'Ticketing oneself a Yid': Generic fiction, antisemitism and the response to Nazi atrocities in Naomi Jacob's 1936 Novel, Barren Metal 

 Claire M. Tylee

As feminist critics such as Nicola Beauman, Barbara Brothers, Phyllis Lassner, Alison Light and Elizabeth Maslen [1] have demonstrated, there was a large body of women's writing entirely disregarded by standard histories of nineteen-thirties British literature before the 1990s. In particular, the overemphasis on Auden and the Spanish Civil War by influential critics like Samuel Hynes and Valentine Cunningham overlooked the ways in which female authors had addressed the rise of Nazism. [2]   However, whilst gynocentric revisionist studies have been a corrective to the high evaluation of Modernism at the expense of the Woman's Novel, they still tend to ignore popular fiction in generic forms such as the family saga and women's romantic fiction. On the other hand, cultural critics such as Tony Kushner and Bryan Cheyette have paid particular attention to the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes in both 'High Art'and popular fiction by male and female authors.  Yet they have offered insufficient analysis of the so-called 'apologist' writing by Jewish authors such as Louis Golding and Naomi Jacob that specifically attempted to challenge antisemitism (Kushner 1994: 156). [3] As Raymond Williams so cogently argued in Marxism and Literature, while any hegemony is by definition always dominant, "it is never either total or exclusive"; hegemony is always in process.  Ethnic or racial hegemony is no exception: "It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended and modified.  It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not at all its own" (112). He claims that works of art are some of our most important evidence of this complex process at work.  In particular, the openness of many works of art which may require, or at least enable, variable responses, is especially significant (113).

I intend here to take issue with the low regard in which critics of 1930s' literature have held Naomi Jacob, even feminist critics specifically discussing women writers or Jewish critics analysing Jewish writing and antisemitism. In particular, I shall argue that Jacob merits greater attention than she receives in Barbara Brothers' pioneering study of how British women wrote the story of the Nazis. What Williams calls "the significant openness" of Jacob's writing is important if we are to understand how British culture varied from continental cultures in its response to fascism.

I also intend to counter the misogyny and intellectual snobbery in Paul Bailey's biography of Naomi Jacob in Three Queer Lives (2001) echoed by Miranda Seymour's judgement that Naomi Jacob was "a truly dreadful and irrepressibly prolific writer". [4] Prolific, yes; dreadful, no. A committed socialist and feminist, she wrote for the kind of people whose children she had taught in the back-streets of Middlesborough. Knowing that "they came from ugly, dirty homes and they ached for brightness, light, sunshine and a little laughter" [5] , that is what she gave them in order to introduce them to new ideas. One of her best novels, Barren Metal, [6] is a good example of her ability to identify with despised people and their temptations to hopelessness. It concerns a working-class Jewish woman, Rachel, who marries a successful businessman but becomes disorientated by his repudiation of their Jewish identity. As Rachel grows in confidence, she finds a way to take her own, independent political stand against Nazism. Naomi Jacob understood despair and found ways of suggesting positive activity, without being patronising. 

This particular novel was clearly designed to confront the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and to oppose the weaker antisemitism of British society. Written in 1935-1936, in Merano, North Italy, the book was presumably prompted by the antisemitic riots and violence against Jews that erupted in Nazi Germany in the summer of 1935 and made headline news in British newspapers. The orchestrated riots were followed by the institution of the Nuremberg Laws in November 1935 which, amongst other rules, proscribed Jewish/Aryan miscegenation. Barren Metal is the only example given by Brothers of the fact that between the wars "so prevalent was the prejudice against Jews that it spurred a number of novelists of Jewish heritage to use their vocation to change the hearts and minds of the British". Nevertheless, she stigmatises this one example as "a repetitious, oversimplified presentation of Jewish life and character in the thirties"(Brothers 1993: 258). Bailey also condemns Barren Metal for lacking subtlety (156). He claims it is shallow in dealing with the situation of "the Eastern Jews" and that it trivialises "what would soon be the fate of millions" (Bailey 2001: 161). However we need to remember that Betty Miller's sophisticated, modernist attempt at the same political project, Farewell Leicester Square, had been rejected by Victor Gollancz in 1935 and was not published until 1941. [7] The efforts to ironise genteel antisemitism by other modernist novelists such as Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen (in The Years (1938) and The House in Paris (1935)) were so oblique that they risked actually reinforcing it.  Jacob used her best-selling status to tackle the issues head on.  That is not to say that she lacked finesse.

Naomi Jacob was one of the most successful writers of popular fiction in the 1930s.  Born in 1884, she did not take up writing until she was in her forties.  Her first novel, Jacob Ussher, was published in 1926.  This was about an elderly Jew, an adaptation of a theatre play by Henry Esmond, Birds of a Feather.  She was at that time working on the stage as a comic actress in light drama.  Resurgence of tuberculosis a few years later meant that she needed to find other means of support in order to live in a dry climate.  From 1929 she lived in Italy by producing 2-6 books a year. (During the next thirty-year period she published over 80 books.) These were mainly light fiction but she became a celebrity through her stream of non-fictional works about her own life and opinions, commencing with Me: a Chronicle about Other People (1933). After the war she developed her celebrity status with talks on the BBC radio programme, Woman's Hour

Her undoubted popularity clearly stems from just that characteristic that alienates her biographer, Paul Bailey; she was boldly transgressive in the three major area of social control: gender, class and race.  She often dressed in trousers in an era when this was most unusual for women and she openly lived a lesbian life, sharing her house with two other women. Although she was discreet about sexuality, in life and in her books, there was nothing ladylike about her behaviour, which could best be described as hearty. Her maternal grandfather was a North Country publican and she was at home in the public-house culture of drinking, jokes and loud talk.  Erratically educated but widely read, she left school at fifteen to train as an elementary-school teacher in a Church school in Middlesborough's slums. She was often short of money at this time, and in constant conflict with the narrow-minded, disciplinarian regime at the school.  Her own teaching was imaginative and inspiring. After six years she abandoned the teaching profession to work as secretary/companion to a music-hall singer, Marguerite Broadfoote, with whom she was in love. Jacob claimed that their seven years together, 1905-12, were the happiest of her life.

Her personal courage is most evident with regard to racism. Her mother's family had roots in Yorkshire going back centuries; her father was a Jewish immigrant, with a German mother, and a father who had fled from a pogrom in Poland in which both of his parents were slaughtered. [8]   Naomi's father had converted to Christianity and worked in an Anglican school.  He despised Jewish culture but she was much attached to her Yiddish-speaking paternal grandfather, a tailor, who, although not orthodox, still maintained Judaic traditions.  Her parents' marriage broke up when Naomi was only eight, due to her father’s promiscuity and marital abuse. Nevertheless, unlike her mother, Naomi Jacob never changed her name, adopting neither a stage-name nor a pen-name. In a period of shameless anti-semitic prejudice, she proudly drew attention to her Jewishness.  Her alertness to racism, well before the age of political correctness, is one of the most significant features of her writing.  As she aged, her fictional work grew increasingly slapdash, oiled by her drinking habit and driven by the need to be popular and make money; her prose is seldom innovative and it lacks decorum, the dialogue veering disconcertingly between high oratory and low slang; she is not given to self-criticism and her plots nourish wish-fulfilment in ways that often seem adolescent. [9]

However, Barren Metal, written in 1936 at the height of her writing career, is far from lackadaisical in construction.  It is a novel she obviously planned with great care in order to engage directly with antisemitism in Britain and apathy towards the current political situation in Germany.  No idiot, she knew that nothing makes an audience switch off more quickly than preaching or polemics;  this novel is not a political tract. Nevertheless it is genre fiction consciously designed for ideological purposes and aimed at a particular readership. Jacob drew on the entertainment skills she had imbibed from music-hall culture, using pathos, melodrama, romance and comic dialogue to amuse her readers and sugar the effort of imagination she required of them.  Her success is evident from the reprints of this novel, even after the war.  The novel draws attention to its own position within the pleasures of a self-fashioning culture. It refers to music, clothes-design, interior decoration, film-making, music-hall artists and songs, to music-appreciation and to novel-reading. (This was typical of mass fiction of that period, which often encouraged its readers, likely to be early school-leavers, in the enterprise of self-education.)

Barren Metal's own construction draws heavily on the one art it does not describe: the theatre, especially the melodrama and broad comedy typical of music-hall playlets.  Her adoption of the theatrical conventions of her period includes the use of emphatic 'curtain moments' at the end of sections or chapters, where a resounding, summarising statement or noise is followed by silence, a brief tableau and then the blank of a scene change, leaving the audience/reader to contemplate. For instance: Albert Bromel's curtain speech denouncing capitalist greed and the worship of the Golden Calf, at the close of Book 2 (165-6); Rachel’s voice, "filled with emotion" ordering her son: "Now – please go!" at the end of Book 3, chapter 2; or the conclusion of a scene of marital discord: "He did not answer; the door between their rooms closed" (117). In fact Bromel functions as the raisonneur, the "right-thinking figure who guides audience response in the well-made Society Drama" (Chothia 1998: xv). Bromel functions as a moral guide not only for Rachel but for the reader. Further aspects of Jacob's method, such as her attention to clothes, objets d'art and furnishings, but the absence of descriptions of such matters as places, weather or crowds, imply that she thinks in terms of costumes, props and stage-sets. Other theatrical conventions include confrontations between characters where powerful emotional states are acted out in large gestures aimed to be seen from the back rows; for instance, when Rachel forgives Meyer, "he made a sudden movement, slipped to the floor and, lifting the hem of her skirt, pressed it to his lips" (191). A more modern convention is the achievement of dramatic suspense through a phonecall where the audience/reader can only hear one side of the conversation (285). All of these features, which may strike the reader of highbrow literature as histrionic, are typical of literature written for an audience used to having its imagination prompted by physical enactment. 

Her writing is at the opposite pole from the cool, detached, minimalist approach of modernism, with its development of complex motivation, absence of authorial comment and use of stream-of-consciousness narrative. There are moments of silent reflection and of unspoken comment in Barren Metal, particularly when Rachel's dissenting thoughts are relayed to us.  But Jacob's characters are not intellectual or complicated and the object of the novel is only occasionally to reveal their consciousness;  the main point lies in what they say and do in the public world rather than in what they think in the privacy of their own minds.  Emotions, beliefs and memories are kept secret for good reason and their revelation is always a high moment of the narrative.

The other major theatrical convention that Bailey finds particularly irritating in Jacob's writing is her playful use of different voices, especially the strong cockney of the servant, Sarah. Bailey mocks the "generous sprinkling of apostrophes and deliberate misspellings" by which Jacob represents the accents or dialects of her speakers,

by having them drop aitches, elongate their vowels, substitute 'v's for 'w's and vice versa. There are nightmarish pages in the novel Barren Metal when a Yiddish-speaking Jew, a cockney and a Yorkshireman are conversing in what [Jacob] believes to be idiomatic English. The apostrophes come at the hapless reader like shrapnel. (Bailey 2001:135)

Unfortunately, readers of popular fiction are seldom conversant with phonetic transcription.

Sarah is an example of the character-type that Jacob herself frequently acted, and probably over-acted, on the stage.  That is, the female version of the 'allowed fool' who opens her mouth and speaks her mind when a refined lady would keep politely quiet. Hers is the voice of common assumptions, the taken-for-granted ideology of everyday life that Jacob's readers would identify with but that the book often gently prompts them to disengage from. She means no offence: "Theer’ll ondly be Yids theer, won’t theer? Wot a gime, eh?" she retorts when she is to be the only gentile at Meyer’s wedding. But Sarah is bonded to Rachel and openly tells her what she thinks, performing a releasing function that encourages Rachel to disregard bourgeois values. That cross-race bonding is itself subversive and binds Rachel into the wider culture. The figure of the loudmouthed, working-class woman, frequently a charwoman, was stock in the theatre of Jacob’s time and is found, for instance, in G. B. Shaw's suffrage-farce, Press Cuttings (1911). It continued into film and television with the parts played by actresses like Gracie Fields, Dora Bryant and Barbara Windsor. It would be hard to convey to Bailey the pleasures of hearing in the mind's ear the familiar sound of voices and language frowned on in dominant culture.  For anyone born and bred in London, as I was, there is a glee in seeing colloquial words such as 'schlemozzle' in print, acting as a bridge between Sarah’s cockney and the less familiar Yiddish expressions of the older generation, that Rachel and Meyer still fondly use between themselves: "What’s chiddush?" [Any News?].  Jacob represents the two idioms as having absorbed each other in the voices of the next generation, the young East End Jewish women who "screamed and chattered" in the Pardo workshops.

It is by such writing that we can trace the links in British lower-class culture from the Edwardian music-hall, through Ealing Comedies, Carry On films and Theatre Workshop, to the pubs and television soap-operas of the twenty-first century.  The constructed bonhomie of that world may also help to indicate why fascist extremism did not take hold in Britain, despite an upper-class leadership that did so little to counter racial prejudice. Of course it is easy to succumb to false nostalgia and to sentimentalise and romanticise that working-class culture, but it certainly promoted broadmindedness and it ridiculed self-flattery or bigotry. It is more generous than the alternative tradition of football hooliganism and the BNP.

Jacob wrote a series of novels based on her mother's Yorkshire background, but her series known as the Gollantz Saga [10] is what really made her name and is what reference-works continue to list. For instance, Margaret Ashby judges that:

While all her novels are characterised by a warmth and a tolerance of human nature, the Gollantz Saga books, written during the Nazi era, make a contribution to a concept of the brotherhood of men, and are probably her most lasting work (Ashby 1989: 349). [11]

Paul Bailey suggests that: "From her vast output of fiction, only the novels concerned with the Gollantz family can be recommended with any confidence", though he immediately qualifies this recommendation by saying that "these books – whatever their obvious stylistic failings – do contain some interesting and unusual detail" (240-1).   Such detail could not have been all that recommended them to their original readers. More likely they enjoyed the fast pace of the narrative, the exoticism of a family of continental Jewish antique-dealers, and the piquancy of their interface with the British upper class, as well as what Ashby calls their "warmth and tolerance". A family saga, these books enabled their female readers to identify vicariously with the activities of the male protagonists whilst secure in the cocoon that protected the female members of the family.

The Gollantz Saga fulfils the criteria by which genre fiction becomes successful, as identified by John G. Cawelti in his discussion of the "dialectic between formulaic literature and the culture that produces and enjoys it" (Cawelti 1976: 55-6). [12]   Like other popular fiction, it diverts readers from the stress of their own lives, it enables them to contemplate gradual changes to the status quo in an unthreatening way, and it offers certain pleasures as well as the satisfactions to be gained from the stable values of the genre.  These include the reinforcement of moral certainties by the containment of evil and the reward of happiness to the good. Jacob's saga reassures its gentile readers that, although there are Jewish bounders and parasites, the majority of Jews are respectable, decent, honest people with firm family values and strong community connections that do not exclude gentiles.  Britain is shown as right to provide a haven to such immigrants who will certainly contribute to the economy, encouraging a sound business ethic whilst not disturbing the moral fabric of society. In return for their confidence in Jacob's storytelling, readers are indulged with the pleasures of fantasising about a rich way of life, rich in the sense of sumptuous possessions, rich in the sense of eventful and varied lives, and also rich in the sense of powerfully emotional relationships.

This is a very different picture from, for example, Trollope's portrayal of a wealthy Jewish embezzler in The Way We Live Now, or the sinister Jewish financier who lies behind international conflict in John Buchan’s 39 Steps (or of course, T. S. Eliot's Jews), not to mention Shylock, Fagin or Svengali.  Nor does it idealise Judaism as, for instance, George Eliot does in Daniel Deronda. Rather, Jacob normalises Jewish people and their customs, integrating them into British society.  In the 1930s, when Britain was still recovering from the xenophobia of the First World War, undergoing the Depression that followed the 1929 Crash, and suffering from the loss of Imperial confidence of late Victorianism, Jacob's series of novels about family continuity and social integration, with the luxury and prosperity of an antiques business, provided just the hope and reassurance people needed from the drug of light fiction.

Barren Metal told a different, bleaker story and was Jacob's effort to adapt popular cultural conventions in the direction of social realism.  Although it commences like a family saga as her established readership might have expected, the novel quickly develops into the closely allied genre of women's romantic fiction. Jacob proceeds to subvert the ideology of both genres.  Instead of her previous peddling of permanence and security, with women as baggage to be comfortably carried by their male relatives, fathers, husbands and sons, this new novel focuses on change and on the ability of a middle-aged, working-class Jewish woman to break tradition, to escape domesticity and to take responsibility for her own life.  In this novel Jacob expresses the socialist feminism of the WSPU campaign for Women's Suffrage to which she was committed before World War I. [13] More originally, she enables her heroine to play her own small part in opposing Nazism.  Thus, in Barren Metal, Jacob finds a way to convert popular fiction into an unthreatening vehicle for her radical politics of class, gender and race. At the end, Jacob fulfils her contract with the reader by providing the expected happy ending, with a lasting love relation; as Cawelti puts it: "The moral fantasy of the romance is that of love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacle and difficulties" (Cawelti 1976: 41). Yet even this ending is subversive in Barren Metal.  It not only condones adultery but breaks other taboos. Overcoming the obstacles of age and race, Rachel finally finds permanent love with a man younger than herself, who is a gentile. [14]

Barren Metal appears at first to follow the format of a 'rags to riches' story, typical of the romance genre, telling of a poor Cinderella figure who captures the heart of a wealthy man, marries him and lives happily ever after.  This is the staple plot-backbone of love stories from Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre onwards to the best-sellers of Catherine Cookson and Denise Robins.  However, Barren Metal does not address the middle-class miss who was the target of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.  Rather, its readership is assumed to be working-class women, the new mass-fiction market that later novelists like Cookson also wrote for.  This makes it insensitive of Paul Bailey to castigate Jacob as one of the "lazy novelists who wrote for equally lazy readers" (Bailey 2001:183). Cookson, born on Tyneside in 1906, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic barmaid, drew on her own background of early hardship when she commenced writing in 1950.  Jacob’s novel is similarly grounded in the experience of her own life, although she is more given to a desire to make people laugh than Cookson (a tendency that clearly irritated Bailey). Apart from the social realism of back-street sweatshop life for women in the clothing industry, the novel offers particular interest to contemporary feminist critics. Courtship and wedding are dealt with in the first quarter of the novel, which is divided into four books.  The final three books, the majority of the novel, concern marriage and widowhood. In the second half, the heroine is in her early forties, with her sons grown up and a faltering relationship with her husband, and faced with the prospect of beginning again. This is a most unusual narrative pattern and had no classical models.  (It is as if Hamlet were to be told from the point of view of Gertrude, a Gertrude who decides after the funeral of Hamlet's father to leave Elsinore and work for a landmines charity in Africa, whilst married to an Arab playboy.)

Barren Metal begins in 1880 with the arrival in Whitechapel of a poor Jewish immigrant family from Hamburg. Leah and Israel Pardo, with their small son, Meyer, come to live with Leah's crippled brother, Benjamin Lazarus. The Pardos are less religious than Benjamin is, but the family’s week is structured around the joy of the Friday evening ritual, with its special food and ceremonial meal. (Among Leah's meagre baggage are the necessary brass candlesticks.)  Living all together in two rooms, they survive as 'schniders', tailors who do outwork in their home (Leah does the buttonholing). Meyer is the only child and he is encouraged to work hard at school and to be ambitious. By borrowing and by inheriting some money when Benjamin dies, he sets up a workshop and employs young female seamstresses, "swarthy young Jewish girls" (18), first to make decorations for Victoria's Jubilee celebrations, then to make uniforms for the Boer War.  Eventually he makes a fortune providing uniforms during World War I. By this time his parents are dead and he has been encouraged by his housekeeper, Sarah, to develop a personal life. At the age of twenty-eight, he courts and marries Rachel Jacob, a beautiful, orphaned, Jewish waitress he encounters in a cheap kosher restaurant. Meyer is physically unprepossessing.  His nose is "too heavy and inclined to be fleshy" and he "could never have passed for anything but a German or Polish Jew" (12).  Ten years younger, Rachel sees him as "a queer little Jewboy" (38) but she is moved by him and loves him for his qualities with a passionate yet somewhat maternal attachment. Although they are not orthodox and their wedding takes place in a registry office, without a chuppah, [15] they retain their Jewish friends, kosher diet and Yiddish turns of speech. Rachel says she has had no time to be 'froom' [strictly observant] but: "Mind you, I'm always glad to be a Jew" (28). Meyer announces that Rachel will not wear the shaitel (ritual wig) of the Orthodox wife because she will be respected without it; she is his Rose of Sharon, and his chief desire is to work to make her happy.

Book One is told mainly from his point of view. Between Chapters 4 and 5, the point of view changes to Rachel. She has twin sons who are sent away to boarding school.  The family moves to a large house in Maida Vale and Meyer forbids his sons to use Yiddish expressions. (Sarah moves with the family as Rachel's personal maid.) As Rachel warns Meyer, his ambitiousness has turned to selfish determination and the business swallows him up (60).  The change in their relationship is depicted for us by the first big dinner-party Meyer throws in a hotel for his rich business associates, inviting a goy [gentile] newspaper magnate, Sir Henry Yardley, and his wife as well as several Jews, including Marcus Rosenbaum and Percy Levinson. [16] Rachel has no idea how to be a hostess, but takes advice from the man who is to become her Jewish fairy-godfather, Albert Bromel. (He says later that he would never have taken his wife, Marion, to mix with such men (163).) Rachel and Albert talk happily together and agree not to eat the oysters (Jacob does not labour this point but, of course, oysters are not kosher). Meanwhile we overhear Rosenbaum and Levinson's view that Rachel is "pure Ghetto" and that Meyer will "have to drag her up after him" (68).  In fact, Rosenbaum, Levinson and Yardley drag Meyer down to prison with them by involving him in their business fraud.

In Book Two, we see the results of Meyer's determination to move on in the world, and Rachel's efforts to retrieve him from the 'money-machine' and save her marriage.  As she says, every ring he has given her is a sign that he has been unfaithful to her, not with women but with "trench-coats, artificial silk and rising stocks" (91). But it is too late.  Meyer has adopted the values of Rosenbaum and Levinson.  Swearing ('Shetus!'), he begins to abuse her, physically and psychologically, claiming:

"You were born in the Ghetto, and you don't take no trouble to climb out of it. You want to bring Whitechapel and everything about it, up to the West End.  You let everyone know you're a Jewess, you can't forget it, you won't let other people forget it.  All right! Cut off your hair, wear a sheitel and go to shool, [synagogue] live kosher - I don't care.  Only you damn well do it without me!" (136-7)

While one son, David, plans to train as a film-director in Germany, the other, Ike, had inherited Meyer's capitalist values and aims to become a gentleman's tailor in Savile Row.  To that end he acquires a rich fiancée, the intolerably affected heiress, Helen Neubauer. On marrying, they change their names to George and Henrietta Samson. Asking his mother not to call him Ike or use Yiddish words, Ike points out that many people have "a prejudice against the Ghetto"– and "people don't care about ticketing themselves – Yids, these days" (144, 156).  It is Helen who mentions the new German movement against the Jews: "Dreadful, but one must remember that many of the Eastern Jews have brought it on themselves". [17] Her own family has "almost forgotten we evah had Jewish blood in the family" (137).  As Sarah comments acerbically to Rachel afterwards, " 'Er mother must have been passhionately fond o' kids to bring 'er up" (161). [18]   Rachel can only reply to Helen, "But we are Jews." She does not understand the reference to Nazism or Eastern Jews.  Having left school at the age of twelve, she is practically illiterate and does not read the newspapers. She just looks at the pictures. (Ashamed of her handwriting, she can barely express herself on paper but she has been trying to educate herself by reading novels.) From now on she struggles with the Daily Mail and eventually learns more directly about what is going on from David, on his return from Germany.

David mocks Ike, suggesting he call himself 'Micky Pardo' [19] so he can pass as an Irishman. He hates Ike's hypocrisy and snobbery, insisting that, although life is too short and too full for "fasts or feasts and ceremonies and all the rest of it," nevertheless:

"I'm David Pardo, I'm a Jew, and I'm not going to pretend to be anything else to please Ike or the King of England . . . Orthodox, Liberal, Reformed – it doesn't matter, we're a nation, and unless we're damned unpatriotic we stick to our nationality." (147)

This is the major ethic transmitted down through the generations in The Gollantz Saga and repeated in Jacob's own non-fiction: not to deny one's own ethnicity.  David is here speaking in Naomi Jacob's voice to outface any antisemitic reader.

However, this new novel deliberately sabotages the ideology of women's self-sacrifice to family and domestic happiness that informs both the genres of the family saga and romantic fiction.  In Barren Metal passion dies and the family disintegrates, nearly destroyed by Meyer’s determination to eradicate his Jewish roots.  Jacob challenges the reader by David’s remarks to Rachel before he leaves for Germany:

"We aren't a family, we're a number of separate interests. We don't overlap anywhere. We're dreadfully self-sufficient . . . I often wonder how much real interest you have in any of us, Mother?"(120)

She wants to discuss her unhappiness over his father but he sidesteps her, saying that relationships don’t count for much, either between children and parents or between married couples. There is a limit to what Rachel can do to counteract Meyer's pernicious example. The family breaks up.  When Meyer is imprisoned for embezzlement, Ike disowns him and so Rachel disowns Ike; David does not return from Germany to help his mother during the trial. Neither son offers her financial support. (Fortunately the Bromels do not let her down.)

Yet Rachel stands by Meyer, visiting him in prison and making a home for him on his release, even though there is no passionate love left in their relationship. While he is in prison she starts up a small workshop again in order to pay off his debts, with Cohen and Levy, two of his Jewish associates whom he had ruined.  (Rachel may be no good with words but she seems to be good at mental arithmetic.) It is this enterprise that marks an innovative step for women's fiction.  Drawing on Jacob's experience as the women’s supervisor in a First World War munitions factory, and on what she knew about her grandfather’s small tailoring business, this section of the novel portrays life in a sweatshop convincingly, especially the quarrels amongst the Jewish women who work there. The other original aspect from a feminist perspective is that the novel argues for the right of a woman over forty to have a sex life, even an adulterous one. While Meyer is in prison Rachel commences a physical relationship with Sholto Falk, a gentile friend of the Morels, and she marries him after Meyer dies. In this way Jacob quietly opposes the Nazi laws forbidding such miscegenation.

Thus the novel subverts dominant cultural ideologies of race, class and sexuality, [20] by drawing the reader to empathise with a working-class Jewish woman who demands a life of her own, with passion, once her sons are grown up. And whilst challenging the stigma attached to prison and adultery, Jacob slips in an indication of the importance of love between women.  In a telling exchange between Rachel and Sarah, Rachel remonstrates that she herself is no better than her employees; she was working class, has a husband in jail and has not been faithful to him:

"Sarah, you mustn't have one rule for me and another for other people! It's not fair."

"Ain't it? It’s what everyone 'as, I reckon – one rule for the people they love an' another fur the ones they don't. Wot's fair don't come inter it." (258)

The affection between these two women, gentile and Jew, is one of the moral strengths of the novel. Once again it issues a quiet challenge to Nazism and antisemitism.

The novel is also innovative in telling the story of the background to Jewish immigration and in relating Rachel's tale of her refugee-mother at the end of the nineteenth century to the contemporary situation of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Jacob is aware of how little her readers may want to hear distressing tales and she works artfully to evade their resistance. This is indicated by David’s inability to get his newspaper articles about Nazi Germany published when he returns to Britain in about 1934. [21] Rachel warns that he might only break his heart trying. (By this time, worried about David being in Germany, she has made the effort to read in the Daily Mail about Jews whose business had been closed down, either being driven out or committing suicide.) Yet David has insisted that, "All England, the world, ought to know – know it all. Work, money, education – even a clean decent death is denied us! Everyone must know – they shall, because I shall tell them!" (231). Rachel says, "You may tell them . . .They will listen, they may even listen with kindness, but in their hearts they will say that you have – imagined these things, or that they are too dreadful to hear, or that it is – unwise to speak them" (231).

And indeed he finds that "They won’t look at it, or listen to me. One man told me that the Jews had ceased to be an item of news" (232). This we can believe, since we know how people now become numb to television news reports about atrocities, especially when they feel powerless to help. (Kushner refers to people's response of distancing themselves in order to avoid "empathic distress" (275). [22] ) So Jacob does not labour the point; she certainly does not devote her whole novel to detailing the situation in Germany as did other novelists discussed by Barbara Brothers (such as Phyllis Bottome in The Mortal Storm). [23]

Instead she offers us Rachel's counsel to David not to become bitter over his sense of powerlessness: "The moment you rage and burn to no purpose, you are wasting the power that is yours" (233). Only in his early twenties, he already has "a burden of hatred laid on his shoulders, with recollections and memories which would remain all through his life"(234). Rachel's advice is presumably Jacob's: to recognise the limitations of one’s power "to reorganise a whole state" and instead to help in whatever small way one can.  In Rachel's case, she is employing a woman refugee from Germany.  Bromel has taken on twelve refugee men. Of course, this novel is Jacob's own 'small way' of helping.

Rachel herself was an immigrant from Germany with a family history of anti-Jewish atrocities.  As she talks to David she recalls her own mother speaking to her when she was a little girl, telling her about what had been done to her when she was a little girl, and her mother's reply when she asked what she had done to deserve it: "Me – vot hed I done already? I hed committet der c-crime of b-being b-born a Jew – von of der Ch-Chosen race" (231). In fact the reader already knows this story, because Rachel had confided it to Sholto Falk in one of the intimate conversations by which lovers reveal themselves to each other. Her mother had been born in Russia in a small town with a nice park that was not for Jews, who had to dress differently from other people.  One day, as a little girl, she had been playing in the park while her pregnant mother was resting. Suddenly a soldier slapped her and ordered her out: "It was for clean Christians, not Jews who made the air stink. If Jews had been anywhere, he said, decent people could not breathe, the smell was so bad" (131).

The soldiers followed her home and kicked her father to death; as a result her mother miscarried and she and her baby also died.  A pogrom followed but Rachel's mother and uncle escaped to Germany with her great uncle. Rachel says she never tells this story, but "one must not forget" (132). (Although the details are different, Jacob based this story on what she knew of her grandfather's experiences.)  That instance of unmerited violence is repeated in Meyer's unprovoked attack on Rachel for being a "Ghetto Jew".  Thus, without arguing, Jacob has illustrated the irrational rage that British liberals found so hard to credit as influencing events on the Continent.

The Russian's prejudice against Jews as smelly and dirty must be what lies behind Jacob's frequent mention of bathing.  Meyer was too poor ever to have had a proper bath before he was an adult, when he could afford to go to the Municipal Baths for the first time.  The pleasures of that experience are lovingly rendered.  The first thing he asks for when he gets out of prison is to have a hot bath – with bath salts.  Sarah runs hot baths for Rachel, to comfort her.  And there is towards the end of the novel some discussion of how a sweatshop actually is a place in which people working get hot and sweat. Sarah implies that Rachel has fainted due to the girls' smell: "Thet kid o' yours 'ul stand a fine charnce, young Esther – if yer 'ouse smells anythink like wot you do, the poor little begger 'ul die of sufferkation" (261). Adah then explains to Rachel what life is like for her and the other women:

"Leah lives with 'er father an' mother and six kids – they 'ave three rooms – some clarse they are! Nine of 'em in three rooms. Esther an' 'er chap 'as one room, bit bigger nor the one I 'ave. 'Ell of a lot o' charnce any of us 'ave fur 'air-washing, barthin' – even washin' clothes. The German kid's the best orf – she lives with 'er mother. Two women can manage ter barth a bit when theer's just two on 'em. Different when you got men around the plice." (262)

In the light of Jacob's biography, one can read much of the novel as her  personal wish-fulfilment fantasy. Meyer is punished for succumbing to anti-Jewish values and for beating his wife, as perhaps Jacob wished her father had been – but Rachel stands by him and he repents, as perhaps Jacob wishes had happened between her parents.  The intense emotional attachment between Sholto and Rachel is probably based on Jacob's own attachment to the older Marguerite, eventually broken up by Marguerite's Jewish husband (who is presented in the memoirs as only too like Jacob’s father). Unfortunately, Marguerite died soon after; in the novel, Sholto finally wins Rachel, since her husband dies before her. This transmuted autobiographical material gives emotional power to the novel, which is the strong inducement to keep reading and so to absorb its transgressive ideological stance and accept its political message.

It seems to me typical of Naomi Jacob that, although women over the age of forty were not conscripted in World War II and she was in her mid-fifties when World War II was declared, she immediately returned to the UK and enlisted.  She worked first for the Ministry of Information and then served with ENSA in North Africa and Italy, contracting malaria in the process. Her writing can be considered as of a piece with her life, which performed her resistance to narrow-mindedness, prejudice and bullying, the thin end of the Nazi wedge.  Just as she deserves respect for her outspoken courage, Barren Metal deserves to be retrieved from the misrepresentations of her critics and valued for its imaginative resistance to racism. Its openness made a significant contribution to the pressures working against the racial hegemony of British culture during the interwar years.


Works cited

Primary texts

Bottome, Phyllis. 1937. The Mortal Storm. London: Faber (Boston: Little Brown 1938).

Jacob, Naomi. 1925. Jacob Ussher. London: Butterworth.

_ _ _. 1933. Me: a Chronicle about Other People. London: Hutchinson.

_ _ _. 1936. Barren Metal. London: Hutchinson.

_ _ _. 1952. Robert, Nana and – Me: a Family Chronicle. London: Hutchinson.

_ _ _. 1936. Our Marie. London: Hutchinson.

_ _ _. 1952. The Gollantz Saga volumes 1 and 2. London: Hutchinson.

_ _ _. 1932. Young Emmanuel. London: Hutchinson.

Robins, Elizabeth. 1907. Votes for Women! in The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays. Ed. Jean Chothia. London: Oxford UP, 1998. 135-210.

Secondary texts

Ashby, Margaret. "Naomi Jacob" in Dictionary of British Women Writers. Ed. Janet Todd. London: Routledge, 1989. 348-9.

Bailey, Paul. Three Queer Lives: An Alternative Biography of Fred Barnes, Naomi Jacob and Arthur Marshall. London: Hamilton, 2001.

Batsleer, Janet et al. Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class. London: Methuen, 1985.

Beauman, Nicola. A Very Great Profession: The Women’s Novel 1914-39. London: Virago, 1983.

Bridgwood, Christine. "Family Romances: the contemporary popular family saga". The Progress of Romance: the Politics of Popular Fiction. Ed. Jean Radford. London: Routledge, 1986.

Brothers, Barbara."British Women Write the Story of the Nazis: A Conspiracy of Silence". Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women Writers 1889-1934. Ed. Angel Ingram and Daphne Patai. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P 1993. 244-264.

Cawelti, John G.Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P 1976.

Cheyette, Bryan. Constructions of the 'Jew' in English Literature and Society 1875-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Chothia, Jean, ed. The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays. London: Oxford UP,1998.

Clark, Jon, Margot Heinemann, David Margolis and Carol Snee, eds. Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979.

Croft, Andy. Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990.

Cunningham, Valentine. British Writers of the Thirties. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

Hynes, Samuel. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s. New York: Viking, 1976.

Kushner, Tony. The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A Social and Cultural History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Light, Alison. Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars. London: Routledge, 1991.

Lassner, Phyllis. British Women Writers of World War II: Battlegrounds of Their Own. London: Macmillan, 1998.

Maslen, Elizabeth. Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928-1968. London: Palgrave, 2001.

Straub, Ervin. The Roots of Evil. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Worpole, Ken. Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading, Popular Writing. London: Verso, 1983.


End Notes

[1] The groundbreaking research in Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession: The Women’s Novel 1914-39 (London: Virago, 1983), was followed by the more academic discussions of Alison Light's Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars (London: Routledge1991), Phyllis Lassner's British Women Writers of World War II: Battlegrounds of Their Own (Basingstoke:Macmillan, 1998) and Elizabeth Maslen's Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928-1968 (London: Palgrave, 2001).  None of these critics pays Naomi Jacob any attention, although Lassner lists in her bibliography the article where Brothers discusses her, see Footnote 2 below.

[2] This was spelt out by Barbara Brothers' paper, "British Women Write the Story of the Nazis: A Conspiracy of Silence" in Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women Writers 1889-1934, ed. Angel Ingram and Daphne Patai (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1993), 244-264. She discusses Samuel Hynes' The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (New York: Viking, 1976), and Valentine Cunningham's British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988). There were two notable exceptions to the 'High Art' approach to 1930s literature, that both examined popular fiction: Andy Croft's Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), which mentions some women writers, but not Naomi Jacob, and Ken Worpole's Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading, Popular Writing (London: Verso,1983), which discusses between-the-wars writing by Jewish men from the East End of London, but is short on women and does not mention Jacob. Similarly, Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties, ed. Jon Clark, Margot Heinemann, David Margolis and Carol Snee (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979), examines mass culture including literature by working-class male authors, but not by women. 

[3] See for instance: Bryan Cheyette Constructions of the 'Jew' in English Literature and Society 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), and Tony Kushner The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A Social and Cultural History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). Kushner mentions Naomi Jacob as an example of the 'apologist approach' displayed by Jewish writers, but cites none of her works (256).

[4] The misogyny of Paul Bailey's Three Queer Lives: An Alternative Biography of Fred Barnes, Naomi Jacob and Arthur Marshall (London: Hamilton, 2001), becomes more evident as the biography proceeds towards retelling the cruel joke of Harold Lang inviting her to unwittingly play herself in his radio drama, The Quest for Corbett, that satirised her writing as "flowing from her like toothpaste" (180). The section on Jacob, (67-184), is entitled, "Like a Boiled Monkey", quoting from a description of her appearance at birth; that title is repeated as the heading of every page. Miranda Seymour’s evaluation of Jacob's work, in "Carry on Camping" (a review of Three Queer Lives) in Sunday Times November 11, 2001 (41), is repeated by other reviewers of Bailey's book, such as Geraldine Bedell: "Jacob wrote terribly trashy  novels", in "When Queers took comfort in the closet", The Observer Review 30 December 2001. 

[5] Quoted by Bailey from Jacob's memoir, Me: a Chronicle about Other People (1933) in Bailey 2001: 96. 

[6] Barren Metal was first published by Hutchinson in 1936; I used a copy borrowed from Caernarvonshire County Library, reprinted in 1967 by Hurst and Blackett from Hutchinson’s 1944 edition. On the back cover it said: "Naomi Jacob's continuing popularity is easy to understand, for her books have an immediate appeal to anyone who enjoys a good story well told." (There was also a 1961 edition published by Arrow Books.) 

[7] The story of Victor Gollancz's rejection of this novel about British antisemitism and Jewish self-hatred, and its eventual publication by Robert Hale in 1941, is recounted by Jane Miller in the Preface to the Persephone edition: Betty Miller Farewell Leicester Square (2000). Gollancz was the major publisher of Women's Novels and his response was part of the stance taken by Anglo-Jewish leaders in the 1930s of not drawing attention to the particular situation of Jews for fear of unleashing British antisemitism.  He changed after 1942 (see Kushner 1994: 176-7).  

[8] His father was cantor at the synagogue and was left to bleed to death after having his tongue cut out; his mother died of a brutal flogging (Bailey 2001: 76). 

[9] Yet Bailey’s quotes of descriptive passages (120) and anecdotes (115-6) from her autobiographical work, Me: A Chronicle About Other People (1933) and Robert, Nana and – Me (1952), show just how fluently and evocatively she could write.  He also begrudgingly praises her biography of Marie Lloyd, Our Marie (1936) for capturing "the energy and vulgarity that kept the music hall alive for so long" (184). 

[10]   This series consisted of seven novels in total, published between 1930 and 1958.  The first six were also brought out in two collected volumes as The Gollantz Saga Parts 1 and 2.  The most successful was Four Generations (1934). 

[11] Margaret Ashby. "Naomi Jacob". Dictionary of British Women Writers. Ed. Janet Todd. London: Routledge 1989. 348-9.

[12] John G. Cawelti's book, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories and Popular Culture (1976), has nothing to say about Family Sagas nor, despite its title, does it say much about Women's Romantic Fiction. This is discussed in e.g. Janet Batsleer et al., Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class (London: Methuen 1985), and family sagas are dealt with by Christine Bridgwood in "Family Romances: the contemporary popular family saga" in The Progress of Romance: the Politics of Popular Fiction ed. Jean Radford (1986). 

[13] See for instance the speech made by 'Working Woman' in Act II of Votes for Women!, the 1907 suffragette play by Elizabeth Robins, a committee member of the WSPU (reprinted in The New Woman ed. Jean Chothia (1998)).

[14] Bailey misleadingly calls Sholto Falk "a good Christian" (158) but there is no evidence for this. Religion is not an issue in the novel.  The Baptist minister, Rev Carter, who helps the Pardos does not do so to convert them, but because he is a Socialist: "I believe in universal brotherhood" he tells them (8), sounding the keynote of the novel. 

[15] The response of the reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, who lamented the absence of "the simple beauty of the Jewish marriage ceremony" (21.3.1936), vindicates Jacob's strategy of 'normalising' rather than romanticising Jewish life. 

[16] In one of the instances of Bailey's lazy reading or false argument, he informs us that Meyer gets "embroiled with some crooked businessmen (not Jewish, Mickey [i.e. Naomi Jacob] is at pains to tell her reader)" (Bailey 2001: 158). Bailey was criticised for his 'clumsy' and 'careless' writing in the review of Three Queer Lives by Neil Bartlett, "Queer as Folks" The Guardian, Saturday Review. 29 December 2001. Catherine Shoard put this more succinctly, judging the book "a hack job" in "Paperbacks", Evening Standard 2 September 2002. 

[17] In a piece of slack exegesis, Brothers implies that this speech is Rachel's, which destroys the whole political point of the novel (Brothers 1993: 258). 

[18] Bailey at this point declares that Sarah's speech is 'impossible to decipher' when she sarcastically asks Rachel, " 'Ave yer got the top brick off of the chimbly?"  It used to be a common saying that, for instance, a father who spoilt his daughter would get her anything she asked for, "even the top brick off the chimney"- something hard to get and useless to her that would deprive other people. The remark is a good example of elliptical cockney wit. 

[19] This is an 'in-joke': Naomi Jacob was herself known to her friends as Micky. 

[20] In the classic novels of women transgressing sexual (and racial or class) boundaries through adultery, such as Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary, they do not get away with it; and, of course, although Lady Chatterley did, Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned for decades. 

[21] Tony Kushner has discussed the coverage by British papers of Nazi persecution of German Jews, especially the quality papers like the Manchester Guardian. He concludes that although most people in Britain were aware that Jews were being mistreated by the Nazi regime, they did not understand why. Moreover, since the experience of false atrocity propaganda in World War I, they were disinclined to credit reports of atrocities.  However, after news coverage of Kristallnacht, November 1938, ordinary people took action where their government had failed to (Kushner 1994: 88). 

[22] The term is taken from Ervin Straub, The Roots of Evil (1989) 80. 

[23] Phyllis Bottome's novel, The Mortal Storm (1937) was made into a film by MGM in 1940.  This was so successful in USA as anti-Nazi propaganda that Germany banned MGM films. The novel is discussed at length by Brothers (248-52) and Lassner (219-24). Unlike Bottome, Jacob had not been to Germany.