A Foolish Virgin
A rediscovered classic about the growing pains of a Jewish girl between the world wars
A Foolish Virgin, which first appeared in 1959, was republished this year to a rapturous reception. Reviewers compared Ida Simons’ sparkling prose to that of writers as disparate as Jane Austen, John Cheever and Anne Frank. Her novel tells the story of Gittel, a twelve-year-old girl with a passion for the piano, who is dragged between The Hague, Antwerp and Berlin by her parents.
At the start of the novel, Gittel is living in The Hague, the daughter of a hapless businessman who goes on to lose all his money trying to get rich quick in Berlin. On the very first page, Simons treats us to a delightfully matter-of-fact account of how young Gittel regards the blazing rows that erupt between her parents on Sundays and public holidays: ‘Although relations between them were reasonably amicable otherwise, tensions mounted on the double helping of public holidays that is the lot of Jewish families. It therefore became a matter of the greatest urgency for me to ascertain at the earliest possible opportunity the days on which our holidays would fall in the coming year.’
The tone is set: in light-hearted yet determined fashion, Gittel relates the trying circumstances in which she attempts to make a life for herself. After every matrimonial slanging match, mother runs off to her parents’ home in Antwerp with Gittel in tow. There Gittel’s loyalty is taxed by a surfeit of relatives. Much to her delight, she makes the acquaintance of the well-to-do Mardell family, who allow her to practise on their Steinway. Gittel feels that she is taken seriously by Mr Mardell, the head of the household, and by thirty-year-old Lucie Mardell, whom she adores. When these friendships turn out to be nothing but an illusion, Gittel learns her first lessons about trust and betrayal.
This intimate portrayal of a familial rite of passage is set in the inter-war period and in the shadow of the Shoah. The writer says little about the turmoil and tragedy that awaits her characters, yet succeeds in giving the reader a sense that the novel is about more than a young girl’s loss of innocence. In a fluid, almost casual style, Ida Simons has written a masterly and timeless ode to a relatively carefree interlude in a dark and dramatic period.