August 27th 2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the prolific author Naomi Jacob. Although her books were widely-read during her lifetime they have been somewhat neglected in more recent years. With the first digital editions of her Gollantz Saga being published to commemorate this anniversary, now seems a fitting time to revisit Jacob’s life and work.
Naomi Jacob was born in Ripon, Yorkshire. Her family were well-established in the town – her maternal grandfather was twice the mayor of Ripon, while her father was the headmaster of what is now Ripon Grammar School. Her mother’s family had a centuries old association with the area, whereas her father was a German Jew. This dual heritage was to be a great influence on her writing throughout her career. Many of Jacob’s books celebrate the Yorkshire people and landscape, but she also wrote about anti-Semitism, particularly in her seven novel series about the Gollantz family.
Jacob had a comfortable upbringing, but the family’s fortunes changed when her parents separated. At fourteen, she moved to a deprived part of Middlesbrough to become a student teacher. It is around this time that she contracted TB, which affected her health for the rest of her life.
At eighteen, Jacob began to visit music halls in Leeds. By going to the Stage Door she met the actress and singer Marguerite Broadfoote, and became both her secretary and her lover. Jacob loved the theatre world, and mixed with the big names of the day, including the Du Mauriers, Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt and Marie Lloyd. In time, Jacob herself became a character actress, and had a successful career in the West End and in touring productions. Most notably, she played opposite John Geilgud in the Edgar Wallace play The Ringer. Shortly after Marie Lloyd’s death, Jacob wrote the star’s first official biography. A friend at the time commented on the book: “[Naomi Jacob] doesn’t let facts get in the way of the truth.”
Jacob also had a great interest in politics. She campaigned for women’s suffrage, and in 1912 joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She also stood, unsuccessfully, as a Labour PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate) in East Ham, London.
In 1925, Jacob published her first novel, Jacob Usher, which she described as a “very free adaptation of the play Birds of a Feather by H.V. Esmond”. The book became a bestseller, and so began a writing career that was to last the next almost forty years.
Jacob appeared for the defence in the 1928 obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. She developed a life-long friendship with Hall and her partner Una Troubridge. However, Jacob never broached the subject of lesbianism in her own work, in either her fiction or non-fiction.
A worsening of her TB prompted Jacob to move to Italy in 1930. She took a villa in Sirmione on Lake Garda in Italy. It was called “Casa Mickie”, Mickie being the name Jacob was known as to family and friends.
Although she was brought up in the Church of England, Jacob converted to Roman Catholicism at around the age of eighteen. But she remained proud of her Jewish heritage. This is most clearly demonstrated in The Gollantz Saga, which she began writing just before the Nazis swept to power in Germany. Beginning in early nineteenth century Vienna, it follow several generations of a Jewish family, as the head of the house establishes a business and life in England, moving among the British upper classes. The series is an engaging and warm exploration of family ties and rivalries, and the principles of honour and loyalty.
In 1935 Jacob was awarded the Eichelberger International Humane Award, for her novel Honour Come Back. Initially delighted, she was moved to reject the award on discovering another recipient was Adolf Hitler. In a letter to a newspaper at the time, she wrote: “…it was impossible for me to accept an award which was given to me and to Herr Hitler, because of the terrible persecution, the monstrous injustices and the abominable cruelties which are even now being laid upon the Jewish race in Germany. To have accepted it would have been to almost betray those people to whose race I partly belong, and who have been my good and loyal friends all my life…”
When Italy entered the Second World War, Jacob returned to England. She joined the Entertainments National Service Association, which provided entertainment for British armed forces personnel. During this time she became well-known for her appearance of crew cut hair, a monocle and a First World War Women’s Legion uniform.
After the war, Jacob went back to live permanently in Sermione. But she continued to visit England often, returning to her beloved Yorkshire, and making regular appearances on BBC radio’s Woman’s Hour programme.
Jacob had a very disciplined attitude towards her writing, which enabled her to publish one or two books every year. She could write quickly, and in later years she dictated her stories to a secretary.
Jacob’s great-nephew, who as a boy spent time with Jacob in Sirmione, remembers that she liked to be surrounded by people and loved conversation. Actors and writers, among them Hall and Troubridge, were frequent visits to “Casa Mickie”. Jacob would write until lunchtime or early afternoon and spend the rest of her day in the company of friends. She enjoyed sitting in local cafés, where she would smoke cigarettes and drink grappa, speaking fluent Italian with a heavy English accent.
Fifty years on from her death, it is time to take another look at the legacy of this most fascinating literary figure.
Ian Skillicorn (c) August 2014
Ian Skillicorn established Corazon Books (www.greatstorieswithheart.com) in 2012. The imprint publishes new fiction and reissues of bestselling works. For many years Ian has produced audio short stories and writing podcasts. His first audio project was supported with a grant from Arts Council England. In 2010, Ian founded National Short Story Week in the UK.
Find out more at www.naomijacob.com