Livingstone’s challenge is to explain the importance of “the women of Rothschild” over 300 years of family history. Setting aside the 20th century’s more adventurous female Rothschilds, what made these wives and daughters special? The answer, in surprisingly large part, lies in the boldness of a handful of Rothschild girls who opted to marry out, though this didn’t happen immediately. Gutle, the matriarch, never left the Frankfurt ghetto from which Nathan, her most successful son, set off for England in 1798. A financial genius, Nathan boasted that “my only pleasure is my business.” Hannah, his more cultured wife, oversaw a musical upbringing for their children and lobbied for Jewish causes. Determined to help emancipate England’s Jews (who, among other restrictions, could not legally serve in Parliament until 1858), she nagged her husband to meet with the Lord Chancellor to discuss the issue. “Hannah said that if he did not, she would,” reported Moses Montefiore, her impressed brother-in-law.
Marrying Moses’ brother Abraham Montefiore had been a bold step by Nathan’s sister, Henriette, since Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews seldom mixed. It took still more courage for one of Nathan’s daughters, Hannah Mayer, to marry a Christian member of Parliament, Henry FitzRoy. The Paris-based branch of the family, established by Nathan’s younger brother James, was outraged by Hannah Mayer’s treachery; her brother Nat was the only family member to attend the wedding.
The FitzRoys’ daughter, Blanche, followed her mother’s example by marrying a baronet. In 1877, she helped to shake up the British art scene by opening a new showcase for experimental work: the Grosvenor Gallery, on Bond Street. Daringly innovative works by Holman Hunt, James McNeill Whistler, John Millais and Blanche herself were put on display, and the lively Sunday salons Blanche hosted in the gallery’s spacious rooms attracted widespread publicity. Henry James took care to secure a prompt invitation to the Grosvenor for Henry and Clover Adams when they visited London during the 1870s. The inclusion by Gilbert and Sullivan of “a greenery yallery, Grosvenor Gallery” dilettante in “Patience,” their bitingly comic satire of the aesthetic movement, secured the venture an enduring fame. (Sadly, the Grosvenor closed in 1890.)
Inescapably apparent from Livingstone’s well-researched account is the fact that the wealth of the Rothschild women who married into English society facilitated the political careers of their Christian husbands. Visiting Mentmore, the lavish estate of Hannah, Lady Rosebery (a granddaughter of Nathan and Hannah) that had been revamped from top to bottom for a brief, momentous visit by the Prince of Wales in 1868, Henry James uncharitably observed that his hostess was “personally unattractive.” A more appreciative William Gladstone relied on Lady Rosebery and her husband for political support as he launched a political comeback in the late 1870s that ultimately earned him a second term as a Liberal prime minister. When Gladstone resigned from power in 1894, Hannah’s husband, Lord Rosebery, succeeded him in the role.