Churchill – The name pulls. Immediately, it conjures the hero of the second world war in your mind. So what then, was said name doing on a book cover over the image of a young woman in a sparkling ballgown? That’s what I was wondering, exploring the international publishers hall at the Frankfurt Bookfair last October. “That Churchill Woman”, it turned out, was said war hero’s mother. To be honest, I hadn’t ever given the slightest thought to Winston Churchill’s family – studying his speeches and strategies took up more than enough time at university. But now, I was hooked, wanted to know more about the apparently controversial woman who stood behind him, and long story short, I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of this book by Penguin Randomhouse US. I was about to find out everything about the life of Lady Randolph Churchill, nee Jennie Jerome – and what a life she’s had indeed.
Behind Every Successful Man… stands a Fierce Mother
“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.”
A Rough Beginning with that Churchill Woman
I have to be honest: The Prologue was not, shall we say, my cup of tea. It begins after Jennie has died, with several characters talking about her and key moments in her life. Now: a spoiler warning does not really apply as you can read up on her biography at any time, but it still felt like certain key events were given away that I had rather experienced during the story. Also, the writing was quite stiff at first, as if the words were put into the mouths of underdeveloped characters that existed more to say what the author wanted to say, rather than what fit their personalities. When someone who was in your life for many years passes away, you don’t recount their life conveniently in significant dates and events. You remember what they meant to you, and how they made you feel. A preface in the author’s voice might have served better here.
I had a few other, minor issues: Time line jumping, a few historical inaccuracies and gossip (that is prevailing to this day, for example on Winston actually being an illegitimate child) being taken for granted. Or, would the Prince of Wales and his wife really allow their entourage to call them by names (Alix and Bertie) that were reserved for the intimate family? And something I found very questionable was a woman of colour working for an “exotic” reputation. Maybe she wanted to use the term to empower herself, but am still not fully convinced there. More on that note: The N-word appeared once, and I always have a problem with white authors using it. Especially in historical fiction, concessions are constantly made at the expense of historical accuracy, and this is a place where it would really be a good thing.
In Order to Understand our Lives, We Need History
This sounds like more criticism than I had actually intended; of course there were many other aspects I found enjoyable and well written. It was very relatable how the American women who had married English gentlemen were sticking together in their new country. Or the way Jennie wrote many political speeches for her husband, and that she had to see her words read out loud by him in parliament and be content with that. And, as the book developed, sticking through the minor annoyances proved to be very worth the wait.
Soon, the plot started to pick up for me, the characters finally felt genuine, and the period really came to life. Chapter eight in particular dealt with the Contagious Diseases Act, a particularly horrid and degrading piece of legislation I had never heard of before. It allowed police officers to take any woman into custody, claim they suspected of prostitution and force her to undergo tests for STDs, to make sure she wouldn’t pass them on to the “honourable” soldiers and men who, you know, just wanted a bit of fun. Exposing the hypocrisy of a patriarchal society is very well done in this book, and one of my favourite aspects of it. Here, it showed the insane debate on women and their bodies, and the long fight about the ownership of them that is still going on to this day.
Political Figures Coming to Life
I also loved how politicians and public figures were transformed into actual people, with personalities, desires and weaknesses. Even if you know just a bit about this period, you will recognise a fair few names – Chamberlain, Disraeli, Gladstone, the royals of course… – and get to know them in a more personal way. An also incredibly interesting aspect was the development of the boulevard press, who seemed to love attacking Jennie Jerome and her family. When rumours about her ‘broken marriage’ (which was truthfully not very happy) started floating about, she handled it in such a brilliant, genius way that I would love to recount every single detail, would it not ruin the plot for you.
When the Book Reflects the Woman
It’s difficult to narrow my review down, as so many aspects of Jennie Jerome’s life were touched upon that it would take me just as much time to discuss them in detail as to read about them. We get to know her childhood, her life as a young American heiress, her rash marriage, how it caged but also provided independence to her, a real and yet incredibly sad love story, her loyalty to a husband she did not love, her fierce devotion to protect her sons as well as her own image – simply, a woman who took matters into her own hands.
For Feminists, History Nerds and Anyone Who Enjoys a Good Story
“That Churchill Woman” was a fantastic, enjoyable, and insightful read that successfully turned historical figures into accessible people. Yes, it took me a while to get into the writing, but once I did it plunged me into a time machine of a book. I especially loved the perspective of a strong, self-governed woman who took her life into her own hands, in a period which was so dominated by men (despite having a female monarch on the British throne). Back then, the Suffragettes were merely starting out, and it was truly shocking to discover how women used to be treated. As Jennie herself describes at some point in the book, Britain’s only sin in her time was divorce. Everything else ways quietly accepted and hushed up to keep the glamorous facade of high society from crumbling – and most of that pressure was actually placed on women.
I think it’s very important for every supporter of gender equality to understand the history of patriarchal structures and the marginalisation against women. Through this book, you experience how it affected one of the most prominent women of her time. It’s eye opening to see both how far we’ve come and how little has changed. The feminist aspect is my personal takeaway from this book, as that interests me most, but the well-researched “That Churchill Woman also offers a variety of facets on Jennie Jerome’s life, so every reader will find something else to love. I can only, wholeheartedly, recommend it for your tbr list.
Many thanks to Penguin Randomhouse for providing me with an advanced reader's copy!