Refugee by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1934)

Another Mrs Alfred Sidgwick review! And a particularly interesting subject for romantic fiction in the 1930s.

Review by Judith W:

A young Jewish woman, Helga Aquilar, is rescued from Berlin in the 1930s by an English woman, Mrs Cone, who brings her to London  and deposits her in the house of two bachelor barristers, Charles and Frederick Aquilar, who are Helga’s distant cousins.

The Cones take Helga under their wing and their three daughters assist in buying clothes and advise on English conventions. Helga holidays with the Cones and there meets a young lawyer, Mr Rosen, who aspires to better himself and makes advances to Helga, which she resists.

The surprise arrival of Bienchen, Helga’s old nurse, from Berlin, bringing jewelry and family papers triggers a change in arrangements. Helga, now a rich woman in her own right, moves into a flat with Bienchen. There is a brief appearance by a Dr Lucas, a suitable suitor, but Helga rejects him. Mr Rosen, meanwhile, has succumbed to the infatuated attentions of Myrtle, the middle Cone daughter and leads her on. But he persists with his unwelcome advances towards Helga who is rescued by her cousin Charles who has fallen in love with her.

‘Refugee’ is a work of romantic fiction. Despite the initial trauma of the young Jewish heroine, her father dying in prison, after being tortured, her brother committing suicide in front of her eyes, on arriving in London she does not exhibit a great deal of distress. And neither Germany itself nor the Nazi regime feature as a ‘character’ in the novel.

The story centres on Helga and her inclusion in London Society. The Cones are evidently viewed by her two cousins, Charles and Frederick, as not wholly suitable company for Helga. Mr Cone is approved of as a successful businessman but they are critical of his wife and three daughters, their talkative natures and taste in clothes. In short, they are snobs.

Class is a key element in the book. What is appropriate behaviour, what people wear, where they shop how they live and furnish their houses, how they entertain are all described in great detail. But, despite the emphasis on class differences the human side shines through. Bienchen, Helga’s former nurse, is a worry and an embarrassment to her but she takes on full responsibility for Bienchen’s wellbeing and is surprised when the cousins’ driver, Thompson, wishes to marry this larger than life, outrageously dressed character.

There are occasional dark passages, for example, when Mr Rosen, rejected by Helga, invites Myrtle, the Cone’s middle daughter, for a meal with his parents at a restaurant in London. He drinks too much, another diner tweaks his nose (possibly an anti-semitic reference), there is an affray and Myrtle becomes separated from the family outside in the fog, loses her money and has to seek help from a policeman.

For the reader it is an easy read; short sentences throughout encourage a sharp pace. The writing has a direct style, with an emphasis on conversational activity and very few descriptive passages. One assumes that all will turn out well, and it does. Bienchen marries Thompson, Mr Rosen is dispatched and letters from an infatuated Myrtle are retrieved, Myrtle is suitably chastised and Helga is happy to accept Charles’ offer of marriage. She returns from her flat to the cousins’ house which was her first London home. And Frederick appears happy to leave it for a flat in town.

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3 thoughts on “Refugee by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick (1934)

  1. Despite all the cliches, books like this really do give an impression about what it was like to live at a particular time – that’s why they’re such useful social history!

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