Thursday, 18 October 2012

Book review: The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild

If you’re looking for an in-depth look into the life and times of the Rothschilds or indeed, of a significant member of this infamous family, this ain’t it.

If you want a light read about a woman who lived in interesting times, then this is ok.  But I’m not going to recommend it to anyone.

The Baroness is a superficial biography of Pannonica Rothschild, born into the English branch of the family when Rothschild was a byword for big money and grand spending. She made a good marriage, had children then left her husband of 15 years to live in New York and obsess about jazz. There you have it.

Sure, there is more to her life story than that, but what Hannah Rothschild (a relative of Pannonica or ‘Nica’) has written is a simple, conversational pseudo- account of a life that could have been fascinating. Unfortunately, the friendly-biographer style of Rothschild, constantly referring to ‘when I interviewed Aunt Miriam', combined with either a lack of good information about Nica or a lack of research, means that this book feels short on both professionalism and those delicious details that allow the personalities of the individuals to leap off the page and engage you in their stories.

Nica as a young woman. 
Rothschild provides just enough historical detail to paint the picture of who the Rothschilds are, where they came from, and what they do. There can be little doubt that her insider knowledge and probable unrivaled access to Rothschild family members and paper has given this book a nice personal touch.

There are few people in this world born into the privilege that many Rothschild children receive. While it is true that with that privilege comes expectations, the weight of history and a version of ‘lack of freedom’, many people, including myself, would be happy to be born into such a world of wealth and connections.

Nica's Bentley. The Bentley and 'The Baroness' became icons in the down-and-out jazz scene of 50s and 60s New York.

Nica Rothschild came across as a character but also an almost cookie-cutter product of her time and class. The author would violently oppose this view, I am sure. However I felt that as much as she was a ‘rebel’, Nica’s unabashed confidence, brashness, spending and don’t-give-a-damn attitude are very much by-products of belonging to a class where you could afford to act that way.

Nica’s great act of rebellion - leaving her unhappy marriage to become a matriarch of the New York jazz scene in the 50s and 60s - led her down an un-trodden path and brought her into contact with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. Most notably Thelonius Monk, the jazz genius, drug addict and troubled soul who became the great obsession of Nica’s life. Interesting, yes. Rebellion? Not really. Not if you think of other society ladies who break free from expectations – people such as Jane Digby or the Mitford girls. Maybe I’m missing the point and not really allowing myself to be impressed. However, it seems to me that when you can keep hold or your Bentley, pearls and furs while patronising all and sundry in the New York underground, life can’t be that tough.

 Nica and Thelonious Monk - the great obsession of her life.

I have read some biographies of society ladies; people who seemingly live quite shallow, uninteresting lives. However, the details that are revealed and the personalities that are allowed to come through the writer’s words create interest in their stories. To gloss over an incident is to make it ordinary: 'Oh, they stole light aircraft from the army and flew over Africa, one time landing amongst a tribe of pygmies' sounds almost commonplace when you don’t put any layers into the event. It is the impressions, the people and the details that make a story worth reading and that is what is lacking in this university assignment of a book.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. I do tend to judge more severely a book that doesn’t engage me and I did not want to pick up The Baroness once I’d started it. However, to each their own and if you want a light-hearted portrait of an interesting woman, look at this book.

Meanwhile – can anyone recommend a good history of the Rothschild family? I’d love to read one.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...