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Review: That Churchill Woman, by Stephanie Barron
Ballantine, 2019. 384 pp. $28

Nineteen-year-old Jennie Jerome, heiress to a sizable New York fortune, knows what she wants: to be taken seriously for her intellect and abilities, to have the power she believes she deserves, and to matter as a person. Why shouldn’t she, when she’s a brilliant conversationalist, has all the confidence her buccaneer merchant father taught her, plays the piano with verve and virtuosity, fears nothing and no one, and turns heads whenever she enters a room? But Miss Jerome is a woman, it’s 1873, and as an American, even a rich one, she faces obstacles to finding a husband among the British nobility, for which purpose her mother has brought her to England.

When daughter falls for Lord Randolph Churchill, son of the Duke of Marlborough, a rising star in Parliament, and a noted rake, Mrs. Jerome objects, as do the Churchills—the girl has no family to speak of, sniff sniff. However, Jennie has spent her life taking risks to get what she wants, and her mother doesn’t scare her, especially when she has Papa on her side.

Lady Randolph, as she appeared around 1880, age twenty-six, artist unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

History records that Lady Randolph’s first child, Winston, would be the most famous Briton of the twentieth century. But Barron is much more interested in Jennie and what else her marriage to this particular dissolute, scandalous husband brings. Randolph grants her the freedom to do what she pleases, so long as she’s discreet, and even lets her rewrite some of his speeches, removing the intemperate parts that would hurt him politically. Randy means to be prime minister, if ever that dour, Bible-thumping twit, Gladstone, ever falls — and Jennie will help secure her husband’s victory, if she can.

Consequently, Barron intends to rehabilitate Lady Randolph from the status of historical footnote, as mere mother of a great man, and, more importantly, her reputation as a scheming adulteress who drove her poor husband crazy. The author makes her case, for Jennie’s a far more appealing, nuanced character than the scandal mongers would have it, though at times her selfishness and sense of entitlement put me off. She does have love affairs, and she loves passionately, always struggling against the double standard applied to women, in that, and in her political pursuits, the latter activities furnishing some of my favorite scenes. Apparently, she was a fabulous stump speaker.

The narrative lives on splendid descriptions. Barron has a knack for portraying the lives of the rich and famous (which she also displayed in Jack 1939, a thriller written under a pseudonym), and she renders the leading figures of the realm with ease and panache. (I particularly like her portrait of Bertie, Prince of Wales, licentious wretch, court arbiter, and trendsetter.) It takes a sure hand to convey every conceivable setting with accuracy and authority, from royal residences to the House of Commons to opium dens to a fashionable woman’s boudoir. Not only does Barron never miss a step, she connects her descriptions to the characters (and, therefore, the reader), as with this passage from Jennie’s girlhood, about her father’s library:

Jennie never set foot in Papa’s library when he was there, because then it was his place and not the secret one she kept to herself while he was at his offices on Wall Street. The mahogany paneling glowed warmly even on the dreariest days, and the draperies were crimson velvet, so heavy that not a whisper of the carriage traffic from Madison Square filtered through the glazed windows. The only sounds were the settlings of logs burning behind the brass fender and the rustle of thick paper as Jennie turned the pages. A Turkey carpet splashed carmine and indigo at her feet. The library smelled of cigars and brandy and old leather bindings, the dryness of paper in the wetness of ink. It smelled, Jennie thought, of Papa.

It’s the storytelling, I think, that fails to measure up. The novel begins not at any of the first three chapters, where it could, but at Jennie’s funeral. Though by definition unnecessary, this particular prologue is at least very well written and, typical of Barron, shows her command of history. But reading yet another prologue makes me ask whether authors today — or their editors — have mistakenly set the bar too low, fearing that if the context for an almost-famous character doesn’t appear right up front, readers will be lost. Are we that unsophisticated or impatient or have such a short attention span that we can’t appreciate a woman’s life except by looking at it backwards? Are we that star-struck and name-conscious that if we don’t know a character’s bloodlines by the first paragraph, the novel won’t sell?

Speaking of looking backward, the forward narrative often breaks off to tell a story from Jennie’s past. Few of these scenes belong, most feeling as though they’ve been plopped in to give background to the adult Jennie, tacitly—or literally—asking, Why does the protagonist behave in such a way at this particular moment? Answer: Well, it all stems from this incident from her childhood; 2 + 2 = 4.

But people aren’t formulas, psychology doesn’t work that way, and since I believe Barron’s a fine writer, with a gift for characterization, I’m guessing she fell too much in love with Jennie’s backstory. I could also do with less rib-nudging dramatic irony, as when Jennie tells young Winston to go off and be prime minister someday.

That Churchill Woman makes entertaining reading, for the most part. But I wonder whether the author tried to cram too much into it, paradoxically winding up with less than she could have had.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.