Book review by George S: Blue Danube is the third novel to appear under the name of Eunice Buckley, but its author had written other books and plays before, under the names of R. Allatini, A.T. Fitzroy, R. l. Scott, Mrs Cyril Scott and Lucian Wainwright. As A.T. Fitzroy she had written Despised and Rejected (1918); this book, which had expressed deep sympathy for conscientious objectors and homosexuals, was the only novel to be prosecuted and banned during the First World War under the Defence of the Realm Act. In this review, I am going to call her Rose Allatini, because that was her original name, and it’s how I think of her.
The foreword to the new Persephone edition of Despised and Rejected annoys me greatly by claiming that apart from Despised and Rejected all her other books can be dismissed as Mills-and-Boonish romance novels. Blue Danube is one of the books that casts doubt on that claim.
Rose Allatini was born into a large and very wealthy Jewish family, with branches in many countries of Europe, including Greece, Italy, Austria and Germany. The Austrian branch of her family meant a great deal to her, and in two of her earlier novels (…Happy Ever After (1914) and Girl of Good Family (1935) ) she describes a young woman very like herself being sent to Vienna as a teenager, with the implicit understanding that she will find a husband there. In these books we see Vienna through a girl’s eyes, as sophisticated, enchanting, and just a bit threatening in its assumption about the appropriate role for a woman.
Blue Danube begins with a big family party in Vienna in the first decade of the twentieth century, but this time the point of view is not that of a young girl visitor but of a grand Jewish patriarch looking back on his life. , Gustav von Silberberg, preparing for his sixtieth birthday party, is proud that through a lifetime’s effort he has achieved ‘security, security not only for himself, but for his children and his children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, unto the unknown, unborn generations of the future.’ He contrasts his life with that of his forbears in the ‘dark alleys of a provincial ghetto, feet-dragging, heads bowed with anxiety, terror in their hearts, despised and rejected of all men.’ For prosperous bourgeois Jews like himself, such days have vanished, and anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, although he is still niggled by the fact that Jewish ancestry prevents one from being presented at court. There is still, however, a living link with the past; his father, a rabbi, is now very old and blind, and his mind wanders, but he seems to have a clearer sense of the instability of such prosperity; when blessing his great-grandchildren, he warns obscurely of ‘the darkness to come’.
Those great-grandchildren are the focus of the first half of the novel. Stefan and Juliska are orphans, being taken care of by their grandfather. Juliska is a joyful girl who expresses herself through dancing, and Stefan is a sensitive boy with deep emotions, which are expressed in his love for his blind great-grandfather, and for a pet dachshund. A turning-point in his life comes when he hears Melita, a musical prodigy, play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, and has the sudden insight that he could perhaps become a doctor. As in so many Rose Allatini novels, music and healing are closely linked.
The family’s sense of their identity as Jews is social rather than religious. After the rabbi’s death they gradually abandon even the ‘thin pretence of orthodox observance.’ Yet for Stefan the patriarch, preserving the Jewish line is all-important; when both Stefan and Juliska both ask permission to marry gentiles (confident that their kind grandfather will deny them nothing) he explodes wrathfully about the impossibility of an inter-racial marriage. His rudeness provokes the pride of the mother of the young woman Stefan hopes to marry, and gives her the excuse to launch an anti-Semitic tirade, defending her daughter:
She has indeed no reason to desire marriage with a Jew whose ancestors chaffered in the streets of the Ghettos – I have seen them, I, in their greasy stinking kaftans, kicked and despised throughout the Balkan lands, cringing and bargaining for favours to be obtained by no other means.
After this crisis the narrative takes Stefan to Berlin, where he becomes aware of the difference between German and Viennese Jews, and the extent to which they have adopted the values and style of their host cultures.. His Berlin relatives enjoy practical jokes that to him seem crass; they admire above all ‘Schneid’, translatable as ‘guts’ or ‘gumption’: ‘Whoever has enough Schneid can get away with anything, even with the whole round earth itself!’ The Viennese, on the other hand, prefer to be ‘fesch’, a word that conveys smartness and elegance. Stefan reflects ‘ how quaint it was that two peoples using the same language could yet seem in need of dictionaries and interpreters, so diverse were their idioms and their psychology.’
Yet in 1914 these two nations will be yoked together in an alliance against the England, where another branch of the von Silberberg family has settled. August 1914 is always the date of catastrophe in Rose Allatini’s novels, and in Blue Danube, the narrative is brought to a sudden unresolved stop, to be picked up again much later.
The second section of the novel jumps to London in the early forties. Stefan had moved to England after the Silberberg bank collapsed in the financial chaos of the 1920s; since then he has been working as a doctor, a general practitioner in North London. He has been joined in recent years by several of the characters featured in the first half of the book, refugees from fascist-dominated Austria. The two previous Eunice Buckley novels, Family from Vienna and Destination Unknown, had also been about Austrian refugees. Destination Unknown had depicted England during the blitz; now the threat of invasion has receded, and for non-combatants, the war is now mostly a matter of drudgery, rationing and boredom; for the refugees there is also an increasing anxiety about the fate of relatives who did not manage to leave Austria before the war. (By the way, in none of these Second World War novels is there any trace of the pacifism that has been a central issue in Despised and Rejected.)
The book makes its readers constantly aware of the effects of Nazi rule, most chillingly when we learn that one of the most attractive and lively characters in the first part of the novel has ‘been deported for forced labour by the German authorities to a destination unknown, but presumed to be in Poland.’ The depiction of the refugees, however, is unsentimental; exile has tended to exaggerate existing characters. It is difficult to remain generous and kind in adversity, though some, like Stefan’s Aunt Selma, manage it. But, as Stefan reflects:
To expect vast numbers of people uprooted from their native soil, deprived, often in the most shattering and heart-breaking of circumstances, of everything they held dear, to maintain an attitude of continuous humble thankfulness to the amenities afforded them by this country, which must often seem a very meagre compensation for all that they had lost, was to expect the impossible, human nature – and more especially Jewish nature, with its normal tendency to pessimism and regretful com parisons between the present and past – being what it was.
The English branch of the family is represented by Martin, a barrister who has done much to enable the emigration of his Austrian relatives. Martin is the son of Leopold, the Silberberg who settled in the north of England and worked his way up from a Manchester warehouse to becoming chairman of the company, a J.P. and an Alderman of the City. But what strikes Stefan is ‘the self-evident fact that Leopold Silberberg had not only taken from this country, built up for himself and his family a prosperous career within it, but had given to it at the same time.’ He had financed concerts and public libraries and the like, and had inaugurated welfare work in the Manchester slums. Where Gustav von Silberberg’s activities, Stefan remembers, ‘had been far more narrowly confined to his immediate family circle’. Leopold, with his ‘wide sympathies, genuine culture and altruistic mode of living’ offers an alternative model for a wealthy Jew.
The book’s last chapters chart the relationship between Stefan and Camilla Delmonte, who comes from the English branch of another cosmopolitan Jewish family. He met her through his friend Lorenz, one of those who had ‘escaped from the Nazis bodily’ but ‘were not always able to make good that escape in spirit.’Lorenz had spent time in Dachau, and though he is now safe in England, ‘in his fevered imagination he had returned to that foul place where men were driven insane by fear, turned into whimpering, pitiful wrecks tortured out of any resemblance to human beings’. Camilla (a writer, and a character who seems to be a stand-in for the author herself) had cared deeply for Lorenz, but gradually forms a new relationship with Stefan, the conscientious and caring doctor who, faced with the most appalling and personally painful instance of Nazi cruelty, commits himself to ‘greater integrity of living’; powerless to affect the large process of history, he can at least do good on a small, local scale.
In Stefan and Camilla we can see Rose Allatini working through her own complicated feelings about her Jewish heritage. In early adulthood she had been distancing herself from it. I doubt if she ever had any serious attachment to the Jewish religion, and from about 1918 she had allied herself with theosophy, and to be a theosophist, a Jewish character in one of her other novels explains,“is to be more goyish even than a goy.”’ It was Hitler who in the nineteen-thirties made her reassess her Jewishness as something she could not escape, and something she should not want to escape. Far from being escapist ‘romance novels’, the books she wrote during the Second World War tackle large issues with intelligence and a willingness to face uncomfortable facts.