Publication date: January 2019
Review, short version: One rose out of four.
Review, long version:
Based on my extensive though not-always-discerning reading, it seems that when authors write a novel about an actual person, they do one of two things:
- Stick to the facts as much as possible, and use their imaginations for the rest.
- Use their imaginations extensively, and include facts on occasion.
As I read That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron I kept wondering, “Did this happen or did the author make it up?” I’ve decided the book is a mash-up of both.
The woman in That Churchill Woman is Jennie Jerome (1854-1921) daughter of wealthy American Leonard Jerome. In 1874 she married Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill, an English aristocrat and second surviving son of the Duke of Marlborough.
In doing this, Jennie initiated the trend of young American women from wealthy families marrying titled but somewhat impoverished – or very impoverished – European men. The daughter attains the status of a title, the nobleman gets a large financial settlement, and everybody’s happy.
Jennie’s marriage entitled her to be called “Lady Randolph Churchill,” and her behavior during that marriage earned her the unflattering sobriquet, “That Churchill woman.” Apparently Jennie had many lovers – possibly 200, according to one biographer. Among the aristocratic class, extramarital affairs were frowned upon by some, but indulged in by many.
Or as Mrs. Patrick Campbell said at the time, “One is free to do as one pleases, as long as they don’t do it on the street and frighten the horses.”
One of Jennie’s lovers was Count Charles Kinsky, and this brings me my first example of my “How much is fact vs. fiction?” question.
Randolph had contracted syphilis prior to marrying Jennie, something Jennie learned only afterwards, but long before Kinsky became her lover. On page 262 Kinsky bluntly asks, “Did he give you syphilis, Jennie?” She assures Kinsky that Randolph “never touched me after that first time,” meaning the first time they had sex, during which she supposedly became pregnant with her first child, son Winston.
Yes, that Winston Churchill.
If it’s true that Lord Randolph and Jennie had sex just that one time, how do we account for her second son, John? My research indicates that while there were some who believed John was fathered by one of Jennie’s lovers, Randolph’s life appears to show that he had no doubt about either sons’ paternity; on the contrary he went to a great deal of trouble to secure a good future for them.
Then there’s also John and Winston’s striking likeness to their father and each other:
|The Churchills, left to right: John, Jennie, Winston, Randolph. Sadly, it appears that the Churchills never posed for a family portrait.|
So which is it, Ms. Barron? Jennie never had sex with Lord Randolph “after that first time,” or Lord Randolph was in truth, her second son’s father?
Here’s another fact-or-fiction question. Barron portrays and Jennie and Kinsky as passionately in love over a long period of time, with Kinsky repeatedly begging her to leave Churchill and marry him. After Jennie’s repeated refusals, Kinsky married a German countess.
Let’s do the numbers:
- Randolph Churchill died in 1895.
- Jennie remarried 1900, and divorced 1914.
- Kinsky’s wife died in 1909.
So after the death of Kinsky’s wife in 1909, and Jennie’s divorce in 1914, she and Kinsky were free to marry. If they were so madly in love – why didn’t they?
Fact or fiction?
Jennie married someone else in 1918, and Kinsky died in 1919.
Barron’s portrayal of Jennie is not flattering. In her Acknowledgements Barron allows that most historians consider Jennie a “bad mother and wanton lightweight,” and much of this book reinforced that.
Like the scene that starts on page 115 and really summed up Jennie for me. It was 1886 and 12-year-old Winston, who’s away at school, was deathly ill with pneumonia. Jennie briefly visits him, then hurries back to London because she and Randolph are planning an elegant dinner for 24. “There was no question of remaining there with Winston – a thousand details required her attention in London.” Jennie tells Randolph, “Sick child or no, the dinner must go forward.”
No Mother Of The Year, here.
Jennie, as portrayed by Stephanie Barron, was lovely and possibly loyal; selfish and shallow; artistic, impulsive, and in Barron’s words, “a profoundly modern woman who lived and died by her own choices, without regrets – a century before that was either forgivable or commonplace.”
“Without regrets.” Fact – or fiction?
It is worth remembering that that woman was the mother of that Winston Churchill.
So somewhere along the way, she must have done something right.