The First Mrs. Rothschild, filled with history, romance, intrigue, and family drama, carries readers back to the period of late 1700s to mid-1800s in Germany. Author Sara Aharoni tells the fictionalized story of the prominent Jewish family that succeeded in building an international banking empire.
The novel, which was first published in Hebrew in 2015 and won Israel’s Steimatsky Prize, has now been translated into English.
The author structures her novel as three notebooks, with entries written by Gutle Rothschild, the wife of Meir Amschel Rothschild, founder of the banking family. Gutle serves as the first-person narrator in a story that unfolds from her marriage in 1770 at the age of seventeen, to her death in 1849, at close to ninety-six.
During that time, she never moved out of the ghetto of Frankfurt, the Judengasse, even when Jews were permitted to do so. She and her husband were both born there, and it is where they raised their ten children and started the family banking business. Modest by nature, she had no desire and felt no necessity to leave her home.
Gutle, who was known as Gutaleh, was a careful observer of the goings on around her, but content with her role as mother and homemaker. She was very much in love with her husband — she admired his dedication, was proud of his achievements and convinced of his good judgment, and willing to accede to his decisions. On occasion, she questioned his reasoning or expressed her doubts about some of his actions, but she never opposed him, be it in business or family matters. Yet, there were decisions to question, as Meir advanced his family’s interests in the banking and financial worlds of Europe, using what was a remarkable talent for recognizing and seizing opportunities while ensuring that his sons would be in the position to carry them even further.
As a personality, Gutle conveys an air of passivity, supporting her husband, yet taking little part in his activities, except for a brief interlude working in the business. This may disappoint some readers, hoping for more from the woman who was at the heart of the Rothschild empire.
The family drama was enacted through the historical turbulence of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Meir succeeded in navigating through it all without losing his focus, and never stopped fighting for Jewish rights, seeking for others what his money had bought for him and his family. He kept his belief in the declaration of the French Revolution, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” and was convinced that one day, it would include Jews.
While the book may be long and filled with extraneous family detail, and in parts, filled with overwrought language, the historical setting is absorbing and the Rothschild story, although fictionalized, is engaging.