Book Review by Frances S: The Founder of House is described as the first volume of Naomi Jacob’s seven-volume Gollantz saga, which seemed a good place to start but probably wasn’t. More of that later.
The story opens in Paris at the home and showroom of Fernando Meldola, a Jewish antique dealer in his early forties. He takes pride in his family’s Jewishness and their centuries old reputation for absolute integrity. Meldola shares his luxurious establishment with his nineteen-year-old niece, Miriam. We are given few clues as to the period until eventually being told that Miriam’s arrival was in 1794. A strange time, perhaps, to bring a teenage girl to a Paris, although the historical context is scarcely mentioned. Meldola’s ‘antiques’, then, must be from an earlier period, possibly classical antiquities and Renaissance art.
Abraham Gollantz, the son of an old friend, is welcomed into the Meldola household to join the business. Meldola gives him increasing responsibility and is appalled when Miriam becomes pregnant by the young man. Meldola insists that the couple marry and supports them financially. Sadly, the baby dies at just over a year old, and Gollantz himself dies a few years later, leaving Miriam expecting their second child, a healthy boy, born in 1805 and named Hermann.
After the adult Hermann is played false by his lover, the family moves to Vienna. Meldola dies. Hermann marries, and has two sons. His scheming brother-in-law Ishmael Hirsch comes to live and work with the family, but endangers the business by cheating their customers. His shady dealings and extravagance result in huge debts which are always paid off by Hermann to protect the family name. He refuses to let Emmanuel see the business accounts and never reveals why there are no profits in spite of strong trading, even allowing Ishmael’s wastrel teenage son Jean to join the household.
Emmanuel meets and falls for the English wife of a Polish Baron. The Baroness introduces him to her friend, an Austrian princess with whom he begins one of the flirtations which has always served the family well in gaining sales.
Emmanuel meets the Baroness secretly at the home of her former governess, who teaches him English and acts as chaperone for their chastely passionate afternoons. When the Baron, suspecting their relationship, demands that his wife move with him to Poland she agrees, her desire for Emmanuel outweighed by fear of poverty and public opprobrium. Temporarily heartbroken, Emmanuel wants to move to England, largely, apparently, because he has been enjoying tea and buttered toast during his illicit meetings.
Emmanuel begins a flirtatious relationship with the Austrian Princess. Ishmael accidentally intercepts a note from her and keeps it, knowing he may have use for it later. The stage is set promisingly for a ‘Sword of Damocles’ plotline, but there is no time for this as we are whisked through the rest of the story. Hermann, having at last revealed to Emmanuel the amount of money he has given to Ishmael over the years, dies suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep. Emmanuel’s mother collapses and dies soon after Hermann’s funeral. Disowned by Emmanuel, Jean sells the incriminating letter to the Prince. Challenged by the Prince, Emmanuel has no trouble in convincing him that the letter refers to a business meeting.
Emmanuel parts from the Princess without much regret on either side, and moves to London. Disappointingly, we are rushed past what could have been an interesting picture of 19th Century London through the eyes of an immigrant, upwardly mobile, Jew. Within a month Emmanuel establishes a successful business. Fast forward three years, and in twenty-five pages he has risen in society and been found out in another illicit romance, deciding to protect his married lover’s reputation by getting married himself. Before having chance to propose to anyone, he falls in love again. His new object is a cultured French Jewess. Luckily for Emmanuel she is a wealthy widow who immediately agrees to marry him. The book ends with their engagement, although there is a loyal female friend in the wings who no doubt features later in the saga.
The Founder of the House repeats a pattern through several generations of the family: proudly upright Jewish businessman seeks acceptance in society, is betrayed by dishonest relative, uses his charm to build, and rebuild as necessary, his business by flattering male clients and flirting with female ones, falls in love, is betrayed by false lover and/or has to give her up because her husband finds out, finally deciding he wasn’t really in love at all, until next time. The protagonists, whilst carefully protecting their business reputations, are unpleasantly amoral in their sexual liaisons.
Interspersed throughout are detailed descriptions of clothes, hairstyles and home furnishings. It has been suggested that this owes much to Jacob’s love of the theatre: the novelist as set designer and wardrobe mistress, unfortunately at the expense of momentum in the story telling.
Much more compelling than the fashions and flirtations is the underlying thread of anguish caused by prejudice against the Jews, reflecting Jacob’s own horror at what she saw happening in 1930s Europe, and voiced here by Hermann Gollantz:
“An honest Jew is accepted, but not acclaimed. A dishonest Jew is acclaimed as such by everyone. One honest Jew remains one honest Jew, one dishonest Jew is hailed as a type of his race. We are a scattered people, we are sheep without a shepherd, we come from all corners of the earth, we are denied rights and privileges because we are not, politically, a nation. Yet we are judged as a nation by the rest of the world, and the judgement passed on us, as a whole, is the lowest judgement passed on one of us as an individual.”
After wading through yards of haberdashery for much of the novel, the final chapters read as if Jacob suddenly realised that she was running out of space to get to Emmanuel’s engagement. I would not normally reveal the ending of a novel in a review, but The Founder of the House closes with neither resolution nor ‘cliff-hanger’, merely a pause. Unable to believe that Jacob had mapped out the entire saga when she wrote the ‘first’ volume, I returned to the full list of novels. All became clear. The Founder of the House, although the first book in the chronology of the family business, was written mid-way through the series and is therefore a ‘prequel’. It would probably be more satisfying to read the novels in the order of publication, with The Founder of the House providing ‘back stories’ for characters already familiar to fans of the later publications.
Some biographical notes on Naomi Jacob:
Naomi Jacob (born Ripon, Yorkshire, 1 July 1884; died Sirmione, Italy, 27 August 1964)
Author of, amongst numerous other books, the Gollantz Saga, comprising seven volumes as follows:
1930 Book 2: That Wild Lie …
1932 Book 3: Young Emmanuel
1934 Book 4: Four Generations
1935 Book 1: The Founder of the House
1943 Book 5: Private Gollantz
1948 Book 6: Gollantz: London, Paris, Milan
1958 Book 7: Gollantz and Partners
Online articles about Naomi Jacob variously major on her Jewish heritage, Tory CofE upbringing, teenage rebellion, Roman Catholic conversion, pupil teaching job in Middlesbrough, career change and success as a character actress, management in a WW1 munitions factory as a member of the women’s corps, campaign for women’s suffrage, BBC Woman’s Hour broadcasts, left wing political activism, standing as a prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour, living openly as a lesbian, and her masculine clothes and haircuts, which apparently led to her being frequently mistaken for J B Priestley and, according to her own claims, enabled her to sneak into the navy as a male Rating in WW1. Gosh!
This spirited and unconventional Yorkshirewoman was born in Ripon in 1884. Her Jewish father was Headmaster of what is now Ripon Grammar School where her non-Jewish mother was also a teacher. A great grandfather was a high-ranking Police Officer; her maternal grandfather owned the Unicorn Hotel in Ripon and was a Mayor of the town – twice. So far, so middle class establishment. But the Jacobs were an unusual family, the paternal grandfather to whom she was very close being a Jewish refugee from the pogroms of Western Prussia. Her father was apparently a difficult man who rejected the Jewish ancestry which became a matter of pride to his daughter.
It must have been a shock to Ripon and devastating for the young Naomi when Mrs Jacob left her husband, and the couple divorced. Jacob’s mother and sister moved south and later to the United States, Mrs Jacob becoming a professional novelist. Naomi wanted to stay and finish her schooling and at 15 ended up at a school in a poor area of Middlesbrough. In 1901 she appears on the census as a pupil teacher, boarding with a young ‘scripture reader’ and his wife. A conventional future seemed in the offing. But Jacob’s potential teaching career was cut short by a combination of TB and a tendency to upset the authorities by wearing trousers and, perhaps, getting too close to her pupils.
Already in love with the theatre, Jacob become PA, companion and lover of a touring comedienne called Marguerite Broadfoot. Naomi’s own burgeoning stage career was curtailed when she was debilitated by TB, so she switched careers again, becoming a prolific and varied writer. Under her own name and the pseudonym Ellington Gray she published scores of novels, non-fiction, biographies and newspaper columns. Known as Micky (or Mickie) to her friends, she kept up her links with entertainment, and, with Marguerite, was part of a circle that apparently included Radclyffe Hall, Little Tich, Marie Lloyd and Bransby Williams – an enviable ‘social bubble’ indeed!
Towards the end of the 1920s she decided to follow her friend Radclyffe Hall’s example and move to the kinder Italian climate. Jacob and Marguerite settled in Sirmione, the beautiful ‘almost island’ on Lake Garda beloved by the poet Catullus.
Jacob supported refugees all her life, and in 1935 she was offered Germany’s Eichelberger International Humane Award for outstanding achievement in the field of human endeavour. Unsurprisingly, she turned it down after discovering Adolf Hitler was also a recipient. She moved back to the UK when Italy entered the war.
During WW2 she worked for the Ministry of Information and later for ENSA, entertaining the troops with broadcasts and live performances in North Africa and Italy. She contracted malaria whilst overseas. After the war she returned to her house in Italy, which now bears a ‘blue plaque’, and lived there until her death in 1964.
Reading about Jacob’s life in Italy I was strongly reminded of the lesbian couple in Noël Coward’s engaging 1960 novel Pomp and Circumstance, and I like to fancy that Coward had Jacob and her partner in mind when he created his Daphne Gilpin and Lydia French. Here is part of Coward’s affectionate description, written in the voice of his female narrator:
“Daphne Gilpin and Lydia French were at the bar throwing dice and knocking back Kala-Kala cocktails. … They are our local Lesbians and personally I am quite fond of them. There was a certain amount of gossip when they first set up house together at Fisherman’s Hole, but that died down after a year or so and now they are quite accepted, by the sophisticated for what they are and by the innocent as amiable eccentrics.”
I was delighted to find that Coward certainly had Jacob in mind not long afterwards, as he oversaw the 1963 Australian production of Sail Away. He mentioned at the time, in a letter to his secretary, that, rescuing a struggling cast member’s performance by putting her ‘in slacks, drill coats and slapping her thighs and smoking a cigar’, he ‘pretended to base the whole thing on Dorothy Sayers but was really thinking of Naomi Jacob!’.
The editor of The Letters of Noël Coward (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014) clearly doesn’t think their readers will have heard of Jacob. Her name is annotated as ‘another lady novelist’, a description which scarcely does justice to Sayers, Jacob or indeed, Coward.
F M Soar, Nov 2020