Sunday, August 18, 2019

The First Mrs. Rothschild by Sara Aharoni, fiction about the matriarch of a Jewish banking dynasty

With her third novel, a prizewinner in Israel, Sara Aharoni illuminates the matriarch of an international banking dynasty, perhaps the most famous in the world. When one thinks of the name Rothschild, visions of immense wealth, financial power, and influence come to mind, but their origins were humble. Aharoni shows how her heroine, a woman of remarkable character, retained her modest lifestyle through her near-century-long life and instilled strong values in her family.

As a female historical-novel protagonist, Gutle Schnapper, nicknamed Gutaleh, is unusual since she’s content, and proud, to be the wife of a great man and the mother of his many children (five sons and five daughters that survived). Conditions in the Judengasse (Jewish quarter) of Frankfurt in 1770 are overcrowded, and its residents, forbidden from full citizenship, face tight restrictions on their movement, behavior, and careers. Meir Amschel Rothschild, well aware of these prejudices, determines to achieve dignity through financial success, and he finally wins Gutaleh’s father’s approval after becoming court banker to Wilhelm, crown prince of Hesse-Kassel.

In a voice that feels true to her culture, Gutaleh evokes her daily joys and laments, including her passionate marriage, her children’s births and deaths, and her periodic concerns (“Is it seemly to have our profits founded in war?” she wonders). While she remains at home in the Judengasse, running a growing household, Meir makes connections on his travels, overcoming countless obstacles while founding a large banking and trade empire.

The sections where Gutaleh shares details on international politics and economics are rather dry, but she’s an insightful observer of her children’s natures, particularly those of her sons. Each son later establishes his own financial institution in a different European city, creating an indomitable family network. Jewish history buffs will want to read this, and so will anyone seeking an original take on 18th- and 19th-century European history.

The First Mrs. Rothschild, translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan, was published by AmazonCrossing in 2019; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the Historical Novels Review.

Did you know August is Women in Translation Month?  This celebration was founded in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski. Use the hashtag #WITMonth to locate other reviews, articles, interviews, and more on international women writers whose books were translated into English.


  1. I'm trying to read this book and struggling with it a little, I find it a bit slow at the moment. I'm taking breaks by reading The Bird King as well.

  2. How are you liking The Bird King? It sounded interesting.

  3. I am loving it, highly recommend it.

  4. That's great to hear!