Book Review: Jewish visitors to Britain

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is it possible to fall in love with a country? Surrounded by the seasons and customs of a foreign land, can one ever feel at home? Nineteen-year-old Elise Landau and 20-something Lily Taub, the heroines of two recent novels, have very different reactions when they first arrive in Great Britain. In "The House of Tyneford" by Natasha Solomons (Plume), Elsie moves to England to escape from the Nazis in 1938, while in "In the King’s Arms" by Sonia Taitz (McWitty Press), Lily, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, travels to Oxford in 1976 to complete an advanced degree. Both women learn not only the difficulty of fitting into a new world, but how love can transform one’s fate.

Elise, the narrator of "The House of Tyneford," resists leaving her parents and sister in Vienna, although they assure her that once they receive their visas and settle in the United States they will send for her as soon as possible. Unlike her musician mother and sister, and her novelist father, Elise has no special talents: the only way for her to leave the country is by seeking a position as a domestic servant.

Elise’s employer owns a grand estate in rural England, which takes her far from the city life she knows. The endless drudgery of being a parlor maid in a house with not-quite-enough servants keeps her far busier and more tired than she thought possible. Even more difficult is finding a place for herself: she is unable to fit properly into the role of a servant due to her middle class background. Yet, as a Jew, she can never be part of British society. When Kit, the heir of the estate, returns to Tyneford, the friendship they develop threatens to become something more and jeopardizes Elise’s position at the house. When World War II arrives, Elise’s fate and that of Tyneford become intertwined.

Solomons, who wrote the wonderful "Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English," has defeated the sophomore jinx by writing a work even better than her first. From its very first line – "When I close my eyes I see Tyneford House" – readers are drawn into the novel’s sweet and sad tale. While the absorbing plot keeps pages turning, Solomon also successfully creates a wide variety of believable characters, ranging from Elise’s fellow servants to members of British society. However, Elise is her finest creation: Solomon not only shows her good points and bad, but how she matures, learning to better understand herself and those she loves.

"The House of Tyneford" is also filled with lush descriptions that make one see the landscape through Elise’s eyes. For example, when she first glimpses the countryside, she notes that "to the right lay a lacework of silver rivers running through small green fields, spotted with the brown-and-white backs of cattle. Ponds glimmered like ladies’ hand mirrors, growing larger as they rushed into the vast grey sea." The branches of towering trees resemble "a mass of clasping hands and limbs." Even better, though, are Solomons’ descriptions of Elise’s feelings. When wishing she wouldn’t have to leave for England, it seems like "the days slid by. I felt them pass faster and faster like painted horses on a carousel." When frustrated by her inability to communicate, she acknowledges that "my lack of English imprisoned me in silence."

One result of moving to Britain is that Elise finally identifies herself as Jewish. In Vienna, her parents were unobservant: "We never went to the brick synagogue on Leopoldstadt; we ate schnitzel in nonkosher restaurants, celebrated Christmas rather than Chanukah and were proud to be among the new class of bourgeois Austrians. We were Viennese Jews but, up until now, the Viennese part came first." While it might have been easy to deny her heritage, during the first meal with her fellow staff at Tyneford, she refuses to say amen to a Christian prayer. When asked why, she can only say, "I am a Jew." How she says it comes as a revelation: "The tone of my voice surprised me. It was strong and clear: an absolute declaration. I had never said those words before; I’d been driven out of my Vienna and across the sea because of them and yet I had never uttered them aloud." Her determination is so firm that no one mentions again her refusal to say grace.

While "The House of Tyneford" is definitely a work of fiction, underlying the tale are true stories. Elise is based on Solomons’ great-aunt, who fled to Britain to work as a mother’s helper. Tyneford is modeled after a village on the Dorset coast that was greatly affected by the war. Solomons captures the emotions of the time in a story that resonates long after its final pages are read.

While Elise longed to stay in Vienna or move with her family to the United States, the opposite is true for Lily in "In the King’s Arms." She dreamed of visiting Britain, as "the Anglo-Christian empire had sunk its stake in her imagination as soon as she read ‘Hamlet’ (on a typical, schizoid yeshiva day in which she’d had Torah before lunch and Shakespeare directly after)." It’s not until she’s seeking an advance degree that she is able to overcome her parents’ resistance to foreign travel. At first, Lily feels out of place, realizing modern England is very different from the country she envisioned. Fortunately, she is befriended by Peter Aiken, who introduces her to the "Pseuds," a group of pretentious undergraduates who argue about art and philosophy.

When Peter invites Lily to spend Christmas with his family, she’s surprised to find herself in the countryside. Although she’s already met –and been attracted – to his brother, Julian, this is the first time she encounters Peter’s mother, step-father and toddler half-brother. The visit goes well until Julian and Lily fall deeply and passionately in love, a love that upsets not only Julian’s family, but Lily’s sense of herself.

Julian’s mother, Helena Kendall, clearly dislikes Lily, even though she tries to hide it. She believes Lily is taking advantage of Julian because she’s older and more established. Lily’s Jewishness also creates problems for Helena. She can’t help thinking, for example, that "Jews always sighed. Caught up in their greedy yearnings. A portable people, the Jews. Always coming from heaven knows where. Fragile as dandelions, as impossible to get rid of. Tough, too. Planted in your sitting room. This siren plainsong could go on forever, with or without support."

Although Lily might like to discard her Jewish heritage, the stories her parents shared about their experiences during the Holocaust have become part of her essential self. The section relating these tales is the most moving and shocking of the novel. Yet, Lily still feels a need to combine both worlds, the world of her parents and the world of Shakespeare.

Even though Lily is 21 years old, her reaction to falling in love is more reminiscent of an adolescent. Both lovers act immaturely, which cast doubts on whether or not their relationship can survive. Fortunately, the plot takes some unexpected turns and the novel’s satisfying ending shows both main characters in a far better light.