‘Life is full of disappointments,’ said Muriel crisply. ‘But one learns to put up with them.’I gave her a smile of amusement. We were sitting in a Rolls, and there was a footman as well as a chauffeur on the box. She wore a string of pearls that had probably cost forty thousand pounds. I recollected that in the birthday honours Sir Adolphus Bland had not been one of the three gentlemen on whom the King had been pleased to confer a peerage.
Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Alien Corn”  is still a shocker. It tells the story of an extended Jewish family in the UK, and their attempts to assimilate. It focuses on the toll this effort takes on the family’s twenty-one year old eldest son, George Bland, who has been raised to be the perfect English gentleman.
Our narrator, whom I shall refer to a Maugham, is a friend of George’s great-uncle, Ferdy Rabenstein.
.... You could never be dull when he was by and with him present you were safe from the fear of the devastating silences that sometimes overwhelm a British company. A pause looked inevitable and Ferdy Rabenstein had broken into a topic that interested everyone. An invaluable asset to any party. He had an inexhaustible fund of Jewish stories. He was a very good mimic and he assumed the Yiddish accent and reproduced the Jewish gestures to perfection; his head sank into his body, his face grew cunning, his voice oily, and he was a rabbi or an old clothes merchant or a smart commercial traveller or a fat procuress in Frankfort. It was as good as a play. Because he was himself a Jew and insisted on it you laughed without reserve, but for my own part not without an under-current of discomfort. I was not quite sure of a sense of humour that made such cruel fun of his own race. I discovered afterwards that Jewish stories were his speciality and I seldom met him anywhere without hearing him tell sooner or later the last he had heard.
....He never married.
‘I am a man of the world,’ he said, ‘and I flatter myself that I have no prejudices, toes les goilts sont dans la nature, but I do not think I could bring myself to marry a Gentile. There’s no harm in going to the opera in a dinner jacket, but it just would never occur to me to do so.’
‘Then why didn’t you marry a Jewess?’
(I did not hear this conversation, but the lively and audacious creature who thus tackled him told me of it)
‘Oh, my dear, our women are so prolific. I could not bear the thought of peopling the world with a little Ikey and a little Jacob and a little Rebecca and a little Leah and a little Rachel.’
Through Ferdy, Maugham meets the Blands.
....It was when he invited me to one of these that I made the discovery that started the recollections of him I have here set down. We were dining at a house in Hill Street, a large party, and the women having gone upstairs Ferdy and I found ourselves side by side. He told me that Lea Makart was coming to play for him on the following Friday evening and he would be glad if I would come.
‘I’m awfully sorry,’ I said, ‘but I’m going down to the Blands.’
‘They live in Sussex at a place called Tilby.’
‘I didn’t know you knew them.’
He looked at me rather strangely. He smiled. I didn’t know what amused him. ‘Oh, yes, I’ve known them for years. It’s a very nice house to stay at.’
‘Adolf is my nephew’
‘It suggests one of the bucks of the Regency, doesn’t it? But I will not conceal from you that he was named Adolf.’
‘Everyone I know calls him Freddy.’
‘I know, and I understand that Miriam, his wife, only answers to the name of Muriel.’
‘How does he happen to be your nephew?’
‘Because Hannah Rabenstein, my sister, married Alfons Bleikogel, who ended life as Sir Alfred Bland, first Baronet, and Adolf, their only son, in due course became Sir Adolphus Bland, second Baronet.’
‘Then Freddy Bland’s mother, the Lady Bland who lives in Portland Place, is your sister?’
‘Yes, my sister Hannah. She was the eldest of the family. She’s eighty, but in full possession of her faculties and a remarkable woman.’
‘I’ve never met her.’
‘I think your friends the Blands would just as soon you didn’t. She has never lost her German accent.’
Do you never see them?’ I asked.
‘I haven’t spoken to them for twenty years. I am such a Jew and they are so English.’ He smiled. ‘I could never remember that their names were Freddy and Muriel. I used to come out with an Adolf or a Miriam at awkward moments. And they didn’t like my stories. It was better that we should not meet. When the war broke out and I would not change my name it was the last straw. It was too late, I could never have accustomed my friends to think of me as anything but Ferdy Rabenstein; I was quite content. I was not ambitious to be a Smith, a Brown or a Robinson.’
Though he spoke facetiously, there was in his tone the faintest possible derision and I felt, hardly felt even, the sensation was so shadowy, that, as it had often vaguely seemed to me before, there was in the depth of his impenetrable heart a cynical contempt for the Gentiles he had conquered.
‘Then you don’t know the two boys?’ I said.
‘The eldest is called George, you know. I don’t think he’s so clever as Harry, the other one, but he’s an engaging youth. I think you’d like him.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘Well, he’s just been sent down from Oxford. I suppose he’s at home. Harry’s still at Eton.’
As a house guest, Maugham gets to see the he Blands [Bleikogels] up close:
....The dining-room was adorned with old English sporting pictures and the Chippendale chairs were of incredible value. In the drawing-room were portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough and landscapes by Old Crome and Richard Wilson. Even in my bedroom with its four-post bed were water-colours by Birket Foster. It was very beautiful and a treat to stay there, but though it would have distressed Muriel Bland beyond anything to know it, it entirely missed oddly enough the effect she had sought. It did not give you for a moment the impression of an English house. You had the feeling that every object had been bought with a careful eye to the general scheme. You missed the full Academy portraits that hung in the dining-room beside a Carlo Dolci that an ancestor had brought back from the Grand Tour, and the water-colours painted by a great-aunt that cluttered up the drawing-room so engagingly. There was no ugly Victorian sofa that had always been there and that it never occurred to anybody to take away and no needlework chairs that an unmarried daughter had so painstakingly worked at about the time of the Great Exhibition. There was beauty but no sentiment.
....Freddy [Adolphus] had been at Eton and Oxford. He was now in the early fifties. He was quiet in manner, courtly, very clever, I imagine, but a trifle reserved. He had great elegance, but it was not an English elegance; he had grey hair and a short pointed grey beard, fine dark eyes and an aquiline nose. He was just above middle height; I don’t think you would have taken him for a Jew, but rather for a foreign diplomat of some distinction. He was a man of character, but gave you, strangely enough, notwithstanding the success he had had in life, an impression of faint melancholy. His successes had been financial and political; in the world of sport, for all his perseverance, he had never shone. For many years he had followed hounds, but he was a bad rider and I think it must have been a relief to him when he could persuade himself that middle age and pressure of business forced him to give up hunting. He had excellent shooting and gave grand parties for it, but he was a poor shot; and despite the course in his park he never succeeded in being more than an indifferent golfer. He knew only too well how much these things meant in England and his incapacity was a bitter disappointment to him. However George would make up for it.
George was scratch at golf, and though tennis was not his game he played much better than the average; the Blands had had him taught to shoot as soon as he was old enough to hold a gun and he was a fine shot; they had put him on a pony when he was two, and Freddy, watching him mount his horse, knew that out hunting when the boy came to a fence he felt exhilaration and not that sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, which, though he had chased the fox with such grim determination, had always made the sport a torture to him. George was so tall and slim, his curly hair, of a palish brown, was so fine, his eyes were so blue, he was the perfect type of the young Englishman. He had the engaging candour of the breed. His nose was straight, though perhaps a trifle fleshy, and his lips were perhaps a little full and sensual, but he had beautiful teeth, and his smooth skin was like ivory. George was the apple of his father’s eye. He did not like Harry, his second son, so well. He was rather stocky, broad-shouldered and strong for his age, but his black eyes, shining with cleverness, his coarse dark hair, and his big nose revealed his race. Freddy was severe with him, and often impatient, but with George he was all indulgence. Harry would go into the business, he had brains and push, but George was the heir. George would be an English gentleman.
Muriel [Miriam] Bland, referring to her husband Sir Adolphus Bland [Adolf Bleikogel]:
....‘Of course you know that Freddy has Jewish blood in him,’ she said.
She looked at me sharply. Muriel was rather a big blonde woman and she spent a great deal of time trying to keep down the corpulence to which she was predisposed. She had been very pretty when young, and even now was a comely person; but her round blue eyes, slightly prominent, her fleshy nose, the shape of her face and the back of her neck, her exuberant manner, betrayed her race. No Englishwoman, however fair-haired, ever looked like that. And yet her observation was designed to make me take it for granted that she was a Gentile. I answered discreetly:
‘So many people have nowadays.’
‘I know. But there’s no reason to dwell on it, is there? After all, we’re absolutely English; no one could be more English than George, in appearance and manner and everything; I mean, he’s such a fine sportsman and all that sort of thing, I can’t see any object of his knowing Jews just because they happen to be distant connexions of his.’
‘It’s very difficult in England now not to know Jews, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, I know, in London one does meet a good many, and I think some of them are very nice. They’re so artistic. I don’t go so far as to say that Freddy and I deliberately avoid them, of course I wouldn’t do that, but it just happens that we don’t really know any of them very well. And down here, there simply aren’t any to know’
I could not but admire the convincing manner in which she spoke. It would not have surprised me to be told that she really believed every word she said. ‘You say that Ferdy might leave George his money. Well, I don’t believe it’s so very much anyway; it was quite a comfortable fortune before the war, but that’s nothing nowadays. Besides we’re hoping that George will go in for politics when he’s a little older, and I don’t think it would do him any good in the constituency to inherit money from a Mr Rabenstein.’
‘Is George interested in politics?’ I asked, to change the conversation.
‘Oh, I do hope so. After all, there’s the family constituency waiting for him. It’s a safe Conservative seat and one can’t expect Freddy to go on with the grind of the House of Commons indefinitely.’
....Freddy gave me a sidelong glance as though he wanted to say something but hesitated in case I thought it ridiculous; but there is one advantage in being a writer that, since people look upon you as of no account, they will often say things to you that they would not to their equals. He thought he would risk it.
‘You know, I’ve got an idea that nowhere in the world now is the Greek ideal of life so perfectly cultivated as by the English country gentleman living on his estates. I think his life has the beauty of a work of art.’
I could not but smile when I reflected that it was impossible for the English country gentleman in these days to do anything of the sort without a packet of money safely invested in American Bonds, but I smiled with sympathy. I thought it rather touching that this Jewish financier should cherish so romantic a dream.
George's parents refuse to let him lunch with his great-uncle, Ferdy Rabenstein, but the lunch takes place anyway:
....We went down to luncheon. Ferdy had the social graces at his fingers’ ends and he put the boy at his ease, but I saw that he was carefully appraising him; then, I do not know why, he began to tell some of his Jewish stories. He told them with gusto and with all his wonderful mimicry. I saw George flush, and though he laughed at them, I could see that it was with embarrassment. I wondered what on earth had induced Ferdy to be so tactless. But he was watching George and he told story after story. It looked as though he would never stop. I wondered if for some reason I could not grasp he was taking a malicious pleasure in the boy’s obvious discomfiture. At last we went upstairs and to make things easier I asked Ferdy to play the piano. He played us three or four little waltzes. He had lost none of his exquisite lightness nor his sense of their lilting rhythm. Then he turned to George.
‘Do you play?’ he asked him.
‘Won’t you play something?’
‘I’m afraid I only play classical music. I don’t think it would interest you.’ Ferdy smiled slightly, but did not insist. I said it was time for me to go and George accompanied me.
‘What a filthy old Jew,’ he said as soon as we were in the street. ‘I hated those stories of his.’
‘They’re his great stunt. He always tells them.’
‘Would you if you were a Jew?’
I shrugged my shoulders.
‘How is it you came to lunch after all?’ I asked George.
He chuckled. He was a light-hearted creature, with a sense of humour, and he shook off the slight irritation his great-uncle had caused him. ‘He went to see Granny. You don’t know Granny, do you?’
‘She treats daddy like a kid in Etons. Granny said I was to go to lunch with great-uncle Ferdy and what Granny says goes.’
George is sent to Munich to study German in preparation for going into the diplomatic service. A year later, our narrator meets his mother, Muriel Bland, at a dinner. She has just returned from visiting George. There she learned George has decided to give up everything to become a pianist.
‘A professional pianist.’
‘What on earth put that idea in his head?’
‘Heaven knows. We didn’t know anything about it. We thought he was working for his exam. I went out to see him. I thought I’d like to know that he was getting on all right. Oh, my dear. He looks like nothing on earth. And he used to be so smart; I could have cried. He told me he wasn’t going in for the exam, and had never had any intention of doing so; he’d only suggested the diplomatic service so that we’d let him go to Germany and he’d be able to study music’
‘But has he any talent?’
‘Oh, that’s neither here nor there. Even if he had the genius of Paderewski we couldn’t have George traipsing around the country playing at concerts. No one can deny that I’m very artistic, and so is Freddy, we love music and we’ve always known a lot of artists, but George will have a very great position, it’s out of the question. We’ve set our hearts on his going into Parliament. He’ll be very rich one day. There’s nothing he can’t aspire to.’
Did you point all that out to him?’
‘Of course I did. He laughed at me. I told him he’d break his father’s heart. He said his father could always fall back on Harry. Of course I’m devoted to Harry, and he’s as clever as a monkey, but it was always understood that he was to go into the business; even though I am his mother I can see that he hasn’t got the advantages that George has. Do you know what he said to me? He said that if his father would settle five pounds a week on him he would resign everything in Harry’s favour and Harry could be his father’s heir and succeed to the baronetcy and everything. It’s too ridiculous. He said that if the Crown Prince of Roumania could abdicate a throne he didn’t see why he couldn’t abdicate a baronetcy. But you can’t do that. Nothing can prevent him from being third baronet and if Freddy should be granted a peerage from succeeding to it at Freddy’s death. Do you know, he even wants to drop the name of Bland and take some horrible German name.’ I could not help asking what. ‘Bleikogel or something like that,’ she answered.
George returns home for his twenty-first birthday, but refuses to give up his plan..
....After dinner that evening there was a battle royal. Freddy was a quick-tempered man, unused to opposition, and he gave George the rough side of his tongue. I gather that it was very rough indeed. The women who sought to restrain his violence were sternly silenced. Perhaps for the first time in his life Freddy would not listen to his mother. George was obstinate and sullen. He had made up his mind and if his father didn’t like it he could lump it. Freddy was peremptory. He forbade George to go back to Germany. George answered that he was twenty-one and his own master. He would go where he chose. Freddy swore he would not give him a penny.
‘All right, I’ll earn money.’
‘You! You’ve never done a stroke of work in your life. What do you expect to do to earn money?’
‘Sell old clothes,’ grinned George.
There was a gasp from all of them. Muriel was so taken aback that she said a stupid thing.
‘Like a Jew?’
‘Well, aren’t I a Jew? And aren’t you a Jewess and isn’t daddy a Jew? We’re all Jews, the whole gang of us, and everyone knows it and what the hell’s the good of pretending we’re not?’
Then a very dreadful thing happened. Freddy burst suddenly into tears. I’m afraid he didn’t behave very much like Sir Adolphus Bland, Bart, M.P., and the good old English gentleman he so much wanted to be, but like an emotional Adolf Bleikogel who loved his son and wept with mortification because the great hopes he had set on him were brought to nothing and the ambition of his life was frustrated. He cried noisily with great loud sobs and pulled his beard and beat his breast and rocked to and fro. Then they all began to cry, old Lady Bland and Muriel, and Ferdy, who sniffed and blew his nose and wiped the tears streaming down his face, and even George cried. Of course it was very painful, but to our rough Anglo-Saxon temperament I am afraid it must seem also a trifle ridiculous. No one tried to console anybody else. They just sobbed and sobbed. It broke up the party.
George returns to Munich to study piano. He promises his family that if at the end of two years, an impartial judge determines he has to genius for the instrument, he will give it up.
Nearly two years later, our narrator dines with George in Munich.
....‘Now I’ll play to you.’
I sat in one of the dilapidated arm-chairs and a broken spring stuck into my behind, but I made myself as comfortable as I could. George played Chopin. I know very little of music and that is one of the reasons for which I have found this story difficult to write. When I go to a concert at the Queen’s Hall and in the intervals read the programme it is all Greek to me. I know nothing of harmony and counterpoint. I shall never forget how humiliated I felt once when, having come to Munich for a Wagner festival, I went to a wonderful performance of Tristan and Isolde and never heard a note of it. The first few bars sent me off and I began to think of what I was writing, my characters leapt into life and I heard their long conversations, I suffered their pains and was a party to their joy; the years swept by and all sorts of things happened to me, the spring brought me its rapture and in the winter I was cold and hungry; and I loved and I hated and I died. I suppose there were intervals in which I walked round and round the garden and probably ate Schinken-Briidchen and drank beer, but I have no recollection of them. The only thing I know is that when the curtain for the last time fell I woke with a start. I had had a wonderful time, but I could not help thinking it was very stupid of me to come such a long way and spend so much money if I couldn’t pay attention to what I heard and saw.
I knew most of the things George played. They were the familiar pieces of concert programmes. He played with a great deal of dash. Then he played Beethoven’s Appassionata. I used to play it myself when I played the piano (very badly) in my far distant youth and I still knew every note of it. Of course it is a classic and a great work, it would be foolish to deny it, but I confess that at this time of day it leaves me cold. It is like Paradise Lost, splendid, but a trifle stolid. This too George played with vigour. He sweated profusely. At first I could not make out what was the matter with his playing, something did not seem to me quite right, and then it struck me that the two hands did not exactly synchronize, so that there was ever so slight an interval between the bass and the treble; but I repeat, I am ignorant of these things; what disconcerted me might have been merely the effect of his having drunk a good deal of beer that evening or indeed only my fancy. I said all I could think of to praise him.
‘Of course I know I need a lot more work. I’m only a beginner, but I know I can do it. I feel it in my bones. It’ll take me ten years, but then I shall be a pianist.’
He was tired and came away from the piano. It was after midnight and I suggested going, but he would not hear of it. He opened a couple of bottles of beer and lit his pipe. He wanted to talk.
‘Are you happy here?’ I asked him.
‘Very,’ he answered gravely. ‘I’d like to stay for ever. I’ve never had such fun in my life. This evening, for instance. Wasn’t it grand?’
‘It was very jolly. But one can’t go on leading the student’s life. Your friends here will grow older and go away.’
‘Others’ll come. There are always students here and people like that.’
‘Yes, but you’ll grow older too. Is there anything more lamentable than the middle-aged man who tries to go on living the undergraduate’s life? The old fellow who wants to be a boy among boys, and tries to persuade himself that they’ll accept him as one of themselves-how ridiculous he is. It can’t be done.’
‘I feel so at home here. My poor father wants me to be an English gentleman. It gives me gooseflesh. I’m not a sportsman. I don’t care a damn for hunting and shooting and playing cricket. I was only acting.’
‘You gave a very natural performance.’
‘It wasn’t till I came here that I knew it wasn’t real. I loved Eton, and Oxford was a riot, but all the same I knew I didn’t belong. I played the part all right, because acting’s in my blood, but there was always something in me that wasn’t satisfied. The house in Grosvenor Square is a freehold and daddy paid a hundred and eighty thousand pounds for Tilby; I don’t know if you understand what I mean, I felt they were just furnished houses we’d taken for the season and one of these days we’d pack up and the real owners would come back.’
I listened to him attentively, but I wondered how much he was describing what he had obscurely felt and how much he imagined now in his changed circumstances that he had felt.
‘I used to hate hearing great-uncle Ferdy tell his Jewish stories. I thought it so damned mean. I understand now; it was a safety valve. My God, the strain of being a man about town. It’s easier for daddy, he can play the old English squire at Tilby, but in the City he can be himself He’s all right. I’ve taken the make-up off and my stage clothes and at last I can be my real self too. What a relief? You know, I don’t like English people. I never really know where I am with you. You’re so dull and conventional. You never let yourselves go. There’s no freedom in you, freedom of the soul, and you’re such funks. There’s nothing in the world you’re so frightened of as doing the wrong thing.’
‘Don’t forget that you’re English yourself, George,’ I murmured.
‘I? I’m not English. I haven’t got a drop of English blood in me. I’m a Jew and you know it, and a German Jew into the bargain. I don’t want to be English. I want to be a Jew. My friends are Jews. You don’t know how much more easy I feel with them. I can be myself We did everything we could to avoid Jews at home; Mummy, because she was blonde, thought she could get away with it and pretended she was a Gentile. What rot! D’you know, I have a lot of fun wandering about the Jewish parts of Munich and looking at the people. I went to Frankfort once, there are a lot of them there, and I walked about and looked at the frowzy old men with their hooked noses and the fat women with their false hair. I felt such a sympathy for them, I felt I belonged to them, I could have kissed them. When they looked at me I wondered if they knew that I was one of them. I wish to God I knew Yiddish. I’d like to become friends with them, and go into their houses and eat Kosher food and all that sort of thing. I wanted to go to a synagogue, but I was afraid I’d do the wrong thing and be kicked out I like the smell of the Ghetto and the sense of life, and the mystery and the dust and the squalor and the romance. I shall never get the longing for it out of my head now That’s the real thing. All the rest is only pretence.’
‘You’ll break your father’s heart,’ I said.
‘It’s his or mine. Why can’t he let me go? There’s Harry. Harry would love to be squire of Tilby. He’d be an English gentleman all right. You know, mummy’s set her heart on my marrying a Christian. Harry would love to. He’ll found the good old English family all right. After all, I ask so little. I only want five pounds a week, and they can keep the title and the park and the Gainsboroughs and the whole bag of tricks.’
‘Well, the fact remains that you gave your solemn word of honour to go back after two years.’
‘I’ll go back all right,’ he said sullenly. lea Makart has promised to come and hear me play.’
‘What’ll you do if she says you’re no good?’
‘Shoot myself,’ he said gaily.
‘What nonsense,’ I answered in the same tone.
‘Do you feel at home in England?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘but then I don’t feel at home anywhere else.’
But he was quite naturally not interested in me.
‘I loathe the idea of going back. Now that I know what life has to offer I wouldn’t be an English country gentleman for anything in the world. My God, the boredom of it!’
‘Money’s a very nice thing and I’ve always understood it’s very pleasant to be an English peer.’
‘Money means nothing to me. I want none of the things it can buy, and I don’t happen to be a snob.’
It was growing very late and I had to get up early next day. It seemed unnecessary for me to pay too much attention to what George said. It was the sort of nonsense a young man might very well indulge in when thrown suddenly among painters and poets. Art is strong wine and needs a strong head to carry it The divine fire burns most efficiently in those who temper its fury with horse sense. After all, George was not twenty-three yet. Time teaches. And when all was said and done his future was no concern of mine. I bade him good night and walked back to my hotel. The stars were shining in the indifferent sky. I left Munich in the morning.
Finally the day of the test arrives. Concert pianist Lea Makart is the judge.
....George gave no sign of nervousness. He was already seated at the piano when I went in with his father and mother, and he watched us quietly settling ourselves down. He gave me the shadow of a smile. When he saw that we were all at our ease he began to play. He played Chopin. He played two waltzes that were familiar to me, a polonaise and an Etude. He played with a great deal of brio. I wish I knew music well enough to give an exact description of his playing. It had strength, and a youthful exuberance, but I felt that he missed what to me is the peculiar charm of Chopin, the tenderness, the nervous melancholy, the wistful gaiety and the slightly faded romance that reminds me always of an Early Victorian keepsake. And again I had the vague sensation, so slight that it almost escaped me, that the two hands did not quite synchronize. I looked at Ferdy and saw him give his sister a look of faint surprise. Muriel’s eyes were fixed on the pianist, but presently she dropped them and for the rest of the time stared at the floor. His father looked at him too, and his eyes were steadfast, but unless I was much mistaken he went pale and his face betrayed something like dismay. Music was in the blood of all of them, all their lives they had heard the greatest pianists in the world, and they judged with instinctive precision. The only person whose face betrayed no emotion was Lea Makart. She listened very attentively. She was as still as an image in a niche.
At last he stopped and turning round on his seat faced her. He did not speak. ‘What is it you want me to tell you?’ she asked.
They looked into one another’s eyes.
‘I want you to tell me whether I have any chance of becoming in time a pianist in the first rank.’
‘Not in a thousand years.’
For a moment there was dead silence. Freddy’s head sank and he looked down at the carpet at his feet. His wife put out her hand and took his. But George continued to look steadily at Lea Makart.
Ferdy has told me the circumstances,’ she said at last. ‘Don’t think I’m influenced by them. Nothing of this is very important.’ She made a great sweeping gesture that took in the magnificent room with the beautiful things it contained and all of us. ‘If I thought you had in you the makings of an artist I shouldn’t hesitate to beseech you to give up everything for art’s sake. Art is the only thing that matters. In comparison with art, wealth and rank and power are not worth a straw’ She gave us a look so sincere that it was void of insolence. ‘We are the only people who count. We give the world significance. You are only our raw material.’
I was not too pleased to be included with the rest under that heading, but that is neither here nor there.
‘Of course I can see that you’ve worked very hard. Don’t think it’s been wasted. It will always be a pleasure to you to be able to play the piano and it will enable you to appreciate great playing as no ordinary person can hope to do. Look at your hands. They’re not a pianist’s hands.’
Involuntarily I glanced at George’s hands. I had never noticed them before. I was astounded to see how podgy they were and how short and stumpy the fingers.
‘Your ear is not quite perfect. I don’t think you can ever hope to be more than a very competent amateur. In art the difference between the amateur and the professional is immeasurable.’
....He got up from the piano and lit a cigarette. It eased the strain. The others moved a little in their chairs. Lea Makart smiled at George.
‘Shall I play to you?’ she said.
She got up and went to the piano. She took off the rings with which her fingers were laden. She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognized the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight on the wide German country, and a tender cosiness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space. She played beautifully, with a soft brilliance that made you think of the full moon shining at dusk in the summer sky. With another part of me I watched the others and I saw how intensely they were conscious of the experience. They were rapt. I wished with all my heart that I could get from music the wonderful exaltation that possessed them. She stopped, a smile hovered on her lips, and she put on her rings. George gave a little chuckle.
‘That clinches it, I fancy,’ he said.
George Bland dies within the hour, while cleaning a shot gun.
....To understand the special nature of British anti-Semitism, and the degree of legitimacy it presently enjoys in the public discourse, it is important to recognize its deeper roots in British history. While it is true that, unlike Germany, France, Russia, and Poland, Britain was not a major stronghold of anti-Semitism in the modern era, its democratic tradition has nonetheless been far more ambivalent toward Jews than is often assumed.7 Not only that, but in the more distant past Britain was the first European state to expel its Jewish population altogether.
Medieval English anti-Semitism was both innovative and lethal before the removal of the Jews in 1290. The British historian and lawyer Anthony Julius has noted that the anti-Jewish measures that preceded this expulsion encompassed torture, expropriation, and murder, and established the horrific precedent of the blood libel for the rest of medieval Christendom. It was in Norwich in 1144 that the ritual murder charge first appeared, accusing the Jews of using the blood of Christian children for their Passover matzoth. Predatory rulers, an unruly and violent populace, and a hostile Catholic Church combined to make Jewish lives in medieval England “often intolerable, and finally impossible.”8 Britain in the years between 1144 and 1290 was in effect a persecuting society, replete with “massacres, forced conversions, and a zealotry in enforcing discriminatory Church laws against the Jews unmatched in the rest of Europe.”9
The forcible ejection of Jews from England did not bring to an end the resonances of a murderous, triumphalist Christian anti-Semitism—one that was immortalized in ballad and song, drama, fiction, and poetry. In the late thirteenth century, the ballad “Sir Hugh, or The Jew’s Daughter” commemorated a notorious blood libel. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” (in his canonical Canterbury Tales), Christopher Marlowe’s super-Machiavellian The Jew of Malta, and William Shakespeare’s more subtle The Merchant of Venice (to name only some of the best-known cases) established a formidable literary tradition of anti-Semitism in which Jews and Judaism were portrayed in negative and often sinister terms. These hostile images were thoroughly honed in the 350 years that the Jewish presence altogether disappeared from English soil.10
The readmittance of Jews in the 1650s did not fundamentally change the prevailing stereotypes, though they were somewhat modified by the vain hope that Jews would be ripe for conversion to Protestant Christianity. A century later, in the mid-1750s, the savage popular outcry against the proposal to naturalize foreign-born Jews without their adopting Anglicanism indicated just how limited the break with the past had really been. The full repertoire of medieval anti-Semitism (condemning Jews as Christ killers, bloodthirsty usurers, thieves, and spreaders of disease) came back into play in the context of English party politics and popular agitation. It should be said that this anti-Jewish paroxysm had little to do with the relatively small Anglo-Jewish community that numbered about twenty-five thousand—mainly Sephardic and primarily concentrated in commerce or in the city of London as merchants, stockbrokers, and bankers.11
However, in Victorian England, the more violent strand of anti-Semitism had begun to ebb away as the British Empire arrived at its apogee. Nineteenth-century Britain was transformed into the manufacturing hub of the industrial world and the global market. The formal emancipation of the Jews in 1858, the election of a converted Jew, the exotic and unconventional Benjamin Disraeli, as prime minister, and the rise of veritable aristocratic dynasties among the Anglo-Jewish elite pointed to the emergence of a more liberal dispensation. With its free-trade gospel, Victorian England valued entrepreneurial initiative and self-help very highly. No less important, religious tolerance had gradually become enshrined in Britain, along with parliamentary democracy and political pluralism. A philo-Semitic tradition of Protestantism, which not only revered the biblical Hebrews but also felt some affinity for modern-day Jews, helped to attenuate past hostility. Moreover, commercial capitalism, having come earlier to England (and without any major Jewish input) was not as intense a source of conflict between Jews and Christians as it would be in France or Germany. Wealthy Jews were, for example, almost as legitimate in Britain (or America, for that matter) as wealthy Gentiles.
Nevertheless, there was an anticapitalist populist undercurrent in British political discourse, epitomized by William Cobbett, the radical MP for Old-ham and the celebrated author of Rural Rides. Cobbett’s strident rhetoric was especially directed at Scotsmen, Quakers, and Jews—considered by him to have a special talent for making money without working. Moreover, they were bearers of those rational modernizing and urban values that threatened the yeoman rural England that he so ardently defended. Cobbett fiercely attacked the prospect of Jewish political emancipation in the 1830s, evoking Jews with special virulence as the “descendants of the murderers of Jesus Christ,” and as willing tools of the oppressors throughout history; they had, he believed, a natural propensity to bribe and corrupt others. Not for nothing did the great British liberal historian (and parliamentary opponent of Cobbett) Thomas Babington Macaulay describe him as a “reasoning bigot” who justified the persecution of Jews by libeling them as “a mean race, a sordid race, and money-getting race … averse to all honorable callings.”12 Cobbett’s radical anti-plutocratic anti-Semitism subsequently found echoes in the Chartist movement of his time and then in the anti-Boer War agitation of the British Left around 1900. Indeed, it might even be seen as a distant precursor of the anti-Zionist agitation on the British Left after 1967.
A new factor in British anti-Semitism was the rapid growth of the Jewish population of Great Britain from a modest 35,000 in 1850 to 243,000 in 1910. It reached a prewar peak of 350,000 in 1939. The largest single wave of immigration (from czarist Russia) came in the two decades before World War I, creating a xenophobic backlash reflected in the Aliens Bill of 1905. The “alien invasion” of Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement prompted some British ideologues such as Arnold White to invoke the specter of “rule by foreign Jews” in a secret conspiracy with the British aristocracy. White’s xenophobic anti-Semitism did not, however, prevent him from visiting Russia on behalf of Jewish groups to investigate czarist persecution and from proposing alternative solutions to the “Jewish question,” including America and Palestine. The same was true of the Conservative MP for Stepney, Sir William Evans-Gordon. A leading progenitor of the Aliens Act, Evans-Gordon was an avowed anti-Semite but one who was sensitive to Jewish suffering in Russia and sympathetic to Zionism. Such voices (like those in the trade unions) opposed unrestricted immigration to Britain mainly because it was liable to depress wages and increase social tensions. These arguments had the support of the established Anglo-Jewish leadership and of Zionists convinced that further Jewish immigration to Britain would only aggravate anti-Semitism. The future Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann suggested in his memoirs (perhaps too generously) that Evans-Gordon was solely driven by English patriotism rather than anti-Jewish prejudice. The Conservative MP believed that the great industrial centers of England had reached saturation point. Weizmann agreed, cryptically observing that Evans-Gordon was “ready to encourage settlement of Jews almost anywhere in the British Empire, but failed to see why the ghettos of London or Leeds or Whitechapel should be made into branches of the ghettos of Warsaw and Pinsk.”13
Anti-Semitism in late Victorian and Edwardian England was essentially driven by such protectionist sentiment, though it was not devoid of sympathy for persecuted Jewish refugees. At the same time, racism was certainly present in Britain, often directed against the Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, blacks, and others. Racial stereotypes, with their degrading assumptions about the ineradicable difference between Anglo-Saxons and “Semites” or “Orientals,” and the moral inferiority of Jews, added a new dimension of pseudo-rationality to old prejudices. The “rich Jew anti-Semitism” of the Left bizarrely cohabited with conservative claims that Jews were all radical subversives, secret plotters, and clannish and dishonest knaves unwilling to assimilate.14 Even Arthur James Balfour, Conservative prime minister in 1905 (and future author of the famous 1917 declaration that bears his name) was concerned, during the debate over the Aliens Act, that Jews, despite their patriotism and abilities, “remained a people apart, and not merely held a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow-countrymen.”15 Before World War I (and for the next thirty years), Balfour’s Conservative Party would be hostile to “alien” immigration, regarding Jewish “slums” (with the vice and crime they entailed) as a “threat to the Anglo-Saxon race.”16 Conservatives were in the forefront of those who speculated about a Jewish fifth column loyal primarily to international Jewry or to Germany rather than to Great Britain. During the military conflict with imperial Germany, this campaign against dual loyalties led to attacks on prominent German-born Jews such as Sir Ernest Cassel and Sir Edgar Speyer and calls for their removal as privy usterless. Similarly, the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia increased resentment toward the far less assimilated eastern European Jews in Britain.17 There were even some violent outbursts against Jews in the East End and Leeds, driven by the refusal of most Russian Jews to volunteer for military service at a time when the hated czarist regime in Russia was Britain’s wartime ally.
In October 1917, at a critical moment during the war against Germany, the issue of Zionism was very high on imperial Britain’s foreign policy agenda. The positive Zionist attitude toward the British Empire helped to give their advocacy a newfound legitimacy, and they were seen by influential British Gentiles as supportive of the Allied war effort. This stood in sharp contrast to the poor image of those Jews suspected of being pacifists, revolutionaries, pro-German, or cosmopolitan representatives of high finance.18 In December 1917, at the very time that the Jewish-born Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik commissar for foreign affairs, was preparing Russia’s exit from World War I, British troops captured Jerusalem. This conquest came only a month after Lord Balfour had promised Palestine as a national home for the Jews. The Foreign Office and British establishment circles—convinced that Jews exercised an almost magical influence on international events—now looked to Zionism to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.
Ironically enough, the most formidable opponent of the Balfour Declaration within the British cabinet was the new secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu—a prominent Jewish anti-Zionist who favored total assimilation into British society. In a memorandum of 1917 entitled “The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government,” Montagu somewhat hysterically declared that the policy of His Majesty’s government on Palestine was “anti-Semitic in result and will prove a rallying ground for Anti-Semites in every country in the world.” Montagu insisted that Zionism was a “mischievous political creed,” untenable by any patriotic British citizen. He even declared himself ready to disenfranchise every Zionist and to ban the Zionist organization as inimical to the British national interest. Montagu gloomily predicted that if the Jews were granted a national home in Palestine, it would become “the world’s ghetto.” At a meeting of the war cabinet on October 4, 1917, he went further still, suggesting that the civil rights of Jewish Britons like himself would be seriously damaged by the proposed declaration. His own ability to negotiate with the peoples of India (including millions of Muslims) on behalf of the British government might be gravely impaired if it was implied that his real home was in Palestine—an anxiety that proved to have no foundation whatsoever.
In a personal letter to British prime minister David Lloyd George shortly after this cabinet meeting, Montagu complained that “every anti-Semitic usterless and newspaper will ask what right a Jewish Englishman, with the status at best of a usterless foreigner, has to take a foremost part in the government of the British Empire.”19 When news of the Balfour Declaration reached him in India, Montagu wrote in his diary on November 11, 1917: “The Government has dealt an irreparable blow at Jewish Britons and they have endeavoured to set up a people which does not exist; they have alarmed unnecessarily the whole Moslem world; and insofar as they are successful they will have a Germanised Palestine on the flank of Egypt.”20
The protests of Montagu and other leading British Jews did, in fact, delay and modify the final text of the Balfour Declaration. As James Malcolm (a strong Gentile supporter of Zionism) recalled in 1944, the war cabinet was “very apprehensive because from the point of view of wealth and influence, the anti-Zionist Jews greatly outweighed the few Zionist leaders who were in London.”21
The backlash from leaders of the Anglo-Jewish “Cousinhood” was not slow in coming. On November 14, 1917, the newly established League of British Jews (including some of the wealthiest and most prestigious families in Anglo-Jewry) began to organize Jewish opposition to Zionism, proclaiming its determination to resist the allegation that their coreligionists constituted a separate political nationality.22 Though it represented only a narrow elite of British Jews, the League had considerable influence. But the League soon had to confront a different kind of anti-Zionist onslaught, led by British newspapers such as the anti-Jewish Morning Post, the Daily Mail, and The Times. Editorials and articles in the press did not hesitate to impugn the so-called dual loyalties of British Jews or to demand the removal of leading Jewish officials in Palestine, including the recently appointed high commissioner, Herbert Samuel.23 The Daily Express openly suggested that anyone who defended Zionism was indeed unpatriotic and un-British. Lord Beaverbrook even called the Zionists “the most dangerous foe of the patriotic British Jew.”24 The Sunday Express ostentatiously contrasted patriotic English Jews with the wicked, anti-British Zionists. Somewhat unctuously it declared: “No one knows better than the anti-Zionist Jews how much the Zionists have done to stir up anti-Semitic prejudices by their hysterical advocacy of the Palestine Administration.”25 The anti-Zionist campaign in British conservative circles was heavily tainted by anti-Semitism. This posed an awkward dilemma for the League of British Jews, who had no desire to be associated with such hostile forces. In April 1919, ten Anglo-Jewish dignitaries linked to the League felt obliged to publicly deny any similarity between Judaism and Bolshevism at the same time as they condemned Jewish nationalism. By 1922, when Zionism itself had become the object of relentlessly anti-Semitic attacks, the League began to mute its own propaganda.
The ultraconservative Morning Post and its editor H. A. Gwynne had seen a Jewish “hidden hand” behind Bolshevism, Lloyd George’s policies in Ireland, the Paris Peace Conference, the emerging League of Nations (a “conspiracy” of American Jewry), and Marxist-inspired attempts to wreck the British Empire.26 The paper insisted that the “secret rulers of Jewry” controlled the destiny of the world and the diplomacy of the nations and were clandestinely allied either to Germany or Communist Russia—archenemies of the British Empire.
Lord Sydenham of Combe was one of a number of prominent British peers who agreed that it was impossible to disentangle nefarious German and Judaic conspiracies. A former army officer and colonial governor of Victoria (Australia), and of Bombay, he fully believed in a global Jewish plot to undermine Great Britain. In an article of November 1921 in the Fortnightly Review, Sydenham blamed the Jews for the fact that “the British Empire is now being subjected to attack wherever it is thought to be most vulnerable, and notably in India, Ireland, Egypt and Palestine.” He added that the “strenuous efforts directed from Moscow to promote World Revolution” were not of Slavic but Jewish origin. The League of Nations, he told a distinguished Australian correspondent, Sir James Barrett, “is a Jewish invention directed principally against our Empire.”27
While Winston Churchill shared Lord Sydenham’s repugnance for Bolshevism as a worldwide “conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization,” he sharply rejected the idea of any connection between Zionism and the “international Jews.” On the contrary, in February 1920, Churchill explained that there was a split in the soul of Jewry, whom he called “the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.” The Zionists were the “good Jews,” in his eyes, constructive patriots seeking to build the Jewish national home, which Churchill passionately supported. The Bolshevik Jews from Marx to Trotsky and Béla Kun were, on the other hand, their complete antithesis—sinister terrorists fanning the flames of unrest and rebellion around the globe. These Jewish revolutionaries had now “gripped the Russian people by the hair of their heads and have become the undisputed masters of that enormous empire.”28 The popularity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Britain during the early 1920s (it was translated for The Morning Post by the paper’s Russian correspondent, Victor Marsden, in 1919) was directly related to such assumptions about “Judeo-Bolshevism” within the British establishment. Fortunately, they did not take deeper root in interwar Britain after Philip Graves, Istanbul correspondent for The Times, exposed the Protocols as a fraud in August 1921.29
On the other hand, literary anti-Semitism continued to flourish in interwar Britain. There was an abundance of “cultural anti-Semites” including Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, both Anglo-Catholics preoccupied with the intellectual, economic, and political power of the Jews in the Western world. The French-born Belloc was much influenced by the venomous anti-Semitism of Édouard Drumont’s La Libre Parole, and the ultranationalist Action Française across the English Channel. His own anti-Jewish polemics were often strident and obsessive, though he (rather comically) denied being an anti-Semite. Belloc called for recognition of the “Jewish nation” while insisting on the exclusion of Jews from any influence in Britain.30 Complex, bizarre, and convoluted to the end, he blamed the 1939 German invasion of Poland on “Jewish bankers who had allowed Prussia to re-arm,” and on Oxford dons.31
An antithetical left-liberal version of English intellectual anti-Semitism (also with roots in the Edwardian era) was that of the supposedly cosmopolitan, progressive writer H. G. Wells. Before 1914 Wells was already convinced that Jewish difference must be eliminated—along with that of other “inferior races”—by total assimilation into “mankind.” Wells, along with a number of other Edwardian writers, disliked the allegedly “Jewish” traits of vulgarity and materialism, hoping that in the twentieth century, “irrational” Jewish particularism would completely disappear. By contrast, Jewish internationalism fitted well into his utopian idealist framework, and at times he related to Diaspora Jews as a possible foregleam of his vision of a coming “world-state.” From his early science fiction of the 1890s to the late novels of the 1940s, there are more than a few decadent, reactionary, and selfish Jewish characters in Wells’s writing, embodying the “Semitic plutocracy” of a decaying British social order. In his bestselling Outline of History (1920), written for the common man, Wells characteristically presented Judaism as a “curious combination of theological breadth and an intense racial patriotism.” He had always identified with the “universalist” prophetic strand and despised the Jewish particularists as bigoted, “exclusivist,” “Pharisaic,” and “racist.” H. G. Wells managed to uneasily combine respect for internationalists of Jewish origin with loathing for “Hebraic tribalism” and a clear tendency to hold Jews responsible for anti-Semitism. By the late 1930s, he foresaw the “systematic attempt to exterminate” European Jewry, but absurdly enough he attributed it to the failure of German Jewry to assimilate! In the same spirit, he explained away the rise of interwar English anti-Semitism as an understandable reaction to the inability of local Jews to fully integrate into British culture.32
The position of the celebrated Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot was much closer to that of Hilaire Belloc. He, too, had imbibed French Judeo-phobic influences through his pre-1914 familiarity with Charles Maurras’s Action Française. The anti-Semitic poems Eliot published in a 1920 collection entitled Ara Vos Prec included lines such as those in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” and “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” that were partly written in reaction against the evils of a self-indulgent romantic individualism, execrated by the classicist Maurrasian school. Since 1910 Eliot had absorbed their critique of feminine emotionalism and liberal intellectual decadence. For the young Eliot cultural dissolution was associated with women and Jews. The lines spoken by Gerontion creepily evoke the linkage of Jews, alienness, and sexual corruption:
My house is a decayed house,
and the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
Eliot’s Venetian poem in the same collection was no less anti-Semitic in its imagery:
A usterless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs. The boatman smiles,
A number of characters in these poems have somewhat unpleasant-sounding Jewish names. In the “Sweeney” lyric, for example, we learn about a Jewish woman (probably a prostitute):
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.
There is Sir Ferdinand Klein and Bleistein himself (who also features as a decaying corpse with “dead jew’s eyes” in a deleted section from Eliot’s The Waste Land)—a symbol of the “Jewish” cosmopolitanism that Eliot heartily detested, despite his own sense of rootlessness. For Eliot, the preeminent poet of his generation in the English-speaking world, the Jew was evidently a negative symbol of the unsettling features of modernity—destructive of harmonious order and security. He was the undesirable outsider in the rigidly hierarchical, Christian society to which Eliot nostalgically wished to return after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in the 1920s. A classicist in literature and a royalist in his politics, with a theocratic vision for contemporary society, Eliot wrote in his After Strange Gods (1934) that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” They could be only an irritant in a racially homogeneous Christian order, founded on organic principles, which repudiated free-thinking secularism as abhorrent.33
Eliot’s anti-Semitism in the 1930s was influenced not only by the reactionary royalist politics of Frenchmen such as Charles Maurras but also by the homegrown Social Credit movement of the autodidact Major C. H. Douglas, who warned that Great Britain’s economy was being craftily manipulated by a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Douglas regarded Jews as the major protagonists of collectivism in all its forms (not only of the socialist kind but also in “big business”). Moreover, Jews were the bearers of an unparalleled “race consciousness.” Douglas was convinced that the plan and methods of enslavement outlined in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were actually “reflected in the facts of everyday experience.” His belief in the “Jewish peril” echoed through all his books, with a special emphasis on “the existence of great secret [Jewish] organizations bent on the acquisition of world-empire.” In 1938, Douglas fiercely lashed out against the unbearable “parasitism” of the Jewish race and their (supposed) control of the global financial system: “It is Trade, with its Black Magic of Finance, Salesmanship and Advertising, which is the Jewish National Home.”34 The Bank of England, he added, ruled the country “and the Jews rule the Bank of England…. The problem of the Jews themselves is one which will require a solution, and it ought to be solved.” It is a remarkable fact that despite such vitriolic anti-Semitism, Major Douglas’s Social Credit schemes enjoyed considerable support, not only from T. S. Eliot but also from other well-known members of the English literary intelligentsia in the 1930s.
This was the same decisive decade in which Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF) first introduced a new motif into British political discourse: the claim that warmongering Jews were trying to drag Great Britain into a futile and unnecessary confrontation with Nazi Germany. After 1934 Mosley had discarded the sound advice of his diplomat friend Sir Harold Nicolson that the English were “always impressed by propagandists who take their boots off before they start kicking below the belt.” Instead, he chose the path of unrestrained fascist demagogy associated with Hitler and Mussolini, combining it with a pseudo-pacifist rant and an open appeal to anti-Semitic feeling, especially in London’s East End.35 The BUF had a very limited impact, compared to the barbaric persecution in Nazi Germany and the severe anti-Jewish legislation of the late 1930s in Romania and Hungary. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic residues of British fascism did carry through into World War II. For example, between 1939 and 1945 the British government was continuously preoccupied with not being seen to fight a “Jews’ war;” there was an often hysterical fear of fifth columns and “enemy aliens,” not to mention the paranoid linkage of Jews with black marketeering, spying, and subversive activities.36
I hope the reader will forgive the extensive quote from Wistrich, but I think it enriches our reading of “The Alien Corn.” The Blands and Ferdy Rabenstein do not act the way they do because they are being caricatured as grasping philistines. Their family is caught in the vice of a real historical contradiction with deadly consequences.
I’ve read the story twice this week, and have had few richer reading experiences.
The same cannot be said for the movie version of the story, part of the omnibus Quartet [1948.]
The Jewish aspect of the story is completely erased. We are left with Dirk Bogarde playing George as a very wet fish, miming at the keyboard. Happily it is only a twenty minute wait for the gun room scene.