A Jewish landed aristocracy seems about as improbable as Bertie Wooster breakfasting on lox and bagels. But the Rothschilds, at their grandest, have been impeccable in breakfasts as in everything else. A famous piece of Rothschild lore has a butler asking a house guest whether he would prefer to take his morning tea with milk from the Jersey or the Guernsey herd.
At least some of the perennial fascination with the dynasty is not much more than amazed gawking at their singularity. But Rothschild history, especially in England, signifies a great deal more than the Judengasse come to horse-and-hounds in the Vale of Aylesbury, astonishing though that alteration was. To those left behind in the shtetl or peddling shmattas off a barrow, their social conquest was balm to the wounds of humiliation. So that, among other Jews at any rate, their magnificence more often aroused vicarious pleasure than envy. When a Rothschild horse crossed line at the Derby, the barrow boy could reckon his winnings as a kind of share in the stock of the mighty.
This symbolic solidarity was just as well. For once the Jews of Europe had been freed from the ghetto, only to face other barriers less visible but just as daunting, their uncertainty generated a need for secular authority: figures that could face up to states and statesmen in a way denied to rabbinical tradition. So the transformation of the Rothschilds from old-style Hofjuden—Court Jews—to the frock-coated gentry of New Court in London, boosted collective confidence in incalculable ways. The model was not just that of financial success (though of course that counted), but success without apostasy. The Rothschilds themselves relished their role as unofficial nasim—prince–interlocutors of the exile, with all the prestige as well as responsibilities incurred. (One member of the family when asked his motto replied, only half in jest, “Service,” and added, “And by God we get it.”) But their triumph among the goyim ought not to be taken for some Shylockian satisfaction for historical wrongs. It was, in fact, born of a sturdy optimism about the ultimate reasonableness of governing elites to make room for a Jewish notability not as creditors but as peers. And it is a matter of much self-congratulation in Britain—and, until recently in France—that this essentially liberal scenario of graceful gentile concession reciprocated by Jewish patriotic devotion did indeed come to pass.
The Rothschilds, however, have generally declined to rest on their laurels. Resolved to turn their own family victories into institutional improvements, they acted as benign irritants against liberal complacency. Perhaps their most important gesture in this respect was their flat rejection of what might be called the nineteenth-century emancipation contract: “You shall be made free and equal,” decreed the emancipators, but on condition that you shed your unsavory manners, your gibbering tongue, and your chronic superstition. It was a tempting offer. Isaac d’Israeli eagerly grasped it and his son reaped the rewards in the next generation, compounding the apostasy by trading on a fatuous mystique of the high blood and bulging brains of the Semites. The Rothschilds, not so easily seduced, were bent on securing equality as a right rather than by supplication. Lionel de Rothschild endured the repeated embarrassment of election followed by denial at the bar of the House of Commons until his ordeal ended in the removal of the disabling Christian oath. When his tenacity, and that of the City of London’s electors, finally prevailed over the recalcitrant House of Lords, he did not melt into the benches—though he did say very little—but flagged his triumph by sporting a white top hat to the House.
The Rothschilds were able to indulge this taste for grand chutzpah for a very particular set of historical reasons that are all-too-lightly touched on in Richard Davis’s amiable but unexciting book. The years when they knocked on the doors of the European states, as the founders of the English and French dynasties, Nathan and James well appreciated, were a period when maximum governmental pretentions were supported by minimum resources. The reigning fiction was that new direct tax systems had liberated the nineteenth-century state from the old regime’s dependence on improvised loans from private contractors. The reality was that the scale of the Napoleonic wars and the hugely inflated expenditures thought indispensable to support great power foreign policy had generated a kind of fiscal panic. The Rothschilds, handily situated in each of the major European capitals, and with long experience at both generating and managing public funds, assuaged this nervousness with apparently unlimited supplies of ready cash, which they lent at a generous commission. And as Davis rightly emphasizes, they were prepared to do so without political strings. The dynasty’s collective capital multiplied tenfold in the three years after the Vienna Congress, and Nathan went from Manchester cloth factor to millionaire. The social corollary was that his sons were granted tentative admission to a kind of well-appointed waiting room (Cambridge, the beginnings of county society), beyond which, they were given to understand, lay the Barsetshire elysium of titles, green acres, and receptions at court.
The delicacy and secrecy of the transactions by which the Rothschilds gratified the hungry requirements of the liberal English state (not to mention the Prussian, French, Austrian, and Spanish states) and in return were taken to its bosom inevitably exposed them to a kind of whispering campaign, both during their apogee and in much historical literature since. And their guarded approach to their own papers did nothing to dispel some of the mysteries of public finance and private fortunes. It would be good to report that Richard Davis, who is the first historian to be given free access to the English bank’s papers, has emerged from this historical Fort Knox laden with bullion, but there is very little glitter to be mined from his rather leaden prose. In her much more engaging book on Walter Rothschild, his niece Miriam claims that the “truth about the Rothschilds” is that their indifference to posterity led them to commit trunkloads of letters to the bonfire. If so, it is a great pity, for it robs the historian of the ability to document with any kind of textured detail just what it was that made the Rothschilds kings of the financial jungle. Davis emphasizes their superior intelligence gathering and courier service, which rather than carrier pigeons, it seems, was the cause of Nathan’s great coup after Waterloo, but he is never able to show us how that service worked.
His book is at least a great advance on the uninformed tittle-tattle that has passed for so much of the writing about the English Rothschilds. Instead we get informed gossip based on the Rothschild correspondence, but it is of varying interest and importance. We learn exactly who married whom and whether this aroused pleasure or pain in the family, and much about the Gunnersbury stud and the other horsy passions that the English family cultivated with at least as much eagerness as their bank. We learn something of their human dimensions, though often in the kind of language reserved for police descriptions (“All were somewhat below medium height”). All of this is done with polite gratitude rather than any vivid enthusiasm. Even the Rothschild chateaux—flamboyant confections sitting in the Buckinghamshire greensward, Fontainebleau out of St. Pancras Station—provoke not much more than warmed-over passages from architectural texts.
Once the Rothschilds enter politics in the late nineteenth century—as classic Whiggish Liberals, socially conservative but politically moderate, and committed to what might be called the policy of heroic caution—Davis’s narrative takes on more color and vigor. But even here his approach is cramped by the need to navigate carefully between hearsay and history. He dutifully exonerates the Rothschilds from all suspicion of improper use of financial influence to affect the conduct of policy of successive governments (though in at least one case in 1880, he makes clear, Natty had a good shot at sabotaging Gladstone’s foreign policy toward the Turks by leaking its details to Bismarck via the Berlin house). But all this studious advocacy misses the point, which is not whether they used the power of money or the friendship of statesmen to engineer lucrative schemes but whether some policies would have been possible without them.
Careful not to lend credence to the wilder kind of Rothschild demonologies, Davis errs on the side of prissiness. Even at the height of Victorian public finance, the lines between the public and private good were less clear than they are supposed to be now. And as gung-ho imperialists right from Palmerston through Disraeli to Chamberlain and Cecil Rhodes’s “New Imperialism,” the Rothschilds saw a perfectly proper conjunction of patriotism and profit. As they became more and more embedded in the landscape of home countries and the cityscape of imperial finance, what they came to detest was a kind of low-Church Little Englandism that put chapel morals above hearty British self-interest. Accordingly Gladstone and Lloyd George were anathema, Irish Home Rule prompted their desertion of the Liberals. It was when Zionism pointed to an opportunity to create another outpost of Empire in the Near East that their enthusiasm was really kindled.
It would be a mistake, though, to conclude from this that the English Rothschilds are no more than mildly Jewish variations on the Galsworthy gentry—bankers in jodhpurs, addicted to claret, collecting paintings, breeding livestock, and cultivating politicians along with herbacious borders. For they have been rich in more than sterling and acres, and their family saga in its intimate detail has been the theater of great drama. But so long is the shadow cast by their aura of power and grandeur that perhaps it takes a Rothschild to write about the Rothschilds with all the candor and gusto that the subject demands. Miriam Rothschild may have set out to write the biography of her uncle Walter, the second lord and the first in a great line of Rothschild naturalists and zoologists, as an act of family piety, but the result is a fascinating and brilliant family history: by far the best book about the family that has yet been written.
This is not just because the author, who is herself an entomologist of great distinction, can write about the Rothschilds from the inside, and with no holds barred, but also because it has plainly been, from start to finish, a labor of love. That she has a gift for evoking places and people is an added bonus. In contrast to Davis’s bland description of the Rothschild milieu, she uses a Proustian excursus on coal scuttles to conjur up the peculiar atmosphere of Walter’s estate, Tring, with its “smoking room like a steamer saloon.” To say that her book has something of the feel of a family memoir—complete with a wonderful array of album photographs—is not to belittle its importance in the least. It is, in fact, the first book about the Rothschilds to have married family history with the public world in a wholly convincing way.
Much the least interesting chapters deal with Walter’s role as the recipient of the Balfour Declaration. Miriam Rothschild makes short work of historians (including this one) who have supposed her uncle’s part in the famous document as largely adventitious. She argues instead that the long acquaintance of his father Natty with Balfour made the family the only logical addressee. Understandably she overdoes this case, but what is more striking than whether or not the Rothschilds had major or bit parts in the action is that once his father was dead, Walter, who had been painfully shy of public occasions, assumed the mantle of leadership with uninhibited outspokenness.
The Balfour Declaration may have been the founding charter of Jewish Palestine, but for Walter Rothschild it was a kind of emotional therapy. It enabled him to be freed from the awful burden of disappointed paternal expectations that had clouded his life almost from the start. Natty was perhaps the most powerful of all the English clan, the student companion of the Prince of Wales, Disraeli’s confidant, the crutch that Randolph Churchill leaned on in both his prime and his decline, the maker and breaker of imperial fortunes. For him the revelation of his eldest son and heir as a butterfly and moth enthusiast was a terrible joke. It did nothing to soothe his sense of outrage to be attacked by one of Walter’s flock of cassowaries while hacking in the park, or to have the villagers complain that his son’s pet wolf had (not surprisingly) got the better of dogfights down at the local pub. And when Natty’s wife Emma responded to his attempts to bluster this nonsense out of Walter with the over-protectiveness of what the author calls the “iron apron strings,” the result was to send him headlong into a world as far removed as possible from the standard Rothschild expectations.
Family pathos, then, created zoological genius. For Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, was the grand refus of the family. Terror and misery at his father’s brow-beetling disapproval made him tonguetied for the rest of his life (except, Freudians will note, when he could assume another’s character in amateur dramatics at Cambridge). He did all the wrong Rothschild things: He took mistresses who blackmailed him almost to ruin, instead of female cousin Rothschilds to ensure the integrity of the line. He bred giant tortoises and zebras instead of little Rothschilds, and went furtively AWOL from the bank to mingle with the inert legions of stuffed insects and animals at the Natural History Museum. The bank was an eighteen-year sentence to penal servitude and only the magnitude of his transgressions—both sexual and, especially, the folly of the speculations that were supposed to placate his persecutors—at last released him from its shackles.
The way in which Walter, with his good-natured bewilderment at the awfulness of people (as distinct from animals), coped with his crises was to block them out. Letters that seemed likely to inflict pain were consigned unopened to laundry baskets and sealed. And he fled instead to “My Museum” on the grounds of the house at Tring, a colossal collection of mounted specimens, the like of which had never been seen before and without which British natural history—and its museum—would certainly have never been the same. As his enthusiasm became an addiction and the tide of specimens flowing into Tring rose to oceanic proportions, the collection turned into a major scientific enterprise of identification and classification. Two and a quarter million butterflies and moths, not to mention three hundred thousand birds and two hundred thousand birds’ eggs, were set and mounted. Two thousand varieties of birds were actually displayed. Learned German naturalists were hired to act as scholarly curators—though Walter’s own organizational genius and prodigious memory was such that he ran this huge empire of the stuffed and the fixed with characteristic Rothschild toughness and efficiency.
This is a book, then, in which Rothschild features as a nomenclature not attached to wine but giraffes, porcupines, butterflies, and a rare kind of intestinal worm. But it is a Rothschild book all the same. For Walter was, in his way, just as much a pioneer, an opportunist, an entrepreneur and intrepid projector, as any of his kin. If all of his energies and acumen went toward accumulating specimens rather than money, they were still exercised on an epic scale. Did giant tortoises need rescuing? The answer was to lease one of the Galapagos islands for some years and dispatch a team to scoop them up. Walter himself went to Algeria in hot pursuit of rare species of birds, and his brother Charles was sent to tropical Africa for fleas. Expeditions were mounted to recover rare items and dispatch them dead or alive to Tring. And so the book abounds in fantastic voyages and improbable heroes: a 150-year-old giant tortoise that was sprung from the park of a Sydney lunatic asylum only to die of sexual excitement in the pastures of Tring; an alcoholic taxidermist called Otis Bullock; a feverish collector called Wollaston murdered in his study at King’s College, Cambridge, by a deranged undergraduate after seeing the spectral presence of the dead brother, Charles. Walter himself is irresistible, going up to Cambridge with his live kiwis or down to Brighton with his dingo, or driving into Buckingham Palace forecourt with three zebras and a pony harnessed to his carriage.
Walter’s boyish glee in all this was more than simply animal crackers. As Miriam Rothschild points out, it was the unaffected simplicity of his character that led him to understand the delight that ordinary people would have in beholding “the biggest sea elephant or the biggest bath sponge in the world mounted in as life-like a way as possible.” And before natural history made prime-time television, the Tring museum was a stunning introduction to the immense range and variety of the animal realm. Walter was perhaps the only Rothschild to have been instinctively both aristocrat and democrat, for if in his own branch of science he had hardly a peer, in his taste he was truly blessed with the common touch. In the splendid curiosity of his life it is difficult not to regard him (as the author invites us to) as an endangered species, immense and benign like one of his treasured tortoises. But in his niece’s vivid portrait he has avoided the fate of being preserved, stuffed, and mounted as a dynastic trophy. Instead he has been brought to life as one of the most astonishing figures in the menagerie of a rare and exotic breed, the genus Rothschildia.
December 20, 1984