Essayed The Rolex

ENGLISH PASTS: ESSAYS IN HISTORY AND CULTURE.

By Stefan Collini.

OUP; 358 pages; £40 and $70

THE English have suddenly become self-conscious. For centuries they have taken for granted not only their ineffable superiority to “lesser breeds without the law” but also themselves. Americans have long wondered what it really means to be American, but the English have never stopped to consider what it means to be English. Like earth, air, fire and water, the English just are.

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Or, rather, were. The English are beginning to lose their innocence. As a result, they are starting to cast about for a national identity. The continental Europeans are partly to blame—can anyone be English and “European” at the same time?—but the main culprits are the Scots. They have just elected their first parliament since 1707, and the English suddenly realise they do not have a parliament of their own. Worse, everyone knows what a Scotsman is, but what is an Englishman? The usual definitions by negation—Englishmen are Britons who are neither Scottish nor Welsh—no longer satisfy.

But, as these brilliant, subtle and erudite essays testify, acquiring a new national identity is far more difficult than acquiring a new suit of clothes. Stefan Collini—a Cambridge don and, despite his exotic-sounding name, a product of South London—is a true intellectual-at-large. His interests include literary criticism and what he dismisses as “grievance studies”. Essays in the best sense, he says at one point, are “extended meditations or explorations that are not easily reducible to a briefly stated argument”. His own are essays in the best sense.

Issues of national identity and national memory clearly fascinate him, not least because the notion of Englishness is so elusive. He insists on the plural in “English Pasts” and denies the existence of any single entity that can be called “the English mind”. He certainly rejects the warm-beer, rolling-hills and village-cricket school of national nostalgia. He points out that, despite at least one publisher's best efforts, compiling the “New Oxford History of England” would be impossible: the Scots, Welsh and Irish are too integral a part of the story. A history of modern England by itself would make about as much sense as a history of modern America confined to the states north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi. Even if it could be done, what would be the point?

The central problem of English identity is easily stated. The members of a nation naturally assume a collective identity when they share among themselves a number of important attributes which, however, they do not share with the members of other nations. Both commonality and distinctiveness are required. Japan has both; the Japanese have no problem with their national identity.

But what have the English got? They share their language with half the planet. English literature is the literature of the entire English-speaking world. The Protestant branch of Christianity, far from distinguishing the English from their neighbours, was historically one of the most important forces binding the English, Scots and Welsh (though not the Irish) together. England's national saint, St George, apparently never existed. His distinctive red cross on a white field is flown almost exclusively at international football matches. The English, it seems, acquire their national identity only on Saturday afternoons. When England is not playing, they happily root for the Scots.

Fortunately for the English, as Mr Collini points out, what they lack in distinctiveness they make up for in commonality. Episodes like the general strike of 1926 have divided the English (as well as the Scots and Welsh), but such episodes have been rare since Oliver Cromwell's time. Mr Collini underlines the contrast between England and France. The French have fought and refought the 1789 revolution during most of the two centuries since. Until quite recently, France's collective memory was a deeply divided one. The English, by contrast, absorbed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Great Reform Act of 1832 so rapidly that they are scarcely commemorated now. “Old ballot boxes”, as the author says, “make dull shrines.”

Confronted with erudition on this scale, the reader of Mr Collini's essays hesitates to call for more. Even so, as Mr Collini himself says, nations can only be understood in comparison with other nations and it seems a pity that Mr Collini's points of comparison are so exclusively French. If anyone inspires a revival of the English national spirit, “Cry, ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George'”, it will be the Scots, with their strong sense of nationhood, their new national parliament and their special interpretation of British history. Mr Collini gives the impression of being uneasily aware of the Scots, but there are only two references to them in his extensive index. There should be more.

This article appeared in the Review section of the print edition

THE WORLD'S BANKER.

By Niall Ferguson.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 1,309 pages; £30

THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (PART ONE: 1798-1848).

Viking. 608 pages; $34.95.

(The second part of the American edition comes out in autumn 1999)

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IT WAS the Rothschild family's great luck that five able brothers—the sons of an antique dealer turned banker—found themselves strategically scattered across Europe at the time of the Napoleonic wars. As Friedrich von Gentz, Metternich's personal secretary, explained: “The most outstanding personal qualities may sometimes require exceptional circumstances and world-shattering events to come to fruition. Thus have the founders of dynasties established their thrones, and thus has the House of Rothschild become so great.” Led by their “commanding general”, the uncommonly astute Nathan Mayer in London, the brothers were able to offer their services to the British and other governments transferring subsidies and remitting funds for war.

In the early days, the family fortune swelled with the profits of smuggling operations, market speculations and front-running on government commissions. By the date of Napoleon's final defeat in 1815, the Rothschilds from their bases in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna and Naples had established themselves as the premier banking house in Europe. Nathan Rothschild's issue of bonds for Prussia in 1818, denominated in sterling with dividends payable in London, paved the way for the family's domination of the market for foreign bond issues for the rest of the 19th century. Their strong position in London and Paris made the Rothschilds the first choice for any European government seeking loans in the international market.

Two features distinguished the family's modus operandi. First, they established a superior communications system with their own couriers. Famously, Nathan Rothschild was the first in London to hear the news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo (although Niall Ferguson denies the legend that this made his fortune). Second, the family took care to cultivate close relations—sometimes using bribes and share tips—with Europe's leading statesmen, who often used the Rothschild courier service for informal diplomacy. Rothschild clients and acquaintances included Louis XVIII, Metternich, the house of Saxe-Coburg (including Prince Albert), Louis-Philippe, Edward VII, Lord Randolph Churchill and Cecil Rhodes.

The Rothschilds were not simply another banking family, they were a Jewish family for whom the memory of their origins in a poky dwelling in the Frankfurt Judengasse was not quickly extinguished. Jewishness lay at the core of the family's identity: “We are still young and we want to work much for the sake of our prestige as Jews as for any other reason,” wrote James, the Paris-based youngest brother, in 1816. By mid-century, the Rothschilds were widely regarded as a sort of Jewish royal family. Maintaining this identity appears for a time to have staved off the decadence that might otherwise have come with great wealth; so long as Jewish emancipation in Europe was incomplete, the family could not rest on its achievements. It was Rothschilds who improved conditions for their co-religionists in Frankfurt and Vienna, and paved the way for Jews to enter, first, the House of Commons and later the House of Lords; it was Walter Rothschild who played a key role in the preparation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when the British government recognised the rights of Jews to a homeland in Palestine.

Jewishness reinforced the family's sense of unity which they (rightly) believed to be their unique source of strength, enabling the Paris house to survive and thrive despite unsettled political conditions in France during the 19th century. The prosperity of the Rothschilds, wrote Disraeli, a close friend of the family, “was as much owing to the unity of feeling which pervaded all branches of that numerous family as in their capital and abilities.” Cohesion was reinforced by intermarriages in the family. When Hannah, the daughter of Nathan Rothschild, converted and married a Christian in 1839 the family was outraged and cut her off. Between 1824 and 1917, 15 of the 24 marriages of the descendants of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the dynasty, were within the family. Although strange to modern eyes, the practice of endogamy was not uncommon among Jewish rabbinical families.

This history is an exhaustively researched work that is not likely to be surpassed in its descriptions of the political, diplomatic and social contacts of what Heine called “the exceptional family”. It has, however, a number of weaknesses. Mr Ferguson's digressions on the general political history of the 19th century becomes irksome, while the finer details of banking appear to bore him. As a result, there is too much on the causes of wars, revolutions, and so forth and not enough on the Rothschilds' contacts with their agents and correspondents or on local banking conditions in the countries where they operated. The Rothschilds made their money from issuing bonds and it appears reasonable to expect that a book of over 1,000 pages should dwell more on the mechanics of their operations.

Success did not last forever. When James, the youngest brother, died in Paris in 1868, the unity of the family began to crumble. Later Rothschilds spent more time indulging their passions for building, collecting, horse-racing and natural history than in the counting house. Gradual sclerosis was confirmed by the advent of the first world war, in which the house of Morgan and American finance generally proved dominant. In the end the Rothschilds kept too much in the family and failed to trust and reward talented outsiders (it took around 150 years for the first non-family member to make partner at the London house). They also failed to establish a base in New York. “There cannot be too many Rothschilds”, wrote Disraeli. Unfortunately, there were not enough.

This article appeared in the Review section of the print edition

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