This novel begins in the 1890s, with a Jewish patriarch in Vienna counting his blessings:
Today, the Lord be thanked, the Jews were neither despised nor rejected, but mingled with the Gentiles on terms of equality: in some instances might it not even be proper to say on terms of superiority?
When the book was published in 1943, these thoughts of Gustav von Silverberg would have resonated with a dreadful irony. The Jews of Austria, like those of the rest of continental Europe, were facing discrimination and cruelty on a scale unthinkable to this optimist of fifty years before.
One phrase in that sentence would have had a different resonance, though, for the (I assume few) readers who realised that ‘Eunice Buckley’ was a pseudonym of Rose Allatini. Despised and Rejected was the title of the Allatini pacifist novel suppressed in 1918, and by 1943 almost completely forgotten.
Blue Danube is a curiously structured novel. The first two hundred pages describe the doings of the Viennese branch of the Silverberg family in the twenty years before the First World War (other Silverbergs are in Berlin, Yorkshire and elsewhere). The book’s pace is leisurely, as we are introduced to the many branches of the extended family. The main focus is on the young people and their first romantic affairs. Two of them want to marry Gentiles, but give way when faced with the anger of the patriarch who controls the family’s finances. As in Rose Allatini’s 1935 novel Girl of Good Family (published under the pseudonym Lucian Wainwright) there is much stress on the imperative on a young woman to marry, and not to be ‘left sitting’. When Juliska’s marriage to a young Englishman is forbidden, her spinster aunt who had been in the same position warns her:
‘Don’t be a little fool: don’t be the sort of fool I’ve been. I felt at first I could never look at another man; and before I had realised it, it was too late because no other man looked at me. And I say better a hundred times a marriage without love, than to remain as I have remained, an old maid and a mere laughing-stock.
The characters in this first half of the novel are often disappointed, and have to compromise with the realities of life. But by and large the book confirms the aunt’s advice: arranged marriages or marriages of convenience are not necessarily disastrous. Life goes on.
Or it does until ‘the aged Emperor Franz Josef, dozing in his arm-chair, was officially informed by his Chancellor that Austria was at war’; the story goes that
under the influence of confused memories of previous wars he had muttered: ‘those damed Prussians – at it again’ and relapsed into slumber.
Stefan, a medical student and the most intelligent and sensitive of the young Silverbergs, must go to war, and is struck by ‘the curious irony that now it might well be that he would come face to face with those unknown British-born Silverberg cousins of this, whom thus in battle he would encounter for the first time in his life.’
Wea re told nothing of this war, however, because at this point the first section of the novel ends. The second section, ‘City Beside the Thames’ leaps forward more than twenty years to London in 1941, when the news chalked up on paper-vendors’ boards was
‘depressing and conveyed a general impression of stalemate and interminability: street-fighting at Stalingrad: the German advance in the Caucasus: our retreat in Libya.’
Stefan has been a doctor in London since the Silverburg bank collapsed in crisis in 1927. now, together with his English cousin, Martin Silverberg, he tries to help other members of the family who are more recent refugees from Central Europe, reduced to poverty, and often to demeaning ways of making their livings. Disturbing news comes from abroad about the fate of some members of the family, interned, or sent for forced labour to the east. The situation of these refugees is presented very clearly, but some are presented extremely critically, for maintaining the arrogance and expectations of the wealthy, now that they are impoverished. it is suggested that some Jewish refugees are abusing the hospitality of the host nation by crime or corruption.
Stefan asks: ‘Is it anti-Semitic to recognise that by actions some of our fellow-Jews are not only bringing harm upon themselves, but disgrace upon the whole race?’
It is suggested that Jews who have settled in various nations have absorbed, like chameleons, something of the colouring of those nations. In the first half of the novel, Berlin Jews had been presented as boorish and sometimes cruel; the English branch of the family is decent and helpful.
The character in the novel who perhaps stands for Rose Allatini herself is Camilla, a widow who does some writing; she ‘appeared entirely English’, but ‘was, in fact, a member of a cosmopolitan Jewish family which had many connections with the Continent.’ Stefan turns to her as the opposite of his demanding relatives from Vienna. Possibly this part of the novel is based on Allatini’s impatience with demands made on her by her own extended family.
Totally absent from the book is the pacifism of Despised and Rejected. That phrase about ‘our retreat in Libya’ shows how the author takes for granted an identification with the war effort. Nor is there anything of D and R‘s treatment of same-sex relationships; all the romantic pairings of the first half of the book are decidedly heterosexual.
Perhaps the only real link with her earlier work is in the character of Stefan, a young man who, like Dennis in Despised and Rejected, or like the hero of Payment (1916) is unusually sensitive to the suffering of others.
This is not a great novel, but it is absorbing, and of considerable historical interest. Turn-of-the-century Vienna is presented with detail that suggests the author is lovingly re-creating a world forever lost; the depiction of Jewish refugees in wartime London in very unsentimental. Several accounts of Allatini dismiss her later work as ‘romances’. This is very different from the sort of book that that term usually implies.