Between 1870 and 1914, there were at least a hundred marriages of American heiresses to British peers. Fueled by microeconomics—supply and demand—American industrial tycoons bought position, prestige and coronets by bartering their daughter’s dowries to cash-strapped aristocrats. One transatlantic trade was Brooklynn born Jeanette “Jennie” Jerome. In 1874 she became one of the first “dollar princesses” when she married Lord Randolph Churchill, the third son of the Duke of Marlborough. Her wildly rich father reputedly paid a dowry equaling 4.3 million dollars in current currency. What a way to start a life-long marriage—and what delectable fodder for this new biographical fiction of Jennie’s life, That Churchill Woman, by Stephanie Barron.
Lady Randolph Churchill is one of those larger-than-life women from history whom we look upon with shock and awe. Most people will know her as the scandalous American mother of Winston Churchill, the famous politician and prime minister of Great Britain, however there is so much more to know about this intelligent, fiercely independent woman. Born in 1854 into wealth, privilege and the excess that it generates, she was raised in New York City, Newport, Rhode Island and Paris. Her childhood was colored by her parents Leonard Jerome and Clarissa “Clara” nee Hall’s Victorian marriage. He was a notorious womanizer. She turned the other cheek and befriended his long-time mistress Fanny Ronalds. When the affair finally ended the two women banded together, left their respective husbands, and sailed for Paris with their children.
Another significant event in her early life was the death of her younger sister Camille when she was nine. Devastated by the loss, her father consoled his young daughter with sage advice: “The only way to fight death, Jennie, is to live. You’ve got to do it for two people now—yourself and Camille. Take every chance you get. Do everything she didn’t get to do. Live two lives in the space of one. I’ll back you to the hilt.”
She gave it her best shot. Beautiful, stylish and an accomplished musician, she married into one of England’s most noble families. Producing an heir and a spare, her homelife was run by servants while she partied with aristocrats and royalty. Lady Randolph appeared to have it all, yet like other bright shining stars in society, such as Emma Hamilton, Marie Antoinette, or Jennie’s childhood friend Alva Vanderbilt, we soon discover “varnish and gilding hide many stains.”
Her husband Randolph, whom she accepted after a three-day courtship, and against her mother’s advice, has brought heavy baggage with him into the marriage. While she dutifully assists him in his career by re-writing his speeches for parliament, accompanying him to important social and political events, and entertaining royalty in their London home, his heedless actions and rash decisions cannot be offset by her social graces when he blunders and resigns his hard-earned government post in protest. As his career and health decline, Jennie is shocked to learn that he is a closeted homosexual and is seriously ill with syphilis, which will eventually rob him of his political aspirations and his life.
His follies and vices have set a bad tone for their relationship slashing a whole in Jennie’s happiness. To survive her loveless marriage, she escapes to country manor houses for long weekends with the Prince of Wales’ set were gossip, hunting, feasting, and bedroom hopping is de rigueur. In her heart, and in her bed, is the dashing Austrian Count Charles Kinsky, diplomat, prominent horseman and the future Prince of Wchinitz and Tettauis. He is the one man in her life that she truly loves. Sadly, their romance is doomed. A divorce from her husband would result in a scandal that no one of her class could rebounded from, and he must marry royalty.
Renowned by Jane Austen fans for her Being a Jane Austen Mystery Series, Stephanie Barron is also a best-selling author of thrillers as Francine Mathews (Jack 39, Too Bad to Die). That Churchill Woman, while resplendent with period detail and vivid characters, is as intricately plotted as one her mysteries or thrillers, cleverly moving between Jennie’s childhood and her present-day life, mirroring conflicts or recalling memories that help her through a crisis. What really resonated for me was Jennie herself. She was no saint, yet Barron shapes her choices with plausible instinct and solid reasoning.
Reading about Jennie’s wild gallop on horseback through the English countryside with Count Kinsky, I recalled the advice of her father on cheating death by living two lives in the space of one. She did. What I thought would be a novel about a scandalous Victorian socialite honors a strong, fierce woman who embraced life and love, celebrating the indomitable human spirit.
A remarkable achievement. Victorian Jennie Churchill is an inspiration for women today. Impassioned, brilliant and smashing. You will love her!
5 out of 5 Stars
That Churchill Woman: A Novel, by Stephanie Barron
Ballantine Books (2019)
Hardcover, eBook & audiobook (400) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com