Life & Culture

The women in the shadows: The secret lives of the Rothschild women

A new book about the female members of the Rothschild family shows that many led fascinating lives out of the limelight. Anne Joseph met the author Natalie Livingstone


A few minutes into my online interview with former journalist and historian, Natalie Livingstone from her Notting Hill home, the screen goes black. Fortunately, it is not a tech problem; Livingstone does not like seeing herself over Zoom, she explains, and as she is recovering from flu, I do not argue. Despite admitting to feeling like an “absolute disaster,” she speaks about her latest book, The Women of Rothschild with an obvious respect, passion and fascination for the women whose lives she has delved into: women who are virtually unknown, she says, merely “footnotes” in history.

After the success of her first book, The Mistresses of Cliveden in 2015, Livingstone, 44, was not sure what to write about next. “I guess there are two things that I’m really passionate about: women’s history and Jewish history,” she says. “I loved the experience of writing The Mistresses of Cliveden and knew that I wanted to write another book.” When she asked her friend, the historian Andrew Roberts, about what she should do, he suggested the Rothschild women. “I thought it could be interesting, but at that point I had no idea how interesting and what a rollercoaster it was going to be.”

The book focuses on the stories of 15 Rothschild women, beginning in the 1800s in the Frankfurt ghetto with Gutle, the founding matriarch of the dynasty and ends in the early 21st century. It follows the line of women in the English branch of the family, including Henriette, Gutle’s youngest daughter who moved from Germany to London. “Most people who are familiar with the Rothschilds know that Gutle and Mayer Amschel had five sons. Fewer people are aware that they had five daughters as well.”

The Rothschild men have dominated the history books but Livingstone discovered the immense contribution and influence of Rothschild women in British society and the Jewish community: in politics, philanthropy, art, literature, science and music. Their significance cannot be overstated, says Livingstone, nor can their surname. Would they have achieved what they did without it? “I think what’s admirable about these particular women is that they manage to create a platform for their privilege and manage to use their name in really creative and resourceful ways.”

Yet, why is it that many of them are not more widely known? Livingstone believes this is something endemic in the family, which stems from the death of the bank’s founder, Mayer Amschel Rothschild Mayer in 1812, whose will prohibited any women in the family — daughters or wives of any male descendants — to have any share in the bank’s wealth or any involvement in the decision making of the business. “I think that that set the tone for generations to come.”

Livingstone grew up in Finchley, the daughter of a Hungarian mother who worked in advertising and a father from the East End who set up and ran his own textile business. She studied history at Cambridge University, where she met her husband, the property developer, Ian Livingstone. In 2012, he bought Cliveden, now run as a luxury country house hotel, whose illustrious history not only inspired her to write The Mistresses of Cliveden but also to establish the Cliveden Literary Festival in 2017.

“I feel very lucky, grateful and appreciative that Cliveden came into my life, and that I have the financial circumstances to pursue the work that I love,” she says. But she feels no connection to the Rothschild women, seeing her role purely in terms of a historian, passionate about her subjects. “My part was to read their writings and put them in a book. Having spent an intense period ‘living them,’ they are such important characters to me now.”

Choosing which women to write about was not easy, says Livingstone, hence her decision to concentrate on the English lineage. Even then, she was unable to write about them all because of space constraints or lack of material. “There are so many incredible women. It’s almost impossible to write in depth and do all of them justice.” But did some individuals intrigue her more than others? “Oh gosh, that’s such a difficult question to answer,” she says. “Because at each specific time that I was researching each woman, I couldn’t imagine anything more fascinating. And there were constant surprises.” Henriette, for example, was “a revelation… a feisty young woman,” who brokered a marriage on her own terms to Abraham Montefiore, overriding her “overbearing” brothers’ shidduch attempts. She was later remembered for her racy, Jewish humour.

And then there was Charlotte. “I’d known about her as the wife of the first Jewish MP, Lionel Rothschild. What I didn’t quite understand was that she was the driving force in the Jewish emancipation campaign.” Without her input, Livingstone doubts Lionel would have managed the 11 difficult years from getting his seat in 1847, to overturning the oath by which he had to swear his allegiance to Christianity, thereby enabling him to sit in the House of Commons in 1858. “Charlotte wrote Lionel’s campaign speeches, and witty, incisive letters to the paper. She went out and canvassed for him.” She also built a circle of very influential political friends, from the editor of The Times, John Thadeus Delane to Benjamin Disraeli. “So, she was absolutely crucial. And the thing I find really poignant is that in all of the portraits of Lionel taking his oath in the Commons, Charlotte is not beside him, which she should be.”

But she was completely spellbound by Miriam Rothschild, the natural scientist and campaigner who died in 2005. “The breadth of achievements in her life is absolutely breathtaking: the science, the campaign for mental health, the environmentalism. Miriam didn’t wear leather. Before there was Stella McCartney, there was Miriam Rothschild. She even went to Buckingham Palace in Wellington boots.” As well as contributing to the Wolfenden report, which recommended that homosexuality be decriminalised, she was outspoken about her bisexuality. For a woman of her position at that time, it was a very brave thing to do, says Livingstone. “She was on the pulse point of many topics that are so live today and always had this prescient ability to predict the issues that would dominate the conversation now. How can you not be enthralled by her?”

Many of the Rothschild women were protagonists in important events, including the 1917 Balfour Declaration. “For me, the most interesting, and sadly the most overlooked achievement of the Rothschild women, is actually to be seen in this. It is indelibly linked with Walter Rothschild but, in fact, I would say there is a really good case for the Balfour Declaration being addressed to Rózsika and her cousin, Dorothy Rothschild because, from letters I found in the archives in Waddesdon Manor and the Rothschild Archive in London, Chaim Weizmann actually reached out to Dorothy first.” Dorothy and Rózsika got the rest of the Rothschild family involved in the Zionist cause, she says, and they lobbied politicians, including the foreign secretary. “They actively campaigned for Chaim Weizmann 18 months before Walter even comes into the paper trail.” They also coached Weizmann on how to address different audiences.

“We Rothschilds are inveterate scribblers,” wrote Charlotte and the fact that many of the women were prolific diarists, letter writers and memoirists meant there was a treasure trove of research material from which Livingstone could work. At just under 400 pages, with 50 pages of notes, The Women of Rothschild is the result of six years’ work, which began in Frankfurt to get a feel of the Judengasse, the ghetto area of the city where the family initially lived.

What quickly becomes apparent is how the practice of familial intermarriage was deemed acceptable until the late 19th century. “It’s really shocking when you look at it from a modern perspective,” agrees Livingstone.

“It goes back to that will. In it, Mayer Amschel Rothschild said that nothing was more important than the family, and that meant at any cost. It was about preserving the unity of the bank and the integrity of the name. There’s no question endogamy can’t have been great, for example, there’s an enormous amount of mental health issues that ran in the family. I can’t believe there’s not a correlation between the endogamous matches and the issues of mental health.” But marrying out of the family had consequences too.

The first woman to do so was Hannah Mayer, the daughter of Hannah Barent Cohen and Nathan Rothschild [Mayer Amschel and Gutle’s son] in the early 19th century. “You couldn’t overstate the significance of it. In one generation, the Rothschilds had established themselves as Jewish aristocracy and were committed to their community and their identity.” Hannah had to renounce her Judaism, convert to Christianity and was isolated from her family. She suffered the premature deaths of both her husband and son. “The other women felt she was cursed.”

Livingstone is more than aware that her research represents a tiny percentage of what society is like. It is not aristocratic women that are of particular interest, she emphasises. “It’s the stories of under-researched women, who, through wilful destruction, or careless archiving, have been forgotten.”

Both books have been optioned for the screen. She does want to be involved with the Rothschild TV series, should it happen. “I just want to. I have to be. I feel so passionately about this project,” she says. “I couldn’t give it to someone else.”

The Women of Rothschild by Natalie Livingstone is published by John Murray. To attend the book’s launch at JW3 on November 15, see

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