Popular Victorian biographer Weintraub (Edward the Caresser, 2001, etc.) returns with a languid account of a dynastic marriage between cousins in the famous banking family.
Though they were friends of Disraeli, Thackeray, and Trollope, bankers to the Queen, rivals of Midas and Croesus, Lionel and Charlotte Rothschild belonged to a group that Victorian England strove mightily to keep in the background. As Jews, the Rothschilds were denied official political roles in England despite their enormous financial sway across Europe. Weintraub (Arts and Humanities Emeritus/Penn. State Univ.) wishes here to place them in the foreground, and a minor strength of this strangely limp account is the narrative of Lionel Rothschild’s 11-year struggle to take his seat in the House of Commons. (His constituents repeatedly elected him, but the gentile Commons would not permit a Jew to be seated, nor would Rothschild agree to take the explicitly Christian oath.) Although the subtitle suggests a “love story,” its focus is often elsewhere. Yes, we are given details of their betrothal: he was 27, she was 16, they were first cousins, and the marriage was arranged. We hear about their wedding in 1836 and about the extremely painful abscess on the buttocks that killed Lionel’s father. We hear as well about the births and childhoods and struggles of the couple’s various children. But the allure of the astonishing Rothschild fortune is too powerful for Weintraub to combat, and so we hear ever less about love and ever more about the Rothschilds’ astonishing homes, their priceless collections of furniture and art, their travels, their soirees (Tom Thumb performed at one), their famous friends, the financial decisions that affected nations, wars, and monarchs. Then we watch them decline: Lionel suffered horribly from arthritis, and both eventually succumbed to strokes.
An unfortunate demonstration that, at least in this case, the people who lend are not nearly so interesting as those who borrow.