An old-fashioned saga

Natasha Solomons’s latest novel features a wealthy Jewish dynasty at the outbreak of World War I.

NEWLYWED GRETA soon discovers that her garden ‘is there to help you misbehave.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
NEWLYWED GRETA soon discovers that her garden ‘is there to help you misbehave.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
GLENN C. ALTSCHULER House of Gold, the fifth novel by Natasha Solomons, begins in 1911. At a family gathering in Paris, shortly before 20-year-old Greta Goldbaum moves to England to marry Albert Goldbaum, a distant cousin, whom she has never met, Peter Goldbaum, patriarch of Greta’s branch of Europe’s wealthiest banking families, delivers a history lesson.
Although the Viennese House of Goldbaum bought more bonds than all the other Austrian banks put together, Peter tells his relatives, his grandparents were forbidden from owning property. To the chancellors, princes and kings of Austria, the Goldbaums “were only Jews. Rich and powerful Jews, to be sure, but not worthy of trust.” The lesson was clear: “We succeeded because we are Goldbaums and because we are Jews.” United by blood and shared interests, the Goldbaums “know that only family can be trusted.”
Based loosely on the Rothschild dynasty, House of Gold is a meticulously researched, suspenseful, old-fashioned saga. By turns romantic and melodramatic, funny and poignant, the novel illuminates the pushes and pulls of love, work and war and the balance between loyalty to family and nation.
House of Gold is most engrossing when Solomons examines the eminently (and, at times, unconventionally) Victorian relationship between Greta and Albert. She is headstrong. He is reserved. Their marriage begins wretchedly, with Albert announcing on their wedding night that they should “commence the business of marital relations once we’re established at home” – and then failing to act for a fortnight. Their first sexual encounter comes after Greta asks to see his insect collection, and ends in medias res when a glass tray breaks, “cascading glass and beetles and huge brown moths” all over her hair and face.
“Get these awful things off me,” she cries. “Please be careful, they’re very fragile,” Albert replies. Convinced now that she feigned interest in entomology, Albert hurls Greta’s prenuptial doubts – “I’m afraid we shan’t even like one another very much” – back at her; he will not force himself upon a woman, “even if she’s my wife.”
A cold war ensues, until Lady Goldbaum gives her daughter-in-law a 100- acre plot as a wedding gift. Fontmell Abbey is for Greta and Albert to rebuild together. The garden is for Greta alone.
Recalling that she did not like England at first, “and wasn’t sure about my husband either,” the German-born Adelheid advises Greta, “Don’t think about marriage.
Think only about your garden.”
A horticultural novice, Greta stumbles upon The Wild Garden, by William Robinson.
A garden, she decides, “is there to help you misbehave.” She hires young ladies from a finishing school specializing in gardening to help her create a space that will not be ordered and self-contained, like an English parterre. Realizing that “she could endure it all, so long as she had freedom in this one place,” Greta tells Albert she will defy him, and his demand that she forbid the young ladies to wear breeches, but only in her garden.
In time, as Lady Goldbaum hoped, the couple, much to their surprise, “stumble into happiness,” albeit as a feeling that “was to be discovered at the edge of existence, fluttering in the corner of one’s eye, glimpsed only in those moments of serenity at dawn before one was fully awake.”
Solomons invents some ingenious devices to advance the plot or plant false clues.
The decision of Otto Goldbaum, Greta’s brother, to keep his checkbook with him at all times, while serving in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern front, for example, looms large. As does the penchant of Clement Goldbaum, Albert’s brother, to bet on himself in chess games. Greta’s possession of a gun does not.
On occasion, however, House of Gold bogs down. Solomons includes too many menus for too many sumptuous dinners.
Karl Luger, the “pretend Jew” who somehow becomes Otto’s manservant and friend, appears to have been borrowed from another novel. We have seen the wartime scenes in House of Gold before.
And Solomons’s defense of the motives and actions of bankers during World War I is a bit simplistic.
House of Gold, no doubt, takes its inspiration from a comment Winston Churchill made to Siegfried Sassoon. “War is the normal occupation of man,” Churchill declared, “war and gardening.” Solomons describes the ubiquity of gardening in England. As she documents the brutality of war, Solomons reminds us of the myriad ways, including blood libel trials, in which the conflict reinforced antisemitism.
Portraying the European Houses of Goldbaum as pearls strung on a necklace, she writes, Lord Goldbaum viewed World War I, and its conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers, as “anvil strikes to smash that chain apart.”
Somewhat surprisingly, then, Solomons chooses a happy(ish) ending for House of Gold.
“The Goldbaums lacked the power to bring the war to end,” she concludes, “but they could still conjure spring amid the snow.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University.