REVIEW: That Churchill Woman

This review originally appeared on 80 Books Blog.

3 out of 5 stars   ★★★☆☆

January 22nd 2019 by Ballantine Books

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.

*I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Jennie Jerome is an interesting person. The book gives us a look at the woman who would become the mother of Winston Churchill from childhood to mid-adulthood. She is the eldest child of Leonard Jerome, a wealthy American financier. He treated Jennie like a son in many ways, teaching her to appreciate horses and racing, but also giving her a proper education and encouraging her to go after what she wanted. She certainly did a lot in the time she lived, notably having numerous flirtations and affairs.

My internal thought process at the beginning of the book was shock, as in “this woman shouldn’t be praised for being so brash and free with her self” but then I had to check my internal misogyny because she was acting like a man, and a man of the time could have multiple affairs with no one caring. Especially of the time Jennie was raised and as she came into adulthood, she was brash because she could be and anyone who disagreed was of no concern. Also, another reality check I had to take for myself, Winston Churchill’s mother is interesting and worth writing about for reasons beyond being Winston Churchill’s mother. She was her own person and a fascinating one at that. I’m glad to know more about her because she seems to be the type to be lost to history.

My concern, however, about the novel is that a lot of the storytelling aspects didn’t let us in on her personal life in a way that was emotionally satisfying to me as a reader. My guess is that there wasn’t enough source material to make a concrete conclusion about certain parts of her life. For instance, Jennie has an affair with Charles Kinsky, a prince in Hungary, who eventually goes to work as a diplomat for Franz Ferdinand (we all know this name). Prior to Charles’ work, he and Jennie have an affair on and off for 10 years. So every time there’s an emotional turning point in their relationship, there’s also some sort of time jump where we don’t find out the aftermath of the argument until months later. Or the narrative just skips over the juicy details of the emotional angst between these two people. It should be noted that Jennie’s husband is speculated to be gay, so he knows abstractly that she seeks out others (kind of spoiler-y, but not really). These time jumps occur in other places too, but structurally that didn’t work either because I never knew what year it was.

Another frustration I had was that Victorian era parents were so removed from being parents. This isn’t a criticism of the writing so much as it is a criticism of the era. They just hired people to take care of the children and just went off doing their own thing. Jennie spent a lot of time away from home in the beginning of the novel where she stayed at a home of the Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria. I don’t understand! And Jennie is considered a good mother because she does actually care about Winston and Jack, whereas their father rarely speaks to them or pays attention to their interests. But Jennie ends up traveling quite a bit so I find it hard that the standard of emotional attachment was so low. It was so sad to read the passages from Winston’s point of view because he just wanted a connection to his father, but at least Jennie would respond to his letters. This brings up another frustrating point, that the POV would shift to other characters, which took me out of the story. I was reading for Jennie, not Winston, and not her husband.

Overall, I wanted to like this more. It was compared to The Paris Wife, which I adored. I just wanted more out of the novel and I didn’t really get that emotional connection I was looking for.

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