Though a prolific and popular writer in her time, Naomi Jacob’s work has been somewhat neglected in recent years. However, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death, Corazon Books is publishing digital editions of her Gollantz family saga (the first of which is available now) spanning several volumes and generations of a Jewish family whose experiences take them all over Europe (Corazon Books ebook £1.99).
This is a curious first volume, deeply old-fashioned, but full of charm and fascinating characters. Jacob was a consummate storyteller, and the Gollantz family come to life on the page, imbued with warmth and humour, as well as psychological and emotional truth.
This first volume, set in 19th-century Paris, Vienna and London, has passion, intrigue, love and betrayal as we are introduced to the protagonist Emmanuel and his family.
Born in Yorkshire, to an English mother and German Jewish father, Jacob herself converted to Roman Catholicism at a young age. But she remained proud of her Jewish heritage, something clearly evident in the Gollantz saga, which she began writing just before the Nazis swept to power in Germany.
She rejected the Eicherberger International Humane Award when she discovered that Hitler was a recipient. And indeed, her prolific output often touches on Jewish issues, including pogroms and prejudice.
Jacob’s own life was at least as colourful as that of any of her characters. As well as being a successful novelist and biographer (notably of music-hall star Marie Lloyd), she became a character actress, numbered Henry Irving and Sarah Bernhardt among her friends, and appeared opposite John Gielgud in an Edgar Wallace play.
Jacob was also politically active, campaigning for women’s suffrage and, unusually for a woman of her generation, she lived openly as a lesbian.
Having suffered recurrent bouts of TB, she made Sirmione, on Lake Garda in Italy, her home for many years, where a blue plaque was put up in her memory.
One reason for the decline in the popularity of her books may be that, in recent years, television and film have virtually monopolised the telling of family sagas.
Though now almost forgotten, Jacob was certainly a celebrity in her day, even receiving the ultimate accolade of appearing on Desert Island Discs. An extract of her lively interview with Roy Plomley can still be found in the BBC Archives.
She died aged 80 in 1964.