That Churchill Woman
Wealthy, privileged, and fiercely independent New Yorker Jennie Jerome took Victorian England by storm when she landed on its shores. As Lady Randolph Churchill, she gave birth to a man who defined the twentieth century: her son Winston. But Jennie–reared in the luxury of Gilded Age Newport and the Paris of the Second Empire–lived an outrageously modern life all her own, filled with controversy, passion, tragedy, and triumph.
When the nineteen-year-old beauty agrees to marry the son of a duke she has known only three days, she’s instantly swept up in a whirlwind of British politics and the breathless social climbing of the Marlborough House Set, the reckless men who surround Bertie, Prince of Wales. Raised to think for herself and careless of English society rules, the new Lady Randolph Churchill quickly becomes a London sensation: adored by some, despised by others.
Artistically gifted and politically shrewd, she shapes her husband’s rise in Parliament and her young son’s difficult passage through boyhood. But as the family’s influence soars, scandals explode and tragedy befalls the Churchills. Jennie is inescapably drawn to the brilliant and seductive Count Charles Kinsky–diplomat, skilled horse-racer, deeply passionate lover. Their impossible affair only intensifies as Randolph Churchill’s sanity frays, and Jennie–a woman whose every move on the public stage is judged–must walk a tightrope between duty and desire. Forced to decide where her heart truly belongs, Jennie risks everything–even her son–and disrupts lives, including her own, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Breathing new life into Jennie’s legacy and the gilded world over which she reigned, That Churchill Woman paints a portrait of the difficult–and sometimes impossible–balance between love, freedom, and obligation, while capturing the spirit of an unforgettable woman, one who altered the course of history.
Shannon Dyer and Lisa Fernandes read That Churchill Woman, and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Lisa: I knew a bit about Jennie Jerome before I opened the book, thanks to my mild interest in the lives of Churchill and his wife, Clementine. Did you have any prior knowledge of Lady Churchill before reading this book, Shannon?
Shannon: I knew a bit about Winston Churchill before picking up That Churchill Woman, but next to nothing about Jennie herself. That’s one reason I tend to gravitate toward historical novels, to learn more about interesting people and historical periods, and this story filled that need very nicely.
Lisa: Stephanie Barron had a nigh on impossible task before her – softening Jennie’s many self-directed choices (especially when it came to how she chose to parent her sons), and trying to see her honestly, and sometimes sympathetically. Do you think she succeeded? I found Jennie’ breathless enthusiasm for life to be infectious, but it was hard to justify such choices as her leaving Winston in boarding school when he was seriously ill.
Shannon: The author definitely had her work cut out for her when it came to showing Jennie in an honest but sympathetic light, and I think she did as good a job as it was possible for her to do given Jennie’s real-life choices. I admire Ms. Barron for not glossing over Jennie’s less admirable traits in favor of a positive portrayal.
Lisa: The novel’s framing device uses Jennie’s funeral to allow friends of hers to inform us what sort of woman they believe she is before plunging us into flashback mode. Did you find this heavy-handed? Too much showing rather than telling?
Shannon: I really liked it. It’s not a form of storytelling that would work in all situations, but it’s done well here. I was intrigued by the strong feelings people had about Jennie, and I definitely wanted to know more about the woman who had evoked them.
Lisa: I found Jennie’s character development interesting – if occasionally blighted by the author’s choice to zip in and out of the timeline of her life. Watching her become a slightly embittered woman after being exposed to royal peccadilloes and scandals felt proper and understandable, as did her total rejection of romantic love, but it didn’t help me come to grips with her choices to treat her sons the way she does.
Shannon: I completely agree with you. Jennie’s indifferent regard for her children was one of the most difficult aspects of her character for me to get my head around. I totally understand her feelings about romance, but romantic love is worlds away from the type of love a mother feels for her child. I imagine social mores of the time had something to do with Jennie’s parenting choices, but that doesn’t make me like them any better.
Lisa: Even when the partnership between Randy and Jennie became physically or emotionally strained, there was a steely core of partnership between them that drove Jennie – at least while he was alive.
Shannon: Jennie’s marriage to Randy intrigued me. It was definitely not a love match, but it did seem to be comprised of some very positive regard, especially in the early years. She was loyal to Randy even when it would have been easier for her to walk away, and I admired her for that. No one could have called her a perfect wife, but I think she acted more honorably than others in similar situations might have done.
Lisa: We spend a long interlude in Newport in Civil War-era America. What did you think about what we learn of Jennie’s childhood, her relationship with her sister, and how it reflects her torment about Winston’s illness?
Shannon: I enjoyed this segment of the novel quite a bit. Looking back at Jennie’s early years provided a fair amount of insight into the way in which she dealt with Winston’s illness as well as other pivotal events in her life. These made it easier for me to understand why Jennie behaved in some of the ways she did, and I appreciated that understanding.
Lisa: Among the multiple lovers she had during her lifetime, the book focuses most strongly on Jennie’s long affair with Prince Karl Kinsky (called Charles in the book), who are thrown together by spiteful rumors that they end up making true. Barron made an interesting choice to contrast Jennie’s affair with her mother’s choice to uproot herself and her sisters in response to her father’s long affair and refusal to put aside his mistress; the love there is strong but she sees how annihilating it is.
Shannon: Jennie’s relationship with Charles was quite intriguing, especially when it’s set against the way Jennie’s mother put her need for love above pretty much everything else in her life. Jennie and Charles appeared to have quite a bit of chemistry between them, something that didn’t exist for her with Randy. Adultery is a tricky thing for an author to tackle, especially if she’s trying to portray her heroine in a sympathetic light, but I think Ms. Barron did a good job of it here. She allowed the reader to see what drew Jennie to Charles without falling into the trap of making excuses for her choices.
Lisa: Jennie’s complicated love for her two sons is interesting. She tries sacrificing her love of Kinsky to save their lives, but cannot make smaller sacrifices for them. The author chooses to blame this on her husband’s ambition and the poor communication methods of the time, but history doesn’t back that up. Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs that, to paraphrase, he worshipped his mother, but from a distance. Do you think the book reflected this well?
Shannon: I think the book reflects Jennie’s complex relationship with her sons quite well. She claims to love them quite a bit, but she only acts on that love when it’s convenient for her to do so. I never got the impression that the mothering instinct was particularly strong in Jennie, and I don’t think that had much at all to do with Randy’s ambitions. I do think wealthy women of Jennie’s generation were not encouraged to be particularly demonstrative with their children, but Jennie seemed to take that to extremes.
Lisa: Did you like the way the author addressed the era’s social atmosphere? I loved it.
Shannon: That was one of my favorite parts of the story. Jennie’s interactions with her peers allowed me to cheer her on in a way I couldn’t always do in other areas of her life. Ms. Barron captured the immense social pressures of the time perfectly, while still managing to keep me engaged, something that doesn’t always happen in books like this.
Lisa: Ultimately I was disappointed that the book chose only to focus on Jennie’s first marriage, and her actions up to Randolph’s death. In cramming what happened to her into the framing device it doesn’t tackle how she grew after Randy died, including her efforts to help the British side during World War I. That the epilogue chooses to tell us what happened to Charles instead of Jennie I found to be rather annoying.
Shannon: I hate when authors do this. Jennie continued to be a person after Randy’s death, but Ms. Barron doesn’t allow us to see that part of her life. The message seemed to be that Jennie’s contributions to the world stopped when her husband died, and I take exception to that. I would have loved to know what happened to Jennie in the years following Randy’s demise. As for the epilogue’s focus on Charles, that was utterly maddening. Charles was not the focus of the novel, even though his relationship with Jennie did factor into the story quite a bit. Ms. Barron’s choice to fill us in on the later portion of his life and not Jennie’s made no sense at all.
Lisa: I’m giving this a good solid A-; well-researched, well-written, emotionally involving and does a good job making a complex and unsympathetic woman seem more sympathetic, but the leaping non-linear structure and framing device didn’t always do it for me.
Shannon: It gets a B from me. Ms. Barron does a lot of things right, but the story isn’t without its flaws. The nonlinear narrative style was super distracting, and I have a hard time seeing past the way the book ended. Even so, it’s a book I’d recommend to those readers who want to know more about Jennie Jerome Churchill.