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That Churchill Woman


That Churchill Woman

Real-life heroes, as opposed to the “super” kind, are in short supply these days. Maybe that’s why Winston Churchill, England’s celebrated prime minister, has popped up lately on the big and small screens (wartime leader in Darkest Hour, aging statesman in The Queen). The wives and mothers of Great Men, however, are often relegated to the backwaters of history. Although that hasn’t been entirely true of Jennie Jerome, Churchill’s American-born mother --- a two-volume biography appeared in the 1960s; a mini-series starring Lee Remick aired in the 1970s --- she again takes center stage in Stephanie Barron’s new novel, THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN.

Barron is no stranger to historical fiction; she’s the author of the Jane Austen Mystery series and stand-alone suspense novels like JACK 1939, in which she imagines that a 21-year-old JFK was sent by President Roosevelt on an intelligence mission to Europe. In taking on Jennie, she is shouldering the entire political and social establishment of the late Victorian era: the tension between a woman who defied convention --- as far as she could --- and a system that did not even give her the right to vote.

Jennie grew up in Brooklyn, Newport and Paris; her adored father was a financier, patron of the arts and ardent sportsman (yachts, horse racing), as well as a chronic philanderer. Jennie’s life and talents mirrored his, as Barron demonstrates. She was a superb equestrian, a fine pianist (she studied with one of Chopin’s disciples), a keen artist (she collected Seurat and seems to have influenced Winston’s love of painting) --- and a woman unafraid of using her political acumen and sexual power.

"Barron’s experience as a writer of mysteries and suspense novels serves her well, and she guides the narrative capably, at a good pace, from present to past and back again. "

Those qualities were the lynchpin of her partnership with Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill (“the first Englishman who’d treated her as though she had a mind as well as a body”), whom she met and married at 19. It was commonplace then for American heiresses to wed impoverished English lords, often younger sons, but Jennie’s fortune was comparatively modest; she had to depend on “her face and wit” to succeed.

Randolph’s ambition was to become Prime Minister; he rose to become leader of the Conservatives in Parliament and (briefly) Minister of the Exchequer. Jennie rewrote his speeches and gave dinner parties to cement political alliances; “working together,” she said, “gives purpose to our marriage.” That was the bargain: Randolph got “a handsome settlement”; she got “a courtesy title and a foothold in British Society.”

On the personal side, though, the relationship was a disaster. Randolph may have had some brilliant years as a politician (Winston inherited his oratorical talents, as well as his drive for power), but he was also depressed, abusive and deathly ill with syphilis. Because they had, in modern parlance, an open marriage (Randolph’s sexual preference was for men), gossips and moralists had a field day with Jennie, whose affairs were an open secret.

Some labeled her “a high-class tart.” Others, more generous, saw that Jennie, although unfaithful to her husband, was also unfailingly loyal to him. The central romance of THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN is Jennie’s long-running extramarital affair with Count Charles Kinsky, an Austrian peer. Yet her sense of honor was such that she sacrificed personal happiness to stay with Randolph through the last dreadful stages of his illness, making sure that he got his grand funeral at Westminster Abbey.

It’s clear from the novel itself and from Barron’s acknowledgments that she did a tremendous amount of research. The problem is that it shows. Every scene is given a page or two of background. Each of Jennie’s elaborate outfits is described down to the last button. There are too many names crowding these pages, too much lengthy explanation of family history and connections. In order for the main characters and the drama to carry the story effectively in a historical novel, what’s needed is a few telling details, just enough to give the reader an authentic sense of period and place.

I winced at some of the writing, too. There are touching, well-crafted moments --- Winston’s serious childhood illness, for example, which reminds Jennie of the death of her little sister. But there is also a lot of gushy, self-conscious prose: She “belts out” Beethoven on the piano. Men say things like “You bounder!” Charles stands “potently” in the doorway of her boudoir. Jennie feels “a leaping flame in her heart.” Particularly in the dialogue between Jennie and Charles, it’s hard to imagine that real people talked like this, even more than a hundred years ago: “Oh, Charles --- we shall have to part.” “All our fortunes are at stake.” “You’ll solace yourself, I’m sure, with that pretty little blonde."

Still, Barron’s experience as a writer of mysteries and suspense novels serves her well, and she guides the narrative capably, at a good pace, from present to past and back again. Jennie herself, moreover, is worth spending time with; she's likably human and astonishingly ahead of her time (she even gets a tattoo!).

Hunting for clues to Winston’s future is another intriguing feature of THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN. We witness his evolution from an unhappy, abused, unscholarly little boy, whose only joy was playing with his toy soldiers, to an elated cadet at Sandhurst, the royal military academy where officers train. It’s heartbreaking to read Randolph’s scornful letter to his eldest son, predicting that he’d become “a mere social wastrel.” But it’s hugely satisfying to realize how wrong he was.

I said that there’s a scarcity of heroes these days. But I think our supply of heroines is actually on the upswing. Part of the shift is our increasing awareness of those brave, rebellious women who challenged prevailing standards of female behavior. Jennie Spencer-Churchill gave birth to one of the major political figures of the 20th century. In the freedoms she claimed, she also helped to give birth to modern womanhood.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on February 1, 2019

That Churchill Woman
by Stephanie Barron