WINSTON CHURCHILL’S ROGUE MOTHER: AMERICAN JENNIE JEROME
|Jennie Jerome Churchill|
I specialize in writing historical fiction with real people at the story’s heart. I’ve written thirteen mystery novels about Jane Austen under the name Stephanie Barron, for example, as well as stand-alone suspense novels featuring Virginia Woolf (The White Garden) and Queen Victoria (A Flaw in the Blood.)
Rogue Women Readers may recall that under the name Francine Mathews, I’ve written two spy novels—Jack 1939, about a young Jack Kennedy, and Too Bad to Die, featuring Ian Fleming during World War II—in which Prime Minister Winston Churchill appears as a secondary character. The Great Man presents such a complex and massive personality that he’s irresistible to a writer, truth being always much stranger than fiction.
History was my focus in college and graduate school, and I often tell readers I write my books in order to do the research. I stumble over a subject I find compelling, take a deep dive down a research rabbit hole, and discover the seed of a novel in the process.
So it was with my latest book, just out this week: That Churchill Woman, by Stephanie Barron.
It is impossible to read deeply and widely in Winston Churchill’s life without confronting a problem: He absolutely adored his mother and credited her with the basis of his political success, his extraordinary zest for conversation and writing, and indeed, his very physical and emotional survival. Most of his biographers, on the other hand—generally male and British—regard Churchill’s mother with dismissive contempt. She is described as wanton, irresponsible, frivolous, selfish, neglectful, narcissistic, heedless, profligate, and a bad mother.
Oh—and she was American.
It is a perpetual thorn in the sides of British historians that the savior of England—of all Europe—of Western democracy in the face of Nazi atrocity—the Last Lion, Winston Churchill—was only half-English. They wish desperately that he had simply appeared, like Venus on the half-shell, as a gift from the gods: self-made and perfect in his singular genius. It is inconceivable, moreover, that the greatest British hero since Wellington might owe anything to his American antecedents. He was, after all, descended from the first Duke of Marlborough. Surely that is warrior heritage enough?
Obviously, I had to learn everything I could about a woman capable of polarizing the opinion of an entire nation—a woman named Jennie Jerome. Lady Randolph Churchill, as she became.
I discovered a woman born well before her time, a person so complex and interesting she would probably run a corporation today, or star in Oscar-nominated films with the power of a Meryl Streep, or dominate the fashion world, or appear at Nancy Pelosi’s shoulder in Congress. In our time she would be remarkable, but hardly judged. In her time, Jennie was a Rogue.
She was born the second of four daughters to Leonard Jerome, a Wall Street speculator who made and lost serial fortunes. Raised in a palace on Madison Square, with its own opera house that seated six hundred, Jennie was schooled in piano by a protégé of Chopin’s, practicing four hours a day and achieving near-virtuoso status. She summered in Gilded Age Newport with three other girls who remained lifelong friends—Alva Erskine Smith (who became Alva Vanderbilt), Consuelo Yznaga del Valle y Clemens (who became the Duchess of Manchester) and Minnie Stevens (Lady Arthur Paget). Her father was part owner of the New York Times, a member of the New York Yacht Club who helped establish the America’s Cup, a racetrack owner who founded the Belmont Stakes, and one of the patrons who built the Metropolitan Opera. But Leonard Jerome’s money was too new for his daughters to be accepted in Gilded Age Society. His wife took the girls to Paris, and launched them in Europe.
Edith Wharton would later pattern her final novel, The Buccaneers, about four New York girls who chase marriages in England, on Jennie and her three friends.
I forgot to mention that Jennie was profoundly beautiful. She was also intoxicatingly witty. Lord Randolph Churchill, second son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, had known her only three days when he asked her to marry him.
That Churchill Woman is my attempt to present a full portrait of Winston’s Rogue Mother over the course of her twenty-year marriage and the childhood of her remarkable son. I don’t whitewash her past and I don’t gloss over her failings; she’s too interesting a person to be reduced to banalities. I don’t answer the fundamental question I first posed to myself, either: Who is correct, in his judgment? I leave that to each reader to answer for herself.
I know my own conclusions, and Winston’s.
For more about Jennie Churchill, check out the 100 Days of Jennie blog posts at www.stephaniebarron.com, or go to the Pinterest board, THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, behind the novel.
What an exciting story, Francine. I particularly loved this: "I don’t whitewash her past and I don’t gloss over her failings; she’s too interesting a person to be reduced to banalities." Yes! I'm ordering now!
It’s still hard for women to break out of our boxes now—I can’t imagine trying to do it at a time when women barely had any rights at all!
I can't wait to read this book, Francine!. Every time I read something you've posted on it, I am intrigued and want to know more! Very fascinating!
I spent four years on this project and probably wrote ten different drafts in an effort to frame the story to my liking. It's tough to go from the suspense architecture to biographic fiction–a life rarely has a plot! It helped to focus on pivotal moments in the forty years I cover, and hinge the story on those. And the research was fascinating–hours roaming among the collected correspondence in the Churchill Archives, where Jennie's letters and even Winston's from school are accessible in digital facsimile. There is nothing like poring over the handwriting of the people you've come to love, deciphering the script, to get a feel for their lives.
I have been waiting for this book. I'm always fascinated by how you immerse yourself in your characters. You amaze me!
I pre-ordered this for my mother and it just arrived—she’s very excited to read it!
I have the book, and it's next on my list to be read. Always love your books. I'm fascinated by history and you have such a wonderful grasp of it.
Hope she enjoys it, Sonja!
Let me know what you think, Sandy!
So glad to see that this book is out in the world and can't wait to read about Jennie! Love that photo where she's gazing directly into the camera. No shrinking violet here! Congratulations on the launch!