Book review: House of Gold

Madeleine Kingsley enjoys dynastic life woven from rich prose


It is the year 1911 and the House of Gold is a byword of opulence and order. From this Hampshire country seat, inspired by palaces of the Valois kings, Lord Goldbaum commands Europe’s most powerful banking dynasty.

The family has flourished spectacularly since great-grandfather Moses Goldbaum despatched five sons from the Frankfurt ghetto across the Continent.

Each young man left Jew Street with a silver sycamore seedpod, denoting the capacity to prosper on the hardest of ground.

Natasha Solomons’s lush new novel opens four generations on when the Goldbaums conduct business with princes, chancellors and kings. Her portrait of anglicised Jewish privilege is so believable that they seem to leap from a sepia-tinted photo album.

Some old observances remain: the breakfast sausages are beef not pork, but the three sorts of milk served every day hail from their own prize-bred cattle.

These Goldbaums marry into different branches of their own family tree, thus keeping their treasure intact. In Hampshire, a footman is employed solely to wind the exquisite clocks. All Goldbaums are collectors — of Fabergé eggs, Louis Quatorze furniture, racehorses, jewels… all, that is, except reluctant Viennese bride-to-be Greta.

She will not be constrained by corsets or family tradition, pinned into a frame like one of her husband Albert’s rare, dried butterflies.

Advised to forget the possibility of love and to refuse Albert one time in three just to keep him on his toes, Greta learns to make up her own sexual mores.

The seeds that seize her imagination are not silver but the sort to be planted in a glorious garden, requiring the soiling of lady-like hands. Greta, in short, collects trouble.

She is the centrepiece and spirited star of Solomons’s saga who redraws the stuffy parameters of what an Edwardian marriage can be.

The other Goldbaums of this deliciously descriptive, richly researched family fiction, do diplomacy, hugely profitable deals, and loans beyond the dreams of Midas. But they do not traditionally do trouble. At least not openly: a gambling problem here, a Parisian mistress there — such private scandals can be sorted or suppressed by wealth.

The parliamentary tension between being landed aristocracy but also outsider Jewish just about holds. But when the political landscape darkens and the Great War erupts, the House of Gold comes under fire of its own.

The close cousins of England, Austria and Germany find themselves on opposing sides. Money no longer opens the right doors or guarantees safe passage. Letters of emotional and financial credit must be rewritten in a humbler hand.

If Galsworthy and Pasternak set the epic bar for love, loss, and the grand sweep of history. Natasha Solomons is a worthy successor.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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