The other day I posted an informational piece about the life of the late Naomi Jacobs–author, actress, activist, suffragist, broadcaster–who died in 1964 leaving behind around 80 novels, many of them bestselling in her time, as well as autobiographies and plays. Corazon Books has re-issued, in digital format, the first book in her widely loved and highly successful Gollantz Saga and I was able to interview the publisher (who has knowledge of her from her great-great nephew). It’s a piece not to miss about this extraordinary woman, so check it out here.
I’ve also had the pleasure of reading the first book, The Founder of the House, of which I was pleasantly amused in a most grand way. See it’s even making me talk as they did overseas in the late 1800s when fine things were popular, as in the setting of the book. But in all serious, I was breathtakingly, yet surprisingly, entranced by this novel! I heard once that her family stated that it’s too bad that she didn’t ever write more than one draft of her novels before publication, well, why mess with something that would have been pure perfection for her time!
The novel was first published in 1925 and is written in the way that most great novelists did at the time, with a “telling you the story” approach rather than a plot driven by dialogue or action. It was as if it was indeed a family story passed down through the generations, even though in reality it was from her imagination.
I was immediately transported in time, as with the ghost of Christmas past, and given a view inside generations of the Gollantz family. I felt through her story telling as if I was an outside observer, which I think was kind of entertaining. It was kind of like watching a stage play. I think that is how the best of most older story telling was done. She writes in this time period beside other great novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby came out that year too), Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Louis Bromfield (whose many books graced the silver screen). I’m saying her style matches each of these, though it does resemble the story telling of Wharton and the desire to show the frivolity, human nature of people, and unrequited love among those of various social classes as Fitzgerald.
In Founder of the House, you find a love story in multiple generations–unrequited and meaningless love, but then with great grace she reaches to us through her characters to show how one deals with that type of love; the love between father and daughter; husband and wife; father and son; brother and son–in all shapes and form. I was enthralled by each interaction, whether feeling happy, then sad, or thoughtful or distraught for each character. But in all, and without preaching, if you read closely between the lines and think about the story, you’ll see Jacobs underlying messages about how to live life and interact with others or overcome pain and sadness.
Beyond that, this book is about a Jewish family. A successful family who deals in trade and interiors and runs the shop, The House of Gollantz, but who are very honest and reliable. She never wavers from the fact that each generation of this Jewish family is honorable and that is how they come to be successful. She makes sure that her characters, especially the last protagonist, Emmanuel, who is the grandson of the man we read about at the beginning of the book, is portrayed and has a dislike for the Jew who swindles and does bad business. She is quite aware of making that distinction. With that, she allows her Jewish family in the book to align with the important people of England, Vienna, and ironically, England again by the end of the story. She showed with great care how they COULD be equals (at that time in many European countries, Jews were not allowed to socially integrate with aristocrats, only respected for business). Her male Jewish characters are incessantly falling in love with this Baroness or that one, who fall for their good looks, but are married, and it’s scandalous of course. It brings us suspense in romance without one ever barely giving the brush of a kiss. Ah, it was Gone with the Wind type of romance set in 1800s Europe among antique glitz and glam, dinners of rich foods and wine.
The detail with which she describes the furnishings, art, and china within the House of Gollantz was astonishing. She must have had a passion for it as well, because the characters passion for their work came through in my reading. It made me passionate for these place settings and interior furnishings. I want to buy something from their shop; sit in a Henry the XVI chair and drink from Ming china! She takes great care in the description and details of her character’s personalities, clothing, appearance, and eating habits as well. I could absolutely visualize in my head each of these characters. The Gollantz father, Hermann, and his son, Emmanuel, with their immaculate dress and the importance they put upon clothes, made me think this must have been her own personal nod to her Jewish grandfather who was a tailor.
Being half-Jew herself, Jacobs spoke out against the discrimination of Jews in her own life. In this saga her family is Jewish, she brings to the reader an understanding of the hard-working Jew and what they had to offer, more than she spent lecturing. I think any reader then, or now, can take away lessons in equality from her story without ever realizing it. I was swept up in the romance and story and suddenly I was understanding more than I thought I knew before. Her books would do well to be studied for how they promote equality among religious and ethnic groups. It’s a lesson-how to get along with others and break down stereotypes- we can still learn today, even if the times have changed.
I loved this paragraph, for example, when Hermann, in speaking to his son, and said (and keep in mind the story is in the last 1800s-the novel written in 1925):
“‘You see, 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.’….’Listen, Emmanuel, for this is something you must remember always. 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.'”
And there are even more touching and amazing quotes in her novel that should be really not be forgotten and be read and taught and discussed in literature, history, and race and ethics classes worldwide. Her depth of thought is quite enamoring and her story telling, in essence, is captivating. What a woman and author! She truly strived to break down barriers. There are so many underlying messages in this book that I could go on for hours.
I completely fell in love with this book, and as the end of book is a sort of cliffhanger, and another stage of the whirlwind story is to begin, I’m ready to dive in to the rest of the story. I hear the second book, That Wild Lie, might be coming soon, and I’ll be first to click download. I can’t wait to read the whole saga.
I highly recommend Founder of the House for readers who truly love great literature and storytelling, old-fashioned romantic melodrama, the lure of 1800 Europe society, and the struggle among class and distinction. I can truly see why this was a best-selling novel. It’s like Colleen McCullough‘s The Thornbirds, but set in a different place and time. It would make a great made-for-television historical mini-series if they still made those!
The Founder of the House, Synopsis
Publication Date: August 23, 2014 (re-issue to digital)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Set in nineteenth century Paris, Vienna and London, this is a novel about family ties and rivalries, love and ambition.
The Founder of the House introduces us to Emmanuel Gollantz, the son of a Jewish antique dealer, Hermann Gollantz.
Hermann lives his life according to the principles of loyalty, honesty and honour instilled in him as a child. But these ideals are ruthlessly exploited by his wife’s family, threatening everything that is important to him. Protecting his beloved wife, Rachel, from the truth carries a great cost.
As a young man, Emmanuel, becomes involved with the inner circle of the Viennese Court, where his passion for the married baroness, Caroline Lukoes, has far-reaching consequences both for himself and the House of Gollantz.
The Founder of the House is the first book in the bestselling Gollantz Saga – an historical family saga tracing the lives and loves of the Gollantz family over several generations. This seven-novel series explores how one family’s destiny is shaped by the politics and attitudes of the time, as well as by the choices and actions of its own members.
The Gollantz Saga Titles
Book One: Founder of the House
Book Two: That Wild Lie
Book Three: Young Emmanuel
Book Four: Four Generations
Book Five: Private Gollantz
Book Six: Gollantz: London, Paris, Milan
Book Seven: Gollantz & Partners
Praise for The Gollantz Saga
“Recommended. Ms Jacob writes skilfully and with that fine professional assurance we have come to expect of her.” –The Times
“Impressive.” –London Evening Standard
“A good family chronicle.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Besides the interest of the plot, Miss Jacob’s book has much to recommend it. The style of the novel is unimpeachable, marked by sincerity, dignity and a sense of the dramatic. I can safely recommend “The Founder of the House.” –Western Mail (Perth)
Buy the eBook~
The Late Author Naomi Jacob, Biography~
Naomi Jacob (1884-1964) was a prolific author, biographer and broadcaster. She is perhaps best known for her bestselling seven-novel series, The Gollantz Saga, which traces several generations of the Gollantz family in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Jacob had a mixed heritage, which influenced her life and work. Her paternal grandfather was a Jewish tailor who had escaped the pogroms of Western Prussia and settled in England, while her mother’s family had strong Yorkshire roots. Her maternal grandfather was the two-time mayor of Ripon in Yorkshire. He also owned a hotel in the town. Her father was headmaster of the local school.
Jacob loved the theatre and became a character actress on stage and in film, notably opposite John Geilgud in The Ringer (1936). She also associated with the Du Mauriers, Henry Irving, Marie Lloyd and Sarah Bernhardt.
She published her first novel, “Jacob Usher” in 1925. It became a bestseller.
In 1928 she appeared for the defence of Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness”, and developed a friendship with Hall and her companion Una Troubridge.
After suffering with tuberculosis, in 1930 she left England for Italy, where she lived for most of the rest of her life. She lived in a villa in Sirmione on Lake Garda, which she called “Casa Mickie” (she was known to friends and family as “Mickie”).
In 1935 she was awarded the Eichelberger International Humane Award, for outstanding achievement in the field of humane endeavour, for her novel “Honour Come Back”. She rejected the award when she discovered that another recipient of the award had been Adolf Hitler, for “Mein Kampf”.
Jacob was involved in politics – she stood as a Labour PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) and was a suffragette.
In 1940, she was evacuated back to England when Italy entered the Second World War. She joined the Entertainments National Service Association, becoming famous for her flamboyant appearance— crew cut hair, and wearing a monocle and First World War Women’s Legion uniform.
She returned to Sirmione before the end of the war, helping Jewish refugees in the town. Over the years, she frequently returned to the UK, and in the 1950s and early 1960s was regularly to be heard on the BBC radio programme “Woman’s Hour”.
She wrote the seven-novel Gollantz saga about several generations of a Jewish family, tracing their path from Vienna in the early nineteenth century to establishing a life and antique business in England in the twentieth century. It is a saga about family loyalty, honour and love, while also reflecting on the politics and ideals of the era.
See the full tour here: