In 1861 Charlotte Rothschild and her son Natty (the future 1st Lord Rothschild) left their mansion in Piccadilly for a summer holiday in Grasmere. Hotels in the Lake District at that time had a cannon on the balcony to “wake the echoes” from the surrounding mountains, and tourists would go out on boats and call out “the names of loved ones.” The Rothschilds, a very public, much-reported-on family, preferred not to set the echoes resounding with their relatives’ names. Instead they called out “the names of characters in Great Expectations,” which was being serialized.
This nice vignette—about two kinds of Victorian fame—would have been even more pleasing if they had called out the names from an earlier Dickens novel, Dombey and Son. Dombey is a gloomy titan of the London financial world who is fixated only on his son, but finds in the end that it was his daughter who mattered and through whom the family line will continue: “And so Dombey and Son…is indeed a daughter…after all.” That is, roughly, the story of Natalie Livingstone’s The Women of Rothschild. It begins with “an exclusion” laid down in the will of the founding father of the Rothschild dynasty, Mayer Amschel—Frankfurt banker, financier, and creator of a mighty business empire. When he died in 1812 he stipulated that his sons should maintain an “unbreakable unity” to the exclusion of all outsiders (foreshadowing decades of conflict over exclusiveness versus adulteration), and that his daughters—and sons-in-law and their heirs—should “have no share in the trading business existing under the firm of Mayer Amschel Rothschild and Sons.” Thus his widow and their female descendants were written out of the future of the business.
In Livingstone’s book, Rothschild and Sons turns out “after all” to be Rothschild and Daughters—also wives, mothers, sisters, nieces, aunts, and female cousins. She tells the story of how, despite that exclusion clause, the women—over eight generations, from the 1750s to the present day—were centrally involved in the family business and in politics, education, international relations, social reform, science, feminism, art, and culture. It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to subtitle it “The Untold Story,” since Livingstone draws on several books by and about Rothschild women. The current Hannah Rothschild wrote a vivid 2012 life of her daring great-aunt Nica, the “jazz baroness” Pannonica de Koenigswarter; another great-aunt of Hannah’s, Miriam, the zoologist and parasitologist, wrote a life of her uncle Walter in 1983, which had a lot to say about her female relations, and a 1994 essay on the “silent members” (that is, the women) of her family; Constance, Lady Battersea, published her Reminiscences in 1922. And Rothschild women feature in many books on nineteenth-century English politics and commerce, on Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, on Jews in England, on Victorian philanthropy, and on the foundation of the State of Israel.
But Livingstone, who makes full use of all such sources and of an enormous private archive of family papers, is right to claim that these women’s stories have never been put together and foregrounded before. Starting in Frankfurt and concentrating on the English branch of the family (so not many châteaux, villas, or vineyards here), but with frequent excursions to deluxe destinations in France, America, Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Switzerland, these histories take us into public as well as private affairs. They embody the crucial ingredients of this Anglo-Jewish epic: assimilation, ostracization, rivalries, feuds, marriage choices, property management, status, scandal, religion, nationalism, and inheritance. And they provide dramatic examples of lives caught between the advantages of huge wealth, privilege, and influence and the double burdens of anti-Semitism and sexism.
Livingstone tells this story in a tone of well-oiled, celebratory enthusiasm, speeding from one family branch and location to another—as she puts it, breezily, “from Spitalfields to Scottish castles, from Bletchley Park to Buchenwald, and from the Vatican to Palestine.” It often reads like a gossip column or a court circular, as in:
By the summer, Charlotte and Lionel were making their own way, attending balls hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and by Countess Stroganoff. The couple had taken up residence in no. 148 Piccadilly…almost next door to the Duke of Wellington’s magnificent Apsley House.
(Note “taken up residence,” always more impressive sounding than “moved into” or “bought.”) A great deal is crammed into this highly populated narrative, leaving the reader sometimes reeling back to the byzantine family tree for help: “Hannah Mayer remained in close contact with her younger sister Lou, who had moved to Frankfurt the previous year to marry Charlotte’s brother Mayer Carl.” The prose goes all out for dramatic impact: “He was still the go-to Rothschild for advice on Parisian prostitutes”; “He was too late. On 29 April 1839, the day after he sent this desperate, final plea, wedding bells rang out at St George’s church in Hanover Square, tolling an unprecedented rupture in the Rothschild family.” All the same, it keeps you wanting more.
We start with the first matriarch, Gutle, who in 1770 married Mayer Rothschild (named for “Rotes Schild,” the “Red Shield” house in Frankfurt’s Judengasse built by an ancestor), had nineteen pregnancies and ten surviving children, and helped with the business—which grew from coins to antiques to textiles to banking with astonishing momentum. Gutle lived to ninety-five and refused to leave her home in the ghetto, while her children moved out all over Europe. Perhaps she believed that her family’s success depended on her staying in their childhood home. She became a living legend, a tourist destination, the subject of a story by Hans Christian Andersen, and an object of curiosity to Queen Victoria, who spoke approvingly of “that wonderful old Frau Rothschild.” That was not her usual tone about Jews, even if Disraeli was her favorite prime minister.
Lack of air and lack of light, as Livingstone shows, are always part of the imagery for Jewish ghettos, whether in Frankfurt or London’s East End. Gutle remains a dark, fixed, even stifling reminder for the Rothschild women. However far they traveled, however glittering and bright and spacious their mansions, however much freedom and influence they acquired, she remained the symbol of that primal family scene of enclosure, tribal loyalty, relentless hard work, and resistance to outsiders.
The matriarch who was also closely involved with her husband’s work sets up a pattern. Over three centuries, the balance for the Rothschild women between domestic and public life shifts, but this is still, to an extent, a female story of housekeeping, motherhood, family duties, and hostessing, albeit on a plutocratic scale.
The lives of houses play a big part in the story. Gutle’s son Nathan and his wife, Hannah, launched themselves from Frankfurt to Manchester (textile trade) and then into the City of London—smuggling gold bullion, funding the Duke of Wellington’s Napoleonic Wars, and speculating on French government bonds, Hannah’s specialty. They set up grand homes in Piccadilly, at Stamford Hill in what was rural Stoke Newington, and then, just before Nathan’s death, at Gunnersbury Park. From the 1830s a major center of Rothschild operations, this estate had “seventy-five acres of park and farmland, a conservatory, coach houses, a dairy, a brewhouse, an icehouse and an orchard.” Hannah thought of it as a “blank canvas” for her ambitious plans in widowhood and had it designed in an “opulent, Francophile style.”
At her lavish parties in Piccadilly and at Gunnersbury, with three hundred guests at a time and the halls and stairs lined with rare plants, “the refreshment room” was always the focus, loaded with “partridges, quails and ortolans; truffled and Strasbourg pies; apples, peaches, pears; sweetmeats and glacés.” Napoleon’s ex-chef spun animals from sugar and created whimsical treats like “chocolate harlequin pistachios.” What you gave your guests to eat was as important a part of the show as what you wore to greet them; the book is lavishly garlanded with women’s wardrobes of crepe and satin, diamond wreaths, silver embroidery, gold lamé trim, and feathered headdresses.
In the next generation, Hannah’s son Lionel and his wife (and cousin), Charlotte, turned their imposing “Piccadilly House” into London’s midcentury center for entertainment and politics, while Lionel’s brother Mayer and his wife, Juliana, built Mentmore in Buckinghamshire (which, like Piccadilly, became Rothschild territory). Mentmore was, as one visitor said, “rather palace than villa,” with twenty-six bedrooms, hot running water, lanterns built for the doge of Venice, a vaulted glass ceiling, Jacobean architecture, and an “exquisite collection of antique furniture.” Lionel and Mayer’s rivalrous sister-in-law Louisa (née Montefiore), the wife of Anthony Rothschild, responded by lavishly doing up her estate at Aston Clinton, near Aylesbury.
Later in the century Charlotte’s daughter Evelina—like many Rothschilds also married to a cousin, Ferdinand—saw the beginnings, before she died, of their “spectacular Renaissance Revival mansion,” Waddesdon Manor, which embodied Rothschild grandeur (and art collecting) from the 1880s onward. Evelina’s brother Natty, the first Lord Rothschild, with his wife (and cousin) Emma, bought Tring Park, a vast Hertfordshire estate near Mentmore and Aston Clinton. Their son Walter, otherwise prone to scandals and catastrophes, created a remarkable museum of insects and birds there, the contents of which were passed on to his niece Miriam, who made it the basis of her scientific research. Her houses—Elsfield Manor near Oxford and Ashton Wold in Northamptonshire—became legendary mixtures of wild gardens, menageries, labs, and exhibition spaces.
Creativity, landscaping, culture, and science were often showcased in the Rothschild houses. Lionel and Charlotte’s independent, art-loving niece Blanche had an 1880s Scottish estate, Balcarres, with a Pre-Raphaelite artistic tone, where at costume balls the guests dressed up as “gipsy girls,” fishermen, and “Turks.” Louisa’s daughter Constance created, with her dubious husband, Cyril Flower, a coastal country retreat in Norfolk in the 1880s–1890s, “the Pleasaunce” at Overstrand, awkwardly extended by Edwin Lutyens, who was always being driven to despair—as was Constance—by Cyril’s impossible demands. In 1915 Overstrand (like several Rothschild homes in both wars) was turned over to refugees and war-wounded. Retreating to London, Constance “slept with her pearls on and a fur cloak at the foot of her bed, so that she could make a hasty retreat to the stillroom if her butler announced that the Zeppelins were on their way.”
By far the least domesticated Rothschild home was that of Miriam’s divorced sister Nica, jazz lover, bold and enlightened patron and companion of black American jazz musicians (most notably Thelonious Monk), drug and alcohol user, and wildly intractable personality, whose 1950s life in the “Cat House,” a “modernist pile” on the Hudson River where she lived after being thrown out of several New York hotels, was a chaotic, dilapidated mix of musicians and animals. Hannah Rothschild remembered the “frayed carpets” and the lack of “food or decent wine.” Nica is described by Livingstone, benignly, as having an “aristocratic nonchalance towards her surroundings.” But “nonchalance” is not the word that springs to mind for the earlier Rothschild chatelaines.
The contrast between the formalities of Gunnersbury or Waddesdon and the idiosyncrasies of Elsfield or the Cat House marks huge generational changes. Nica didn’t care about her reputation and abhorred married life—not surprisingly when her bullying diplomat husband, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, had a light bulb hung in front of her at the dinner table and flicked it on and off to remind her of her hostessing duties. Miriam, bisexual and adventurous into old age, preferred scientific research to motherhood. Her daughter Rozsika “Rosie” Parker worked at the monthly Spare Rib and became a feminist art historian. These women forged their own paths. Earlier Rothschild women had a harder time doing so—though Livingstone provides plenty of evidence of their frustration with conventional roles. Charlotte, summoned to her brother-in-law’s house Mentmore in 1848, wrote to her husband, Lionel, “Ever since I became your wife, I have got to do what others want, never what I would like to do. Pray, that I shall be compensated when in Heaven.”
In between giving birth (and sometimes dying in the process), bringing up children, looking after sick or depressed husbands and demanding relatives, arranging suitable marriages, keeping a sharp eye on their husbands’ businesses, smoothing over family rifts, shopping, overseeing their mansions, and making their mark at court and as society hostesses, what else could the women do for their own fulfillment? Plenty, comes the resounding answer.
The obvious outlets were the soft-power zones of social welfare, education, and culture. Livingstone tracks an impressive history of female Rothschild philanthropy. Hannah’s early-nineteenth-century involvement with the Jews’ Free School, for girls as well as boys, in the East End, an endeavor much influenced by the utopian socialist Robert Owen, was deliberately mixed with Christian causes, such as the “distressed silk manufacturers of Spitalfields.” The publicity was good, but the commitment was heartfelt. Hannah’s daughter Charlotte carried on that East End work, and Hannah’s daughter-in-law Louisa, when still a Montefiore (the Sephardic Anglo-Jewish family famous for banking, diplomacy, and social reform), founded the Cheap Jewish Library in 1840 to provide accessible literature for working-class Jews. Louisa continued Hannah’s work with the Jewish Free School, believing strongly that the school should promote the “anglicisation” of the East End Jews, who in her view “would only achieve security and employment as they became more English.” Her own daughters, Constance and Annie, set up a girls’ school in Buckinghamshire in the 1850s for the Christian, rural working classes, with the enthusiastic support of the schools’ inspector, one Matthew Arnold. This educational philanthropy ran parallel to the political movement for Jewish civil rights.
Livingstone describes generations of Rothschild women doing social work in the East End. The most active of all was Constance, who distracted herself from her marriage by working in the 1880s for the temperance movement, largely run by Christians, which drew her away from the family faith. “How cold and soulless is our Jewish church…How different is the Xtian church and oh! How I long to belong to it,” she wrote in her diary in 1882. Bravely, she took up the cause of “white slavery” and Jewish sex workers, a scandal largely ignored for “fear that it would damage the reputation of the wider Jewish community.” Constance cofounded the Jewish Ladies’ Society for Preventive and Rescue Work, set up hostels and refuges for “fallen women,” and created an educational “night club” for working-class Jewish women immigrants. She wasn’t herself involved with the immigrant arrival dramas, in which the society’s agents would try to intercept the Jewish girls landing at the Port of London docks before the pimps got to them. However much one might want to raise an eyebrow (Livingstone doesn’t) at the spectacle of the millionaire Constance, Lady Battersea, asking donors to raise an extra £200 for the society’s rescue home, her courage and persistence are evident. She went on to work for prison reform, to chair the National Union of Women Workers, and to support the suffrage movement.
Later Rothschild women’s causes included Blanche’s bold funding of the fin-de-siècle Grosvenor Gallery, home for Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism, where she was unfazed by the kind of Times review that described the art as “unaccountable freaks of individual eccentricity.” Then there was Miriam’s involvement with the Schizophrenia Research Fund, arising out of her long guardianship of her sister Liberty (whom she cheerfully referred to as a “lunatic”), and with the 1957 Wolfenden report on the decriminalization of homosexuality. In 1973 her daughter Rosie, in the same spirit of pioneering reform, cofounded the Women’s Art History Collective.
Nineteenth-century Rothschild salons were at the heart of England’s politics, and Anglo-Jewish emancipation generally was one of their main concerns. Since the seventeenth century Jewish immigrants to England “were confined to the limited rights of ‘aliens.’” The struggle for a Jewish naturalization act was an extremely prolonged one. By the eighteenth century, wealthy Jews could apply to be “denizens” (not full citizens), but those who could not afford that were still classed as “aliens.” Jews were deprived of basic civil rights including voting, bequeathing property, and taking civil, military, or municipal office without swearing a Christian oath. Jewish reformists joined forces with Catholics and Dissenters, also fighting for emancipation, in the campaign for “liberty for the Jews.”
Charlotte and Lionel at Piccadilly House hosted cross-party gatherings in the 1840s for “Tories, Whigs, Radicals and Peelites.” Disraeli (a Jewish-born Anglican) was the friend of several Rothschild wives, especially the beautiful Charlotte, a “passionate supporter of Jewish emancipation.” She liked his novel Coningsby, with its admiring account of a (recognizably Rothschildian) Jewish banker, Sidonia, and she may have inspired his novel about Jewish spirituality, Tancred. Its idealistic vision of Judaism (unlike the more complicated and troubling representation of Jews by other Victorian novelists, such as Thackeray and Trollope) colored Disraeli’s political quest for Jewish “rights and privileges.” Livingstone gives a dramatic account of the long battle for emancipation. It took about ten years of campaigning, from Lionel’s election in 1847 as the first Jewish member of Parliament, who by the law of the land could not actually take his seat, to the successful vote for the Jews Relief Act, which allowed him to do so in 1858 without uttering the Christian oath of office.
Almost a decade on, Charlotte was being consulted by the editor of the Times on the campaign for electoral reform, which she championed. This was a nationwide campaign for a new reform bill that would enfranchise not just Jews but “the ‘respectable’ working and artisan class.” When there were riots in the streets for reform, the Rothschild mansions were left unharmed: “The crowd knew us to be their friends.” By then, Earl Russell’s 1866 government contained three Rothschild MPs. Charlotte began to cultivate Gladstone, Russell’s chancellor of the exchequer; he and Disraeli would come to dinner at Piccadilly House on alternate nights.
Charlotte’s niece Hannah, whose (gentile) husband became the Earl of Rosebery, used their home, Lansdowne House, as the “social headquarters of Liberalism,” where Gladstone was also a regular guest. Hannah was deeply involved with 1860s Liberal campaigning. “For God’s sake don’t leave me running behind after politics,” she told her husband in 1878. She campaigned alongside him, and after Gladstone’s success in the 1880 election she became even more absorbed and helped to engineer her husband’s appointment as foreign secretary. In 1885 Hannah’s cousin Natty was made the first Lord Rothschild—he was the first Jew in the House of Lords—and Constance’s awful husband Cyril was promoted by Gladstone from an MP to a barony in 1892. But the women of the family put their foot down at his becoming governor of New South Wales, much to his disgust.
During World War I some leading Rothschild women took up the campaign for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Chaim Weizmann, leader of the Zionist movement in England, courted the family assiduously, though given their dedication to anglicization they had historically been opposed to the Zionist cause. He found a sympathetic ear in the young Dolly, wife of the sporty, Paris-born banker James Armand, great-grandson of Mayer and Gutle. Dolly brought many of her relatives on board, including the energetic, domineering, Hungarian-born Rózsika (mother of Nica). At a dinner in 1916 one Rothschild lady was heard saying, “We all in this house are Weizmannites.” The Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, was worded in consultation with Rózsika and other family members. “The journey to the Balfour Declaration,” Livingstone writes, “had had as much to do with the women of the family as with the men.” Over the next thirty years, Dolly and James (who inherited Waddesdon in 1922) were central figures in lobbying for the establishment of the State of Israel. And between 1948 and her death at ninety-three in 1988, Dolly was a supporter of Israel on a grand scale.
This history of political engagement has to be seen, throughout, against the background of virulent anti-Semitism. On the tower outside the Frankfurt ghetto, murals depicted the body of a slaughtered child, referring to the age-old blood libel against the Jews, and rabbis devouring pig shit, incited by the devil. In nineteenth-century England Jews “were the victims of routine discrimination and humiliation,” and the Rothschilds “were still seen primarily as Jews who belonged on the periphery.” In 1839, when Nathan’s daughter Hannah Mayer was the first Rothschild to marry a Christian, Queen Victoria reported on a conversation with her prime minister Lord Melbourne: “Jewesses ‘All are round eyed, hook-nosed,’ and he don’t admire them.” (The queen’s court was full of anti-Semites and much against making Jews peers.)
In parliamentary debates on Jewish emancipation, the bishop of Oxford, son of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, talked of Jews as “haters of Christianity”; one of his supporters said that Jewish MPs would “spell the end of Britain’s ‘greatness’ as a nation.” Charlotte, after listening to the 1848 debate over a bill sparing such members the need to swear a Christian oath and to the huge “roar of approval” that greeted its defeat, dreamed—in a telling transference of the blood libel trope—that “a huge vampire was greedily sucking my blood.” Punch ran a typically disgusting cartoon showing members of the House of Lords drawing up their robes in horror as “A NASTY! GREAT! UGLY! JEW BILL” crawls into the House in the form of a stick insect—or, possibly, a cockroach. “By the time of the 1857 general election, emancipation had become a prominent political issue,” and anti-Semitic sentiment was loud. Jews with a seat in Parliament, one High-Church Tory declared, would do “all in their power to put down the Christian nation.”
And so it continued. The great wave of 1880s Jewish immigrants into the East End brought out all the old imagery in the press, of “the odour of offal,” the “teeming population” breathing a “foetid atmosphere”: “One cannot escape here from the overpowering personality of the Jewish type.” Sixty years on, Miriam felt guilt and horror at the historical accident that had kept her safe in England while many European Rothschilds fell victim to the Nazis. But in that safe country of England, the same anti-Semitic reflexes recurred over and over—in apathetic or hostile responses to Jewish “enemy nationals” at the end of World War II, and in the desecration of north London graves, thirty years later, with the words “Yid Out.”
For the Rothschild women, some of whom felt, like the feminist Rosie Parker, that they had inherited a sense of “outsiderness,” anti-Semitism was compounded with sexism, often from within the family. There are many examples, from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, of male Rothschilds talking about female inadequacy (women were “just typical women”; you had to know “how to handle them”) or of fathers rejecting congratulations on the birth of a new child (“It’s only a girl”). As a twentieth-century scientist, Miriam (known only half-admiringly as the “Queen of Fleas”) constantly came up against sexist condescension. In the scientific community, attitudes “towards a talented female amateur ranged from wariness to downright hostility.” Though Mayer Amschel’s original exclusion of women from the family business was, over time, pretty much obliterated, the prejudice that provoked it lived on.
There were plenty of other pressures within the family: domestic conflicts, difficult relations, impossible behavior. Rothschilds fell out, often, over marriages. Lucrative alliances with other wealthy and respected Jewish families (Cohens, Montefiores, Goldsmids) or endogamous matches were approved of—they kept the next generation safe and the wealth within the family. After Hannah Mayer married out, in 1839, to the horror of many in the family, she fell on troubled times. Several of her relatives thought it was a judgment on her “for having deserted the faith of her fathers”—not that the faith was universally sustained. Many Rothschilds were nonpracticing, secular, or skeptical Jews. Still, the Jewish press wanted the Rothschilds to keep up an example of “the spiritual integrity of European Jewry,” even after marrying out had become quite common. At the same time, gentiles who married into the family were suspected of marrying for money.
The rifts over marriages—like the arguments over Zionism, which divided the family—all had to do with the “long-standing project of anglicization.” What the English Rothschilds had always wanted—and the women were at the forefront of this aim—was to “carve out a space…in the civic and cultural life of Britain,” to represent “acculturated Jewishness.” Arguments over marrying out, conversion, or loss of faith always related to these issues.
These were not the only fraught areas. The history is scarred with scandals and disasters—what Livingstone calls aptly a “plague of misfortunes.” In the family “psychodrama” there was a trail of rivalries, bad marriages, cold relations between mothers and children, black sheep, unfaithful husbands, blackmail, cruelty, divorces, suicides, mental illness, and depression. Livingstone often comments on the “reserve and obsessive privacy” that darkens the family character. But there was also energy, resilience, ambition, verve, entrepreneurial genius, and courage. Miriam, a doughty survivor and one of the heroines of the book, spoke of the “profoundly traumatic” experience of writing about her family past. But, she added, “one cannot cast aside one’s heritage.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the Wolfenden report.