Ceremonies and Celebrations

There was a time when an invitation to a wedding or even a party would arrive in the post, artistically embellished, in an envelope with a stamp, plus a smaller card on which to confirm one’s participation in the event, and information about the time, date and place.

Call me old-fashioned, but I find it difficult to get used to being invited to a life-changing event such as a relative’s wedding through a message on my phone. And that’s only the beginning. In order to confirm participation one has to be technically astute, click on the appropriate response and make sure one doesn’t inadvertently delete the actual invitation. Said invitation included a link to the Waze app that would take us to the venue of the wedding, but not its actual address. That required some detective work on our part, but in this day and age of Googling anything and everything that’s no big deal.

In Israel today weddings have assumed some characteristics that might seem odd to previous generations. Secular young Israelis tend to look askance at the time-honoured formula employed for Jewish weddings. They also resent the imposition of religious rule by the rabbinate, which holds sway over all aspects of births, deaths and marriages in Israel. After all, what is the marriage contract as set out in the Ketuba but a business transaction between the father of the bride and the bridegroom, with the bride having little if anything to say in the deal? Even in non-Jewish weddings, without a Ketuba, the father of the bride ‘gives her away’ to the bridegroom. It’s more symbolic and less pecuniary, but the principle is the same. It all harks back to ancient, out-dated concepts of the rights of men and women.

At the event I attended the officiating ‘rabbi’ (who wore a kippa, was dressed in modern clothes and did not have a beard) conducted matters in a pragmatic manner, inserting comments and asides at given points, encouraging cheers and applause from the guests, using egalitarian everyday language rather than the formulaic ancient tongue of the religious ceremony. In accordance with tradition, the ritual seven blessings were pronounced by various men, who in this case were almost all relatives of the bridegroom, though I have attended even more radical weddings where some blessings were pronounced by female friends of the couple.

Of course, no wedding celebration can proceed without food, music and dancing, and that was certainly the case here. The grub was tempting and plentiful and the music was loud and energetic, enabling the young people to gyrate and the older ones to sit and eat (and everyone to drink). During the reception prior to the ceremony a unique touch was provided by a young woman wearing an elegant dress who mingled with the guests as she played the saxophone, accompanying the DJ’s music on the loudspeakers.

A final, delightful touch. As we were leaving we passed a table laden with small pots containing various herbs, and we were encouraged by the person in charge to take one. And so, as we drove home, the sweet smell of our basil plant scented the air in the car, leaving us with a lovely memory of a memorable event.

Italy’s Five Towns

Of course, Italy has far more than five towns, but the specific five towns in northern Italy known as the Cinque Terre form a geographical and cultural unit along the mountainous coastal area which is a continuation of the French Riviera and shares many features with it. The tree-covered mountains sweep down to the sea, where villages and small towns once engaged in fishing and sea-faring, but today are focused mainly on tourism.

The train line which connects the coastal towns goes through endless tunnels, with occasional brief exits into bursts of daylight and the sight of the sea. We visited two of the towns by boarding the train at Riomaggiore, where we had to park our rental car at the top of the hill and walk down to the station. Together with the throng of tourists, we boarded the train there and alighted at Monterosso, where there is a fine promenade with cafes, restaurants and opportunities to taste some good ice-cream. On our return trip to Riomaggiore we found ourselves facing the long uphill walk to our car. That was not easy and taught us not to repeat the experience.

The region is served by a network of narrow, winding roads, meaning that driving around to view the various sights or find a place to eat involves moments of stomach-turning anxiety for someone like me, who is scared of heights and fearful at every turn and twist in the road. Our situation was not helped by the insistence of our Waze application to speak to us in Italian. My knowledge of the language is very limited, though I could work out phrases meaning ‘at the roundabout (rotunda) take the first exit (prima uscitta),’ but the result was not always satisfactory (i.e., we didn’t always get to where we wanted to go). A phone call to our computer wizz son in Israel resolved the problem, and after that we were able to be guided in English. Our AirB&B near the village of Volastra was a spacious farm-house, with two large rooms, a large kitchen and a terrace with a view of the sea. On the day the rain kept us in the house we were able to watch Italian TV with its French-language Arte channel, and saw two films dubbed into French (The Pink Panther and Die Brucke), as well as various travel documentaries (also in French).

Our trip also involved short stays in larger towns in the region, starting in Milan with its magnificent cathedral and Brera Museum with the masterful painting by Caravaggio of The Supper at Emmaus. We also visited Genoa, once a major port and still a significant sea-going presence in Italy, and we ended our trip with a brief stay in Parma, home of the famous Parmesan cheese. It so happened that there was a performance of Leoncavallo’s short opera Pagliacci that evening, and there were still some tickets to be had. So for our farewell to Italy we were treated to a wonderful performance of the tragic opera, with a colourful stage filled with constant action by actors, singers, dancers, acrobats and clowns, reproducing the production as originally staged by Franco Zeffirelli. What a magnificent show that was!

We were impressed by the cleanliness of the towns we visited, even in Genoa, where everyone seems to have a dog on a leash. What a pity that here in Israel we cannot emulate a similar standard of public responsibility.

The Rothschilds, a Family Portrait

While sorting through and getting rid of books in order to accommodate a new item of furniture I came across this volume by Frederic Morton, which I had given to my father for his birthday in 1965. It still bears my dedication, ‘To Daddy, with love,’ reminding me of his association with the English branch of the Rothschild family through its patronage of the Jewish charity of which he was the Secretary.

So I took up the faded pages and began to wade through the history of the complex relationships and even more complex business and financial concerns of that august family. The author has done an admirable job of presenting its history, starting with its humble origins in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt, blossoming by dint of intellectual brilliance and strong family ties into a mammoth financial and business enterprise on the international stage. The starting point was in 1764 when the founder of the family fortune, Mayer, returned home from a yeshiva near Nurnberg where he had been sent to study to become a rabbi. When both his parents died and the payment for his studies ceased, some relatives secured an apprenticeship for him in the Jewish banking house of Oppenheimer in Hannover, one of the network of principalities that later merged to become Germany.

In Frankfurt Jews were restricted to living in the ghetto, an area consisting of a single dark alley near the city wall. The ground floor of some of the houses served as shops, mostly selling second-hand goods, and Mayer Rothschild joined his two older brothers in this trade. He developed an interest in old coins and medals, managing to engage the interest of the local ruler, Prince William of Hesse-Hanau, as well as setting himself up as a currency exchange agency. This eventually enabled him to serve as private banker and money lender to the local aristocracy.

Mayer married Gutele Schappner, and the couple went on to produce ten children, five sons and five daughters, though another ten babies did not survive. As the children, particularly the boys, grew Mayer benefited from their services delivering messages and packages to his various clients, many of whom were in high positions. The boys displayed a combination of mental acuity and the ability to engage in transactions that gave Mayer considerable advantage in his business dealings. The eldest, Amschel, went on to eventually become the treasurer of the German Confederation, Salomon, the second, achieved the same exalted station in imperial Vienna, Nathan, the third, rose to have more power than any other man in England; fourth was Kalmann, who ‘wound the Italian peninsular around his hand,’ and finally Jacob, who was to lord it in France during Republic and Empire.

When Napoleon assumed power in France and elsewhere he appointed the financial agency of Rothschild and Sons as the legal successor to Prince William’s exchequer, enabling the Family to collect debts owed to the Prince throughout Europe. During this period gold served as the principal means of payment, and the Rothschild agency managed to collar a considerable amount of it. In September 1806 the status of the Rothschild agency was changed, with its shares being held by Mayer together with his sons, who were by now spread out throughout Europe. In England Nathan spotted the opportunity provided by the need to finance military operations against Napoleon in Europe, using his financial astuteness and family connections to raise funds and spread the risk. Among his august clients was the East India Company, whose entire stock of gold bullion he purchased, enabling him to provide Wellington with the wherewithal for the battles ahead while at the same time creating tremendous wealth for the Family.

Mayer and his sons were able, by dint of their diligence and brilliance, to build a financial empire extending throughout Europe and the world. The Rothschild sons and grandsons tended to marry their Rothschild cousins and nieces, ensuring the retention of the Family fortune and genetic propensities, while the female members of the clan often married into the European aristocracy. The Family initiated and financed the construction of roads and railways all over the world, were instrumental in the acquisition of the Suez Canal by Britain and have been instrumental in the creation, settlement and establishment of Israel, in addition to their extensive charitable work, which often remains anonymous. While the palaces built as residences by the Rothschilds in London, Paris, Vienna and elsewhere, have in many cases been sold or converted into hotels and embassies, and some of their country estates flourish under a different aegis, the Rothschild Bank is still a significant institution in the financial world, having endured world wars and economic crises. In recent generations Rothschilds have been leading botanists and zoologists, collectors of fine art, and patrons of the arts and sciences. The aura of wealth and indulgence associated with the name of Rothschild endures till this day among Jews and Gentiles all over the world.

The Twelve Tribes

It was with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension that we bought tickets for the concert of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in which the first half consisted of the performance of an unknown work entitled ‘Twelve Tribes’ by an unfamiliar composer, Benjamin Yusupov. The attraction of the second half of the concert lay in the performance of Dvorak’s much-loved cello concerto, and that was why we took a chance on that occasion.

On entering the Henry Crown auditorium in the Jerusalem Theatre complex we were taken aback by the massive orchestra assembled on the stage. This was obviously going to be something extraordinary. The conductor, a small man of middle age with a head of white hair topped by a small black kippa (skull cap), took his place at the podium then turned to the audience and began to explain the rationale behind the piece we were about to hear. Turns out that he was also the composer, and felt impelled to give us some insights into the music which, he informed us, would take about an hour to perform.

In clear, simple Hebrew he explained that he had felt the need to keep a record of the musical traditions of the different ethnic groups comprising the Jewish people in the various regions of the world, but primarily those of communities from Asian countries and those which had been incorporated into the former Soviet Union, since those traditions were beginning to fade from memory. Thus, the segments making up the various movements consisted of passages evoking the musical traditions of the Jewish communities of Tajikistan (Yusupov’s birthplace), Georgia, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran and others as well as an evocation of Klezmer music from eastern Europe.

The various pieces required tremendous virtuosity from the orchestra, with rhythmic shifts and the use of a variety of unusual instruments, with particular emphasis on the brass and the tympani. The full range of the orchestra was used to maximum effect, creating a kind of ‘surround sound’ which enveloped the audience in a musical experience that was both captivating and intriguing. Yes, there was a lot of noise coming from the orchestra, but at no point was it the cacaphonic disharmony that characterizes many modern musical offerings. Somehow all the different musical traditions blended together harmoniously.

Yusupov himself is an impressive musician – pianist, conductor and composer – who has won many international prizes for his work, and has been resident in Israel since 1990. Here, too, he has won prizes and made a name for himself, working in tandem with many prominent artists and ensembles, as well as continuing to compose at breakneck speed. As he explained, the idea of assembling the music of the various Jewish communities into one orchestral piece served to symbolize both the ingathering of the exiles and the unity that life in Israel represents.

It cannot be denied that at times like today, when discord and disagreement prevail in Israel, it is encouraging to be able to turn to music to give us consolation and hope for the future.

Died, Disappeared, Perished

Something that never ceases to amaze (and annoy) me is the extent to which various euphemisms are used to describe what happened in the Holocaust to six million Jews. Why is everyone – whether individuals, politicians or scholars – so reluctant to use the correct term: murder?

For that is what happened to my grandparents, your aunts and uncles, other people’s parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins, neighbours and friends. They were all murdered in the most dastardly, cold-hearted, brutal and inhumane manner. That is all that can be said about that dreadful time in human history, and Jewish history in particular, that took place in Europe not so very long ago. None of those people simply died, disappeared or perished of their own account. They were murdered, and the people who perpetrated those crimes were murderers.

How did it happen that Germany, a country noted for its achievements in the fields of culture, philosophy, music and art, managed to descend to a level of bestiality unseen since civilization began? How could human beings, people who had homes, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of their own, wreak the most dreadful horrors on individuals who simply adhered to a different religion than theirs or, in the terms devised by their leaders, belonged to a different race than theirs? Simply by labelling them as inferior did not necessarily have to mean that they merited being killed outright, mercilessly, willy nilly, by hook or by crook, and that this had to be applied to every last one of them – men, women, children and babes-in-arms.

Somehow, by managing to persuade the nation that those others were less than human, human beings were able to erase every spark of humanity in themselves and brutally murder other human beings. The Jews did not represent a physical threat to the German nation, and had even contributed to progress in the sciences and the arts. The wild imaginings of unbalanced leaders who had managed to gain the confidence of the German nation led to the riot of hatred and violence that culminated in the construction of extermination camps, factories of death, operating with unflinching efficiency to murder six million Jews (as well as various others) on production lines which first eked out labour from whoever could still be of some use to the German munitions industry.

And let’s not forget on this Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust that it was not the Germans alone who wallowed in the orgy of death and destruction. Their henchman in other European countries helped to round up the Jews, keep the ghettos and camps guarded, the railway tracks oiled, the cattle-trucks filled, and the spoils of war gathered. And although there were a few decent people who helped to hide and save a handful of Jews, they were, after all, few and far between.

As we sat at the Seder table just a week or two ago we read in the Haggada how throughout our history other nations have sought to destroy the Jewish people. This has been a recurring theme ever since Biblical times, whether we were living in our own land or as a barely-tolerated minority in other countries. Today, when we finally have a country of our own once more, we must not lose sight of the need to remain strong in order to survive. But neither can we allow ourselves to lose sight of our humanity in the process.

Difficult Times

This year’s Passover festival began under the cloud that has enveloped Israel ever since the mass demonstrations protesting the so-called ‘legal reform’ began. Yet preparations for the festival went ahead in the customary fashion, with spring cleaning and food purchases and preparations much as usual. By a quirk of the calendar, this year Passover coincided with the Moslem festival of Ramadan. It’s less of a coincidence that it coincided with the Christian festival of Easter, as Jesus’s Last Supper, held just a few days before his crucifixion, was almost certainly the Passover Seder. The hard-boiled egg which Jews eat dipped in salt water at the Seder has been taken over by the Christians in the form of chocolate Easter eggs, which might not be such a bad idea.

As Passover coincides with spring and lasts seven days, many Israelis take the opportunity to travel, either inside Israel or abroad, and once the Seder is over families take to the road and make for the traditional picnic spots and recreational parks. It is a time when Israel’s countryside is at its best, still green from the winter rains, and its lakes and streams replete with water.

Because of Israel’s fragile security situation our enemies have chosen this time to strike both from within and from outside the country. Tensions were high on the Temple Mount as Moslems barricaded themselves into their sacred Al-Aksa mosque, accumulating rocks and stones which were intended to be used against Jews gathering for prayers in the Western Wall plaza. Rockets were fired into the country from Lebanon and Syria in the north and the Gaza Strip in the south, causing some material damage but no loss of life. Palestinian terrorists succeeded in gunning down a car carrying a mother and her two daughters, seriously injuring the mother and killing the girls. Another Palestinian drove his car at speed along a bike track into a group of tourists in Tel Aviv, killing one and injuring the others.

Scenes of violence abound on our television screens, and the sight of armed Palestinian militias marching through their towns is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Attacks by Israeli Arabs on other Arabs within Israel proper (the Green Line) are endemic and indicate the extent to which weapons are widespread among the Arab population within Israel. Both inside Israel and in the West Bank there is no shortage of weapons and general readiness to use them, whether against their own people or the others, namely, us. In fact, on consideration, it’s a miracle that there isn’t more widespread use of deadly weapons among the general population.

While the current government is undoubtedly responsible for maintaining law and order on an ongoing basis, it has chosen to play the blame game and accuse the previous government of being the cause of the current developments. Regardless of the fact that during the brief period of the previous government’s term there were far fewer rocket attacks and terrorist violence, the current government refuses to accept responsibility for the situation.

And so we, the general populace, are left to contend on our own with a situation in which the government abdicates responsibility for events and leaves us to cope with the anger and sadness that envelops us.

Worrying Echoes

The echoes of events that happened in Germany just a few decades ago are continuing to disturb my peace of mind and give me sleepless nights.

We all know that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position is precarious and that his main goal is to avoid having to stand trial for the various offences of which he is accused. The coalition government he cobbled together after the last general election by incorporating elements from the extremist right-wing and ultra-orthodox Judaism parties has created a situation in which those elements have him over a barrel at every twist and turn in the road. That is why the Minister for Public Security sees fit to seize every opportunity that comes his way to threaten to overthrow the government. That is why he has now made his assent to its continued existence contingent on the creation of a separate military force, under his sole control, in contrast to the country’s official police force, which has its own Chief of Police.

It’s no secret that the minister concerned is at loggerheads with the current Chief of Police over the treatment meted out by the police force to the demonstrators protesting aginst the government’s programme of judicial reform. The protestors claim that the reform will give the government virtually unrestricted control over the judiciary, obliterate all vestige of checks and balances between the agencies of government and put an end to the equal rights and rule of law delineated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

In claiming to have been given the mandate by the electorate, the Likud party assumes that this is tantamount to having been given the right to rip up the lawbook and destroy the consensus regarding equality and basic human rights that underlies Israel’s society and has constituted its basis since its establishment in 1948. In the framework of the State’s initial institutions – the People’s Council and the Provisional Council of State (selected debates of which have been translated and published under the auspices of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) – the basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence were incorporated into law. Paragraph 13 of that declaration states unequivocally that Israel will ‘ensure complete equality of social and political rights for all its citizens, irrespective of creed, race or sex. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture.’

One cannot help but wonder at the hutzpa of someone who spent his youth protesting actively against government policy, being indicted in several cases of terrorism and hate crimes, demanding to have a militia of his own. What would he use it for if not to further his own ends of spreading hatred and inciting terror? Against whom? The people who don’t agree with his policies, which is the majority of liberal-minded, law-abiding Israelis. Not to mention the Palestinians. As matters stand now, the hate crimes committed against Palestinians by settlers in the occupied territories generally go unpunished.

And what name would he give his militia? The Security Service (SS)? The Security Association (SA)? The whole idea of someone whose ideology is one of violence and oppression being given so much power is one that makes one’s stomach churn. The future of Israel’s society is at stake, and we cannot stand idly by and watch the country being torn to shreds simply in order to save the prime minister’s skin.

A Night at the Opera

Times are hard at the moment in Israel, with a sense of impending doom hanging over us as the politicians continue to pursue their objectives at all costs. So for a bit of light relief one goes to a production of Mozart’s marvellous opera Don Giovanni in the Tel Aviv home of the Israel Opera. You settle into your seat, nod politely to the person in the seat next to yours and glance at the programme, Before the opera begins the usual announcements about forthcoming performances and turning one’s cell phone off appear on the screen that fills the entire proscenium. The next opera will be something new, an opera based on the life of Theodore Herzl, the visionary who gave birth to the idea of a Jewish State. A colour portrait of a pensive Herzl appears on the screen, followed by this text (in Hebrew), taken from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and based to a great extent on the text of his novel Altneuland describing the new state as he envisioned it.

From the Declaration of Independence in accordance with Herzl’s vision:

The State of Israel will be open to Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles; it will work to develop the country for the benefit of all its residents; it will be founded on the basis of the aspiration for justice and peace as described by the Prophets; it will adhere to complete equality of social and political rights for all its citizens without any differences on the basis of religion, race or gender. It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture, and will maintain the places that are sacred to all religions. It will adhere to the principles of the declaration of the United Nations.

The audience breaks into spontaneous applause and cheering. It is a strange, almost other-worldly experience to find oneself together with another thousand or so respectable (and mainly elderly) citizens roaring approbation of an abstract text in Hebrew on a huge screen. So, it seems, even at the opera we can’t get away from the ever-present situation which clouds the reality in which we find ourselves living.

The text disappears and the orchestra plays the overture, with Mozart’s brilliant musical insights into the human psyche, crashing chords denoting the fate that awaits the eponymous villain, the scales in a minor key that manage to create a menacing atmosphere and all the usual tuneful twists and turns with which Mozart delights us. This atmosphere continues throughout the opera, with dramatic development, delightful arias sung by beautiful ladies in elegant dresses, and no lack of erotic innuendo – both in the music and in the acting in this particular production.

We are drawn to and yet disgusted by the antics of the randy, amoral ‘hero’ of the piece, who unashamedly pursues every woman who happens to cross his path, regardless of their situation, trampling rough-shod over their emotions. And yet, despite ourselves, we find Giovanni’s insouciant lack of scruples amusing, and are delighted by the snappy interaction between him and his reluctant servant Leporello. We watch in hypnotized fascination as the nefarious lothario finally gets his just desserts and is punished for having killed the outraged father of one of his conquests.

No one wishes a similar fate for any member of the current government, yet there are some disturbing resemblances between the behaviour of some of them and that of Don Giovanni.

Cooking with Jamie, Ainsley, et al.

To my surprise (and shame), in my old age I have become an aficionado of cookery programmes on television. Of course, I don’t go for just any old cookery programme, I have my standards, after all, and my particular penchant is for those hosted by cooks, or chefs, who originate from England (or Ireland, Scotland or Wales), i.e., who speak the English language in a way that brings back memories of my childhood and youth.

I refuse to have anything to do with cookery programmes presented by hirsute male chefs whose arms are tattoed so much that one cannot see any flesh underneath, or by women whose long, curly locks of indeterminate colour dominate the screen and doubtless contaminate the food they’re preparing. Nor will I waste my time watching cookery competitions, as the whole concept of cooking in order to meet a deadline or beat one’s competitors is alien to me.

Another programme that gets my goat (i.e., annoys me) involves a popular singer/actor accompanied by a well-known Israeli chef who is considered an expert on far-eastern cuisine, and certainly regards himself as such. The sense of smug superiority the latter exudes is a complete turn-off for me. And besides, I have no desire to spend my time watching other people eat, and especially when they talk with their mouth full. Yuk!

No, the programmes I like to watch involve an aesthetic production in which an individual of edifying appearance, e.g., Jamie Oliver or Mark Moriarty (Off-Duty Chef), demonstrates how to prepare and cook items of food that we viewers can reproduce and put on our own family table. I feel an emotion that is almost akin to affection for those young men who are prepared to put their heart and soul into showing us how to prepare a whole meal, whether it is in one pot (Jamie again) or reminds us of our youth (Ainsley). And of course, I have tremendous respect for Mary Berry, who speaks the Queen’s (now King’s) English with an impeccable accent, looks delightful despite her advanced years, and makes preparing tasty dishes look easy and elegant. How I enjoy watching Jamie charm his way across Italy, getting recipes from nonnas (grandmothers), speaking Italian and then relaying the information to us.

Since I tend to watch those programmes when I’m getting ready for bed, or taking my post-prandial afternoon nap, I’ve begun keeping a notepad and pen next to my bed in readiness to take down any recipe that looks simple enough for me to attempt for my next cookery excursion. Of course, it also depends on having the right ingredients, and in my kitchen those are usually missing. By now, however, I have gained a few staples that would have made my late mother raise her eyebrows (teriyaki sauce, red wine vinegar, to name but a few).

The personality of the presented certainly plays a part in getting me to watch. I enjoy Jamie’s youthful enthusiasm and knowledgeableness about health aspects of the various foods, Ainsley’s almost Cockney-like Caribbean cheekiness, Mary Berry’s graceful dignity, and Mark Moriarty’s red-haired Irish charm.

Furthermore, recently I’ve been able to enjoy the new HBO series about that pioneer of American TV cookery programmes, Julia Childe, with a wonderful portrayal by Sarah Lancashire of her unique character and charm. The programme also gives us insights into the process of producing that kind of programme as well as into the private life of Julia Childe herself. A true delight for the eye and ear, as well as (almost) for the taste-buds.

‘Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey’

When I was at high school and was required to read books by Jane Austen I did my best to find them interesting but failed dismally. The characters and situations she describes in her novels are very far removed from any situation I had ever experienced, and the idea that a young woman’s sole purpose in life was to find a wealthy husband seemed too feeble to be considered a suitable reason for existing. I was too involved in the ups and downs of my own twentieth century life to appreciate the limitations and concerns that overshadowed the way women lived in the eighteenth century, and I failed to perceive Austen’s perceptive analysis of human behaviour, and the manners and mores of her time.

So it was with suspicious curiosity that I embarked on reading one of Jane Austen’s later novels, one I had not been required to read while at school, ‘Northanger Abbey.’ The first half of the book describes in great detail the experiences of a young woman being entertained in the fashionable town of Bath, where life consisted of balls and social occasions of various kinds. The heroine of the book, Catherine Morland, is described as an innocent young woman who is eager to enjoy all the delights of fashionable society, while at the same time being unduly influenced by the lurid novels she reads. In fact, what Austen is doing here is poking fun at other – mainly female – writers, like herself, and especially at the tendency of young readers to let their imagination run away with them.

Thus, while staying with newly-acquired friends at their home, the Northanger Abbey of the title, Catherine imagines that all kinds of strange and wonderful events have taken place there, and even comes to the conclusion that the father of her friends has locked his wife up, or even murdered her – shades of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, ‘Jane Eyre’ (which was published several years later). On one level, the book is a homily on the way young women’s minds could be manipulated by novel-writers, and on another it is a parody of that self-same kind of book.

Naturally, as in every self-respecting novel, there must be the aspiration for love as well as disappointment in that sphere, in addition to entertaining encounters between clever young men and innocent young women, where in some cases the former poke fun at the latter, or in others seek clumsily and unsuccessfully to curry favour with them. Financial prosperity also plays a part in the way the characters relate to one another, and it is only at the very conclusion of the book, after innumerable ins and outs as well as ups and downs, and even a heart-stopping contretemps just before the end, that all ends well.

Setting aside the narrative style that Jane Austen adopts, which is inevitably coloured by the narrative conventions and speech patterns of the time as well as her own inimitable turn of phrase which even involves direct interaction with the reader, one cannot avoid admiring her ability to create credible characters, each with their own way of speaking, thinking and acting. It is not for nothing that her books, though limited to a time and society that is long gone, have endured for so many years, and today are considered classics of the genre.