like to think. Little Alfred would manfully trundle his cousin round the floor, looking to his mother for approval, and in so doing lose both her approval and his own heart. The girls, Mireille and Babette (Mimi and Betty), would stay with their mother, waiting for her permission to dance. But the young men, faced with the prospect of negotiating for that permission, would not insist, and the girls would not dance much. Sofka gave out that the girls were delicate. And indeed they looked it.

I find it entirely appropriate and indeed characteristic that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. If this implies something unfinished, as if the process were omnivorous but static, that too would be characteristic. Sofka sees her children’s futures as being implicit in their names, and she has given much thought to the matter; indeed, one wonders if she thinks about anything else. Her sons, handsome, with the legendary if short-lived handsomeness of those men who die young, are to establish themselves on the ruins of their father’s fortune; they are to divide the world and conquer it between them. No matter that Frederick plays the violin so well, and that Alfred is so fond of reading; these accomplishments are for the drawing room and the study and not for the world. In due course they will lay aside the violin and the books, brace their shoulders, face up to their responsibilities (to Sofka and the girls) and revitalize those factories which have been idle too long. Imperceptibly, they will become tycoons, captains of industry, as their father had been before them. That their father’s little weakness – the one he confessed to, that is – might be hereditary Sofka would regard as ridiculous. She repels the thought before it is even formulated. In any event, the boys are so little their father’s children; they are, by definition, hers alone. Has she not brought them up single-handed? And are they not a credit to her dedicated mothering? Frederick might break hearts, and he will have her permission to do so. There is nothing the virtuous Sofka admires so much as a man with a bad reputation. Alfred will be encouraged to follow his brother’s example; he is too serious by nature and by inclination. See how he clasps his little cousin round her unindented waist and turns his face back to his mother to solicit her smile. And the little cousin already annoyed that his attention should be diverted from her. Better that Alfred should shrug his shoulders and pass on, saving himself, saving them all, from hurt. And he will be even more handsome than his brother when he grows older; he has a soulful poet’s face, the ancient eyes of a child prodigy. Alfred is her hope and her investment; he is her second chance. For if Frederick breaks too many hearts to devote much time to the business, that is to say if his career as a boulevardier were to interfere with his attendance at the factory, then sad little Alfred, whom Sofka knows to be as serious, as inflexible of purpose as she herself, can be relied upon to assume all the burdens that might otherwise have been shared. With Alfred’s help, Sofka knows, she will once again come into her kingdom.

Will the boys marry? Well, of course, they will, in so far as everybody marries. But that day might be indefinitely postponed. Sofka does not believe in early marriages; she sees nothing touching in youthful pleasure. She herself had been chosen by a man of substance, well past the age of infatuation. (Or so she believed.) She herself had sought dignity and she thinks that everyone should follow her example. The boys will marry eventually but their brides must be carefully chosen; they will have to be of a suitable pattern to conform to the family destiny. For the family by that stage would once again be rich, very rich. So that extravagant pleasure-loving girls would be out of the question. Sensible women, young enough to produce one or at the most two children, but otherwise fairly mature, and not necessarily very good-looking. Looks are not everything, says beautiful Sofka to her children. And the daughters-in-law will be of a similar background to herself and above all of a similar temperament; thus can Sofka hand on her sons to replicas of herself when she at last, and regretfully, concedes that it is time for them to marry. But that time is in the very distant future, ever more distant as time goes on. In this matter of her sons’ marriages, Sofka is inclined to enact both justice and revenge. For if her mothering is to triumph, why should any other woman get the credit? And enjoy the advantage?

And for Mireille and Babette (Mimi and Betty), that time of settling down, as they so wistfully think of it, is so far off as to be almost unimaginable. In the manner of sheltered girls in that unliberated age they long to be married; they long for marriage in order that they might be virtuous young matrons, attentive to their duties and to their husbands’ welfare, able to supervise servants and, eventually, the children’s nurse. Able to present the breadwinner with evidence of good housewifery, his shirts impeccably laundered and scented with lavender and vetiver, his newspaper and journals intact and uncreased, his house and garden tended, his accounts faultless. Where did they unearth these dreams of innocence? They are beautiful, with a slightly hectic look of which they are probably unaware, and they have been given the names of characters in a musical comedy. And are expected to behave in the same way. For Sofka, that unbending matriarch, young women have a duty to flirt, to engage in heartless and pointless stratagems, to laugh, pretend, tease, have moods, enslave and discard. The purpose of these manoeuvres is to occupy their time, the time that women of a later generation are to give to their careers. By breaking hearts (but never seriously) the girls can give themselves plenty to talk about; they need never be bored, or a burden to their mother. And by keeping a good-natured group of young men in tow (‘our crowd’) they need never know the grip of a hopeless or unrequited passion and be spared the shame of being left unclaimed. Sofka is quite sincere in determining that her daughters should never be seen to be waiting. Perhaps she has had this experience herself? Her daughters must be too busy and too lighthearted to tie themselves down; they must laugh and parry even when the proposals are sincere. For there will, of course, be proposals, from one or other member of the crowd, but the prevailing temper will not encourage the girls to take them seriously. The girls will not want to take them seriously; they will be having too happy a time. Never mind the shirts scented with lavender and vetiver and the uncreased newspapers; there is a new show at the Savoy, and dancing in somebody’s house on the river near Henley. And there will always be somebody to bring them home and see that they are taken care of; in any event, they can always rely on their brothers to set a good example in this respect. Marriage? The girls married? Sofka can hardly imagine it, although she has the details of their weddings quite firmly fixed in her mind. There is nothing imaginary about the weddings, only about the whole question of their married lives.

Because there is something about the girls that causes Sofka pain, a soft inward quaking pain. Is it those innocent large eyes, mild and questioning above the coy rouged smiles, that pronounces them unfit for the life their mother has decreed for them, and which she in all her integrity sees as their safeguard? Is there something doomed about those girls, although they are in perfect health, and devoted to their mother? What happens to young women, brought up to obedience, and bred to docility and virtue? What happens to such unprotected lives? How will they deal with the world, or the world with them? Sofka sees that her vigilance will be needed to spare the girls the hurt and the shame that even the unsuspecting can endure, even when they are harmless as well as beautiful. When she thinks of the soulful heartless women that she knows, women of her own age, who view the world through narrowed eyes, Sofka feels a hand clutch at her heart. Mimi and Betty, devoted sisters, devoted daughters, brushing each other’s long hair at night for all the world as if they were still children, refusing to have it cut, as if they were still little girls…. What happens to such daughters? Sofka looks at them sometimes and feels that there is something like a sentence of death on them. Then she determines that they must laugh and flirt and learn all the teasing catchwords, and learn too to disguise the haunting innocence in their large eyes. But all in due course. Let them get used to their social life first. Let them harden naturally. And let them stay with their mother until then. No need to worry too much about partners. The boys can be trusted to bring them home in due course. And once the girls are safe in the bosom of ‘our crowd’, then Sofka can relax at last.

It was decreed, or it seemed to be decreed, that all the women in that family should have tiny names, diminutives, as if to underline their tiny sparkling natures. The little cousin with whom Alfred is dancing is Nettie (Annette). Somewhere in the background there is a Steffie, and a Carrie. Perhaps the large woman in the photograph is Carrie, a sister-in-law, unaware that she is no longer a diminutive. The husbands refer to these women as ‘the girls’, having long ago fallen in with the prevailing ideology, always slightly surprised that the girls have grown up and grown older, having met them in the distant past when they all knew each other and formed part of ‘our crowd’. Since then they have been subsumed into the matriarchal pattern to which they resigned themselves without ever knowing what it was. Good-humoured, good-natured, undemanding, unambitious men, chatting over the week’s news among themselves until summoned to supply a detail, a compliment, a justification, bidden to rejoin the group. Getting a little stout now, former pleasant looks forgotten, former energy wearing thin. Judged collectively as not quite good enough for the girls, but tolerated, necessary. Golden, indulgent fathers, awakening in their daughters secret dreams of hard fierce brutal men. Fathers of infinite kindliness, easily moved to tears by their children’s beauty. Nettie’s father is just such a man, easygoing, always smiling. Some would say weak. And Nettie herself will be the sort of child to enslave such a man, with her imperious manners and her arbitrary wishes, apt to fly into a passion and scream, and have to be taken on to her father’s lap and soothed back to happiness. Her mother says that Nettie is ‘highly strung’, but she understands her perfectly well. Nettie’s mother is one of those women who view the world through narrowed eyes. Nettie’s mother is possibly the only person in her immediate circle of whom Sofka is slightly afraid.

Sofka herself is a diminutive, of course, although one never thinks of her as in any way diminished, rather the opposite. She is Sophie (Sophie Dorn).

 

In the photograph the men wear tails or dinner jackets and the women long dresses with little hats, for this is a wedding in the old style, with something of a feeling for the old country. These weddings are important affairs, with the roster of the family’s achievements on show. Quiet and retiring as their social lives may be, spent largely in each other’s houses, playing cards or discussing the children, with a sharp eye for both perfections and imperfections of housekeeping, the women will prepare for a wedding as if they themselves were getting married. Long sessions with the dressmaker will replace the idle but watchful afternoons in one another’s houses, then the shoes, the tiny tapestry bag, and of course the hat, will demand all their attention. The children will be indulged with new and impossibly pretty dresses, although these may be a little too young for them. The children will become petulant with the long hours standing in front of a glass, while a dressmaker crawls round them pinning the hem. The children do not really like this indoor life, to which they seem to be condemned; it sharpens their nerves and makes them touchy, although they have the beautiful rose-coloured bloom of days spent in gardens. There are gardens, of course, but they are supervised by gardeners. These days of bustle and calculation will culminate in the actual preparations for the wedding itself. Husbands, cheerfully and with resignation getting into their tails or their dinner jackets, quell an instinctive sinking of the heart as they view their wives’ very great solemnity at this moment of their adornment. Iconic and magnificent, the women stand in the centre of their drawing rooms, and it is difficult to remember that they were ever girls. The children, longing to run and to play, kick moodily around in their enchanting clothes; already they look like men and women, bored with an adult boredom, discontented enough to run for their lives.

Sofka sits in her morning room, waiting for the car to come round. This is the traditional cry, the view halloo of wedding mornings or afternoons: ‘Has the car come round?’ Sofka’s back is ramrod straight, her beaded dress immaculately appropriate, the hat tiny but triumphal. Around her sit the girls (Mimi and Betty) in their pretty Pre-Raphaelite dresses, and little Alfred, who is already pale with the heat and the strain. Alfred is always good, but the effort costs him a great deal. Lounging in the doorway, with the nonchalant stance of the Apollo Belvedere, is Frederick who enjoys these long celebrations, offering him the pleasure of surveying a large field of nubile girls, for weddings put such thoughts into the forefront of every mind. While waiting for the banquet, Frederick is perfectly happy to offer his arm to his mother or his sisters, and indeed is most at home in doing so, for it seems to be his only function within this family. Even now he is pouring his mother a tiny glass of Madeira, placing a small table at her elbow, smiling at her, and very gently teasing her, for she finds these events initially rather daunting. She is a shy woman, virtuous and retiring, caring only for her children, but determined to fulfil her role as duenna, as figurehead, as matriarch. This means presentation, panache, high purpose, and in their wake dignity, and responsibility, awesome concepts, borne constantly in mind. Like a general on the evening of a great campaign, like an admiral setting a course for his fleet, Sofka looks to the family fortunes and plans her performance accordingly. She surveys her children, is proud of them, trembles for them. The tremor conveys itself to her hand, and a tiny drop of Madeira gleams on the polished wood of the table. ‘Mama,’ says little Alfred. ‘The car has come round.’

At the wedding they will dance, husbands with wives, fathers with daughters. Under watchful gazes the young people will flirt, amazed that no one is stopping them. The music will become slower, sweeter, as the evening wears on. The children will be flushed, glassy-eyed with tiredness, their beauty extraordinary, as if it were painted. On the gilt chairs the elders will sit and talk. Sofka judges the event a success. Her girls have been congratulated on their charming appearance and manners, her boys on their filial devotion. This is how it should be. Sofka’s cheeks have lost their ivory pallor and her mouth wears a proud smile. Tomorrow she will receive telephone calls, no doubt with more compliments; she will give one or two tea parties, for there will be much to discuss. The verdicts of those sharp-eyed women, those sisters in the spirit, will be sought, their advice heeded. Strange how much calculation there is even in the most virtuous! Upstairs, in the old nursery, the girls are playing the piano. Little Alfred stands behind his mother’s chair until told to go and play. When he receives this permission he hardly knows what to do, for he is rather bad at playing. Frederick, who is very good at it, is nowhere to be seen. Sofka pours coffee, offers cakes. Looking out into her garden, she sees that a wheelbarrow has not been put away. She frowns slightly. How tiresome that so innocent a detail should spoil the perfect picture of her day.

 

Photograph © whatsthatpicture

Jane Somers’s Diaries
The Time Sickness