A look at the Jews of London, Wharton all

A look at the Jews of London, Wharton all

With her updated take on ‘The Age of Innocence’ — nominated for a major prize on Tuesday — Francesca Segal asks how much has truly changed since the Gilded Age

Author Francesca Segal. (Courtesy of Francesca Segal)
Author Francesca Segal. (Courtesy of Francesca Segal)

LONDON — It’s a hectic week for Francesca Segal. On Monday and Wednesday, she’ll be speaking at Jewish Community Centers in Connecticut and Boston about her latest novel, “The Innocents.” In between, she’ll hop on a plane, fly to her native London to find out whether she’s won the Costa Book Award, then fly back again. The bookmakers put her odds of winning the prestigious literary prize at 3 to 1, just behind those of two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel, at 5 to 4.

The schedule seems symbolic because the book for which she is shortlisted is the ultimate American-English hybrid, as is Segal herself. Although she was born and bred in London, where she still lives, she is the daughter of an American father — Erich Segal, the author of “Love Story” – and says she is torn between the two countries. “The Innocents” was conceived during a short period when she was living in New York, reading through a series of novels about the city.

“I like to read where I am,” says the 32-year-old. “I read ‘Midnight’s Children’ for the first time in India. I’m quite geeky like that.”

When she reached Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” her life changed. The story, set in the 1870s, follows a wealthy lawyer, Newland Archer, who is engaged to the beautiful, sheltered May Welland, but falls in love with her exotic cousin Ellen, who is on the verge of divorce from a European count. The novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, concerns the tension between love and responsibility while examining the social mores and hypocrisy of New York’s upper classes.

“It felt so familiar,” she says. “It sounds ridiculous for the 1870s Gilded Age in New York to feel familiar to a middle-class Golders Green girl, but there was something familiar about the social climate. There was tremendous closeness and support offset by claustrophobia.”

Segal's "The Innocents" won a National Jewish Book Award in the US this month.
Segal’s “The Innocents” won a National Jewish Book Award in the US this month.

Segal became determined to rewrite the classic, setting it in modern-day Jewish London. In her version, Adam Newman, a young Jewish lawyer, is finally engaged to his long-term girlfriend, the conventional Rachel Gilbert. With her comes a warm, close-knit family who fill a gap for Adam, whose own father is deceased, as well as a broader network of Jewish friends, whose lives are closely intertwined.

When Rachel’s sophisticated, independent cousin, Ellie Schneider, returns from New York tainted by scandal, Adam starts questioning whether he must broaden his horizons. Can he bear, however, to hurt Rachel in the process — and give up on the security and comfort of her family?

Segal follows Wharton’s template closely, at least until near the end. Is it really possible, though, that social and gender roles have changed so little in 140 years that successive scenes and personalities can be so easily transposed? The risk of appearing unconventional appears just as momentous for Adam as for Newland, while Rachel and Ellie — who seem to embody the Madonna and the Whore — are expected to be just as innocent as their literary forebears.

“I’m not sure we ever left the 1870s,” says Segal. “I would like to think that wasn’t the case. I’m without question a feminist, and there’s still work for us to do. We can’t sit back and say it’s done.”

Adam’s perception that he is constricted by the Jewish community is just that — his perception — and not necessarily a real criticism, she adds.

“He has a habit of seeing things as more rigid than they really are, including the community itself. It’s probably true of the way he’s seeing gender roles, too,” she says. “We have to take Adam’s word for a lot of things, but he’s quite pompous, and not always right.”

Segal says that the essence of the story is universal, which is why it appealed so widely despite its heavily Jewish content. Readers from other small communities — including the Muslim one — have told her they relate to the burden of social expectations, while others seem to relate to the love triangle, or Adam’s deliberations about what it means to be a man, and a good one at that.

She cautions against reading the book as a commentary on London Jewry.

‘I don’t know what it will feel like as Jews when I have kids and they’re teenagers; I’m not convinced I like where things are going’

“The fact that Adam values Rachel’s inexperience makes him a dinosaur in our generation,” she says. “I wrote what felt true, but not of everyone.

“I never set out to write about British Jewry or about Jews, in the sense that I never wanted to represent anyone or explain anything. There are 100 or more Jewish communities in this country. I wrote a human story set in a world I knew very well, the Jewish community in [the neighborhood of] Hampstead Garden Suburb. It’s not anthropology. To say that these are ‘British Jews’ is patently false. There is a huge spectrum of us.”

Segal herself seems unself-conscious and natural, with striking wide eyes and delicate features. She grew up a neighborhood away from her tony setting of Hampstead Garden Suburb, in the decidedly more heimish Golders Green. Much of her childhood revolved around her Reform synagogue and youth group, and her family was very close, but her experience was not as insular as that of her characters. Her parents, neither of whom grew up in the Jewish hub of North-West London, looked beyond it for their own social lives, and Segal went to two private, non-Jewish schools, King Alfred School and Westminster.

Inevitably, she grew up in the shadow of her famous father, but this is one subject she is reluctant to discuss.

“I’m so proud of my father — it’s not something I’m hiding — but I want to be my own person,” she says. “I don’t want to be compared. If nothing else, we write different things.”

Could it be a coincidence, however, that she chose to study experimental psychology at Oxford (she also spent a semester at Harvard), rather than pursue her true love, English literature?

“I was scared,” she says. “Facing it head-on was a bit frightening. I knew what I secretly wanted to do.”

Following graduation, she became a freelance journalist. The literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle was the first to respond to her “very determined letters” asking for an assignment, and she still writes book reviews for the newspaper. For a while, she was a staff writer at Tatler, the society magazine, which she calls “great fun. I got to sit at my desk and gossip all day and then had to go home and write when it was quiet.”

'I’m so proud of my father -- it’s not something I’m hiding -- but I want to be my own person,' Segal says. (Courtesy of Francesca Segal)
‘I’m so proud of my father — it’s not something I’m hiding — but I want to be my own person,’ Segal says. (Courtesy of Francesca Segal)

She also spent three years authoring the Debut Fiction column in the Observer, the Guardian’s Sunday newspaper.

Eventually, however, she stopped enjoying life as a single woman on the London Jewish scene and moved to New York, making the fresh start her character Adam was always too scared of. But she downplays the significance of the decision.

“I had the opportunity to break free, and I needed it. The full extent of my rebellion was that I moved to New York, read a pile of classic novels and did my job, then married a guy from around the corner,” she laughs. “But I needed to live somewhere else and get some perspective.”

Her life soon turned around. She fell in love with her husband, Gabriel, an Englishman living in Boston, after her London friends urged them to get together, seemingly oblivious to the geographical distance. (Segal will not reveal anything else about him — even his last name — as he is “not keen” on the publicity. “He didn’t sign up for it”, she says.)

Soon she was channeling all her energy into “The Innocents.”

“I just had to write the novel,” she says. “I had to tell the story — I became obsessed. It’s quite crazy to write a novel, spending two years alone in a room writing something no one may ever see. But I had to. It was such a pleasure.”

Her novelist father was very supportive, but he died in January 2010, shortly after she started writing.

“It was another reason why I was impelled to write the book as fiercely and as obsessively as I did — I had to do it for him,” she says. “It wasn’t that I had something to prove. It was something we both loved.”

Holding the first copy of the book but not being able to show him, she says, was a bittersweet moment. How much more so, one imagines, at the beginning of January, when she learned that she had won the 2012 Costa First Novel Award. The £5,000 ($7,880) prize makes her one of the five finalists for the overall Costa Book of the Year prize on Tuesday, together with the winners of the novel, biography, poetry and children’s book categories.

“I was walking on air,” Segal says just a few days later. “I knew I was shortlisted, but was in utter shock, because while everyone has secret fantasies for what might happen to their book, this surpassed all of them. Perhaps I need a more elaborate fantasy life.”

‘To say that these are “British Jews” is patently false. There is a huge spectrum of us’

When the prize was announced on Britain’s Radio 4, she was in Bangkok with her husband, struggling to pick up the radio station online.

“It was 2 a.m. and we were trying to get Wi-Fi, crouching outside a coffee shop, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, listening to the radio on the laptop,” she recalls.

When her name came up, “It was just the most exciting thing. We were screaming in the street.”

Whatever this week brings, Segal has, in a sense, already moved on. She is balancing publicity for “The Innocents” with writing her next book, another contemporary novel which should be finished “relatively soon.”

Although it is not rooted in the community, it will have some Jewish families.

“It’s not a completely unfamiliar world,” she says. “It’s not a Scandinavian crime novel, lucrative though those are.”

Her long-term future, though, is more uncertain. In 2009, she wrote a piece for the Guardian in which she confessed that she did not feel safe living as a Jew in England, due to what she perceives as the establishment’s appeasement of Islamism and its increasing anti-Zionism, sliding into anti-Semitism.

“My argument was always the same — when I am no longer safe being identifiably Jewish on the tube, I don’t want to live in England,” she wrote. “Now it’s happening and I am devastated . . . I feel increasingly that I cannot stay.”

Since then, she has left the country and returned married. But her feelings have not changed.

“I don’t know what it will feel like as Jews when I have kids and they’re teenagers; I’m not convinced I like where things are going,” she says. “I’m a British Jew — this is home for me, without question. But I love that in the US, you can just be, just breathe. You don’t have to think about being Jewish.

“There are places where you can raise a Jewish family without ever being tense, or thinking about these things. Perhaps you don’t have to be 0.3 percent of the population. Am I here forever? I can’t say yes. But most of that is for other reasons — I am half American, and I adore America.”

For this wandering English Jew, New York, apparently, still beckons.

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