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Book Reviews

From ghetto to gentility

Francesca Segal  |  Summer 2006  -  Number 202


Andrew Miller,The Earl of Petticoat Lane (London: Heinemann, 2006, £14.99)

An astonishing number of people attempt to chronicle their family roots; perhaps more, even, than attempt to write a novel. It is a noble and worthwhile endeavour to preserve one’s stories for the generations ahead, but the results are not always appealing beyond the family they depict. They are too mundane, too personal, too deeply embedded in the specific domestic context to speak to those at a distance. It is fascinating to know that granny has lived in No. 43 her whole life, or grew up on a sheep farm in Wales, or stepped off the boat in Liverpool with her mother’s earrings sewn into her knickers. But tens of thousands have done the same and, when she’s not your granny, it’s unlikely that you’ll be gripped by her day-to-day vicissitudes.

The Earl of Petticoat Lane, however, is a totally different kettle of herring. Rich and rough and vibrant, Jewish East End life at the turn of the last century comes alive from the first page as Andrew Miller introduces us to his grandparents Henry and Miriam Freedman, their struggles and their world:

Looked at in one way, Henry’s life was, like most lives, inconsequential, unfolding as it did on the margins of mass migrations, world wars and social upheavals. He fought in no famous battles, held no high office and was never quite successful enough in business to make headlines. Considered in another, closer way, it was, like most lives, extraordinary. It was harder and richer, both more foreign and more English than I had known – and the England it was lived in was a subtler and more fluid place than it is often thought to be.

Miller has achieved a delicate balance between the personal and the universal in telling his family’s story and in doing so has recreated an era that is scarcely imaginable these days or, when it is, is reduced to the ‘Awright, guv’nor’ cliché of ever-cheery barrow boys doffing caps. His mother’s mother, Miriam, grew up in a converted coal cellar on Hoxton’s Boot Street, raised, alongside her brother, by their formidable mother, Leah. Illiterate, Leah eked out a living in the sweatshops, taking in extra jobs after hours to feed her children and heating their basement by burning wood shavings they had scavenged from the local carpenters. When she met Henry in Polly Nathan’s Fish and Chip Shop in 1929, Miriam was an apprentice milliner, he a Petticoat Lane wideboy who helped his own mother make ends meet by hawking ladies’ underwear, and anything else he could lay his hands on. When compared to Miriam’s early circumstances, the two rooms he shared in Whitechapel with his mother and four siblings sound relatively comfortable. In reality, his family were also struggling to make ends meet; the boys would steal the cat food that was delivered to their neighbours to roast in the alleys when they were hungry.

In the face of such dire financial straits, a costly obstacle stood in the way of their marriage. Leah could produce no birth certificate, or ketubah, to prove that her daughter was Jewish, and the Beth Din could do nothing. With great reluctance and at great expense, Leah was dispatched back to her hometown of Kalisz, in Poland, to find a document that would allow her daughter to marry. In this, at least, Henry got his own way.

But Leah got her own back. After the wedding, Miriam was hustled off home again by her redoubtable mother, who refused to allow her daughter to go anywhere but back to her own bed on her wedding night. Relations between Henry and his new mother-in-law were, understandably, somewhat fraught.

Henry, head of the family since his father died when he was nine, was always determined to succeed. Marriage simply strengthened this drive. From selling underwear in The Lane he was soon running small, and eventually large, factories. He eventually employed hundreds of girls to churn out cheap, pretty nighties inspired by Hollywood movies, enough to fund a lifestyle that was the antithesis of his hand-to-mouth childhood – a flat in Regent’s Park, a Rolls-Royce and elocution lessons for his wife to ease their passage into the high society he craved.

This latter indulgence is perhaps the most significant. It is faintly comic today to imagine going to such lengths to retrieve dropped Hs, but to Henry it was deadly serious. Financial success was merely a stepping-stone towards his real goal of acceptance. There are two central love affairs in the book; that between Miriam and Henry, and that between Henry and upper-class Britain, embodied by his unlikely friend Walter Sherman.

Henry was a prolific correspondent and meticulous archivist, preserving everything from carbons of his own letters to menus, ticket stubs, receipts and the pièce de resistance – a photograph of himself with the young Queen Elizabeth – vital proof that all his social successes had really happened. His notes to Miriam tell of a long and happy marriage, for he is no less ardent in his declarations many years after their wedding than in the early days of their courtship. But this strength of feeling is equally present when he writes to Walter, since Henry was almost as much in love with the image of himself developing under Walter’s tutelage as he was with his wife. Through Walter he was introduced to a world of gentlemen’s clubs and luxury; he in exchange kept his friend in black-market meat and whisky throughout the difficult years of the war.

Henry remained doggedly fixated on transmogrifying: ‘At bottom, what he wanted was to be a new-minted person, on whom no trace of poverty or obscurity remained.’ Objective material success was never enough. He wanted the balls, the salons, the titles. He wanted to be Lord Mayor of London. Miriam was bulldozed by the force of her husband’s ambitions, less insecure about her humble roots, less driven to be freed from the East End association that Henry perceived as stigmatizing. Miller is a generous narrator, glossing over this ruthlessness as well as the numerous family disputes that see his siblings pushed aside as Henry scrambles to the top.

Miller possesses a rare constellation of talents, combining the historian’s mastery of source material with the novelist’s descriptive dexterity. His prose is lyrical as he brings Blitz Britain to his readers in Technicolour, with all its terrors and tedium. The Freedmans’ story, he writes,

spans three little worlds that have now all but vanished: the Jewish communities of Russian Poland and Galicia that their families came from; the immigrant Jewish colony that once occupied a part of London’s East End; and the last encore of British high society in which, after the war, my grandparents played unlikely cameos.

Miller draws his readers into each of these worlds in succession, and does justice to each. Similarly, his treatment of his grandfather’s surely bottomless collection of paperwork is skilfully done, with selected documents used only when they enhance our understanding of his characters, their motivations and the very different London in which they lived.

Henry Freedman, like many of the Jewish children with whom he grew up, wanted nothing more than to be considered English through and through:

On Empire Day in Bell Lane, Jewish mothers from Latvia and Romania sent their British daughters to school with red, white and blue ribbons tied in their hair, and the children assembled in the courtyard to sing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.

Henry’s approach to success epitomises this sentiment. In every photo taken of him at grand events he is making eye-contact with the camera – often the only one doing so – as if to ensure that it will acknowledge his having been there. He felt the significance of his presence at such quintessentially English events and knew it to be a triumph.

The Jews that arrived in the early twentieth century were hardly unobtrusive, with their many languages, their raised voices and gesticulation, their strange foods and manners. Their passage into British society shows us just how valuable are, and have been, our immigrant communities. It also reveals how partial assimilation – to use the word in its traditional, positive sense rather than simply as a synonym for marrying out or indulging in forbidden foods – is crucial for the successful transition of any newly alighted group. Embracing the national culture, a mastery of the language and a possessive pride in Britain and her flag need not equate to a loss of one’s own religious and cultural identity – a balance that Henry and Miriam, alongside many other Jews, achieved. For all his hard-nosed social climbing, Henry retained a great pride and identification with his Judaism (if not with his modest roots), even taking Walter to see a Yiddish drama, The King of Lampedusa, at the Grand Palais theatre on Commercial Road. Maintaining this connection with his faith may well be his biggest success of all.

Francesca Segal is a freelance journalist who has written for the Daily Telegraph, Jewish Chronicle and Financial Times magazine. She is currently completing a PhD in developmental psychology at University College London.

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