A tale inspired by the life of Winston Churchill's scandal-marked American mother follows the experiences of a wealthy and fiercely independent New Yorker whose whirlwind romance with a duke's son sweeps her disruptively into British royalty and politics.
Stephanie Barron studied history at Princeton and Stanford, where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow in the Humanities. She is the author of the historical suspense novels A Flaw in the Blood and The White Garden, as well as the critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling Jane Austen Mystery series. A former intelligence analyst for the CIA, Barron—who also writes under the name Francine Mathews—drew on her experience in espionage for such novels as Jack 1939, which The New Yorker described as “one of the most deliciously high-concept thrillers imaginable.” She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.
Barron, author of the Jane Austen mysteries (Jane and the Waterloo Map, 2016) turns her able hand to biographical fiction in this absorbing volume that captures the life and charm of one of the American heiresses who crossed the Atlantic to catch a titled English husband in the late nineteenth century. Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome, was a wealthy and privileged American, her father's indulged favorite, when she married the second son of a duke with a brilliant political career ahead of him. She went on to rise in aristocratic Victorian society, to the delight of some and horror of others, and give birth to future prime minister Winston Churchill, maintaining appearances as a society matron while living a modern and independent life of her own making, complete with passionate liaisons and artistic pursuits. She wrote speeches for her husband, entertained his parliamentary colleagues in her home, and parented his sons while he shaped England and traveled for his health after his political career ended. Recommended for fans of Victorian England, Gilded Age New York, historical fiction populated with real people, and high society. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Jennie Jerome made a place for herself in history, rising through the British aristocracy via marriage and breaking social norms with her vivacious personality, fierce independence, and sexual escapades. And then she had a son, Winston Churchill. Born into an elite New York family, Jennie travels to England in 1873 as a striking 19-year-old and proceeds to attract admiration from men of all stripes. She matches flirtatious chatter easily but is most intrigued by Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill and his stimulating intellectual conversation. After their impulsive marriage, she rises into high society as Randolph enters Parliament. We first meet the adult Jennie at a function at Sandringham. The men, including the Prince of Wales, vie for the honor of seating her at the table, but handsome Count Charles Kinsky makes sure she sits by him and thus begins a flirtation that morphs into more. Barron paints a picture of a beautiful woman with enough determination and animal magnetism to get what she wants, which is her husband's (and later, her son's) rise in politics...and the affections of men. Through the narrative, readers will see Jennie, watch her every move, and yet, maybe, not care very much. There is a subtle something lacking that leaves readers as spectators of, rather than vicarious participants in, Jennie's life. The story lacks forward momentum other than the passage of time, but the characters are captivating. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
She was the last woman to enter the drawing room at Sandringham that Thursday night, hurrying down the stairs in her black satin slippers, one slim hand adjusting a glove. She’d kept the Prince of Wales’s guests waiting a full quarter hour while her maid, Gentry, finished dressing her hair. The cream-and-gold room was filled with the chatter of her most intriguing enemies and friends. The men were elegant in black evening dress and the ladies like a bouquet of tulips in their draped pastel gowns. Every head turned as Jennie Churchill swept through the doorway. The genteel chatter ceased. More than one gentleman ran his eyes the length of her figure; a few women gasped. Was her appearance that spectacular?
She glanced at her reflection in the towering looking glass over the mantel. She had ordered the blood-red damask from Worth in Paris, and it was the very latest fashion: skirt gathered flat against her pelvis and flared at the rear in a half bustle, with a demi-train that flirted across Sandringham’s Aubusson carpets. Falls of black lace and jet graced the plunging neckline. Gentry had piled her thick black hair high on her head and left a few curls trailing at the nape. A seven-pointed Cartier star glittered with diamonds on her brow. It was the only jewel Jennie owned, but she was famous for it.
Yes. That spectacular.
She smiled secretly at her reflection and sank into a curtsey deep enough to encompass the entire room.
Consuelo, Viscountess Mandeville, winked back at her. Minnie Paget, another old friend, turned away and redoubled her efforts to charm Harry Cust. But it was Jennie he was staring at over Minnie’s shoulder.
“You’re looking well, Jane.” The Marquess of Hartington came toward her with a glass of sherry. “That color suits you. Matches the flush in your cheek.”
Hart always called her Jane; it was a mark of affection. As he was old enough to be her father and in love with another woman, she laughed at him and said, “I’ve been squabbling with my maid. She made me scandalously late. How was the shoot today, Hart?”
“Damnably wet.” He handed her the glass. “You should have come out with us. Fresh air and mud would do you good.”
Spring storms had deluged Sandringham all week. The gentlemen played billiards and potted rabbits when the weather was bad. The ladies gathered in the library and the morning room, writing letters and trading gossip and making faint gestures at needlework none of them gave a fig about. Jennie was used to riding in London nearly every morning and she longed to tear through the Norfolk fields. Her body ached tonight with restlessness.
“Nothing will keep me indoors tomorrow,” she confided, smiling up at Hart, “if I have to scrape the mud from my boots with a chisel. Are you taking me into dinner?”
“I believe that honor is mine,” Harry Cust broke in.
“You bounder!” George Curzon protested, with a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “You know we tossed for the privilege, and I won!”
“Gentlemen,” Hartington said warningly. “It does not do to make a prize of the lady. Particularly when your Prince is present.”
Jennie glanced swiftly toward the fire, where Bertie, the Prince of Wales, surveyed her with heavy-lidded eyes and thumbs thrust in his waistcoat pockets. In most English households, guests entered the dining room by order of social precedence. Not at Sandringham. Bertie liked to buck convention, and he loved women in Worth gowns. They were unabashedly feminine—one reason Jennie had ordered the red damask. Bertie’s wife, Princess Alix, wasn’t allowed to patronize French dressmakers. Her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, thought it unpatriotic.
“We shall draw lots for Lady Randolph,” Bertie said deliberately.
A titter of interest followed his words. The cluster of men around Jennie fell back. The Prince summoned a footman. A pen. A pad of paper. He jotted down the names of his male guests and dropped the twisted squibs into a silver ewer. Then he offered it to Jennie with a slight bow.
She reached into the ewer’s depths, twirling her fingertips among the possibilities. Her lips were parted, her long-lashed eyes swooped lazily at half-mast. Minnie Paget, her thin brows soaring to her hairline, was muttering behind her fan to the Duchess of Manchester. Jennie was pleased to note that Louise Manchester looked merely bored.
She withdrew a slip of paper and offered it triumphantly to the Prince.
He grunted, and passed it to Hartington.
“Count Charles Kinsky,” the Marquess read aloud, and turned his head to the far end of the double drawing room.
Jennie followed his gaze.
A dark-haired young man whose face tugged at her memory was studying her in a way she recognized: both assessing and caressing at once. He had not been present at breakfast or tea.
“A new arrival,” she said, ignoring the leaping flame at her heart.
“He won the Grand National last month,” Hart told her. “I’ll take you over to him.”
Jennie had heard a good deal about Charles Kinsky—or more accurately, about Count Karl Rudolf Ferdinand Andreas Fürst Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau, as the Austrian peerage called him. He was the eldest son of Prince Ferdinand Kinsky, a knight of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles held a minor post at the Austrian embassy, but his job was far less important than his family pedigree, or his father’s palaces in Vienna and Prague, or the stud farms his dynasty cultivated in the pastures of Bohemia. The Equus Kinsky—the Kinsky Horse breed—supplied the Austro-Hungarian imperial cavalry, and all of Europe knew it. Blue blood had run in Kinsky veins since the twelfth century.
He stood carelessly in the Prince’s drawing room as though it were the platform of a railway station and he had somewhere else to be. Kinsky was blue-eyed and tall, with a straight nose and a dashing hussar mustache. His perfectly fitted evening clothes, Jennie guessed, had come from Henry Poole, the Prince’s Savile Row tailor. She found the contrast between him and Bertie almost painful. Queen Victoria’s son was forty-two years old, bloated with self-indulgence and incipient coronary disease. Kinsky was just twenty-five: elegant, athletic, and whipcord-lean. He had won the premier English steeplechase a few weeks before at Aintree on his own horse, Zoedone, jumping her viciously round a field so muddy that it brought all but three contenders to their knees.
No amateur had ever won the Grand National. When Kinsky triumphed at Aintree, Jennie saw his face suddenly in all the sporting magazines and some of the ladies’ weeklies as well. Clubs concocted drinks they called “the Kinsky” and toasted him whenever he passed through their doors. Jennie’s friends begged for his presence at their balls and round their dining tables and, it was rumored, in their beds. He was chary with his time and attention. It had taken weeks for Alix, Princess of Wales, to lure him to Sandringham.
Jennie’s pulse quickened as the Marquess of Hartington led her to the Count. She had been a guest at Sandringham for three days already. She knew every single person wandering through the great house and had nearly exhausted her fund of trivial conversation. That must be why her heart leapt at the sight of Kinsky, she decided; he was a welcome diversion. He couldn’t be worse than the tedious spring weather. She dropped him the curtsey due to a minor royal.
“But we’ve met before,” Kinsky protested.
“Ireland, County Meath,” he said immediately. “Lord Langford’s estate, Summerhill. Four years ago. Your husband’s family hosted the Empress Elisabeth. I was in her party.”
“I’m surprised you remember.” Jennie lifted her brows.
“How could I forget? You were the only woman in that wild country wearing a riding habit by Redfern.”
“Good Lord, how could you tell?” She had discovered the sporting tailor years before, in Cowes; now no lady in England would hunt in anything else.
“Like you, my mother is a magnificent horsewoman. She taught me to recognize quality and elegance—wherever I find it.”
Did he intend the compliment? Delighted, Jennie laughed at the Count and allowed him to carry her into the dining room.
It was an intimate space for a royal household, the walls lined with Madrid tapestries after the style of Goya, dark and vivid. A fire crackled at one end. Kinsky led Jennie around the long table, set for twenty, assessing the place cards. He found hers and without hesitation picked it up. “Do you know what I remember most from that time in Ireland?” he asked.
“The Empress’s leather riding habit? Or the fact that she was sewn into it each morning?”
“The sapphire-blue gown you wore the night we danced together. You looked glorious. More like a panther than a woman.”
“A wild beast, Count? Should I be flattered or insulted?”
“Neither. I’m simply telling the truth.” He exchanged her place card for the one next to his own. “Indulge me, Lady Randolph. It’s long past time we got to know each other.”
Dinner at Sandringham never lasted more than an hour. That night Jennie found it far too short. The soup and fish and saddle of mutton passed in a blur; her wineglass was effortlessly refilled; she turned with regret from Kinsky on her right to the Earl on her left; and when the ladies rose to follow Princess Alix, leaving the men to their port, she paced alone before the great fireplace in Bertie’s saloon as the other women talked indolently among the velvet sofa cushions. She was frustrated with herself. What was so instantly dazzling, so absorbing and consuming, about Count Kinsky? She knew hundreds of men—men of power, intelligence, fashion. Some of them had gone down on their knees, begging her to be their mistress. So why, suddenly, had this man caught her interest?
“I’m told you’re an American,” Kinsky had said over dessert, “but no one with your command of French grew up in New York. When did you live in Paris?”
“Mamma settled us there for her health when I was thirteen.” It was the standard explanation for her parents’ separation, but Mamma had never been ill a day in her life. She’d been sick of Papa’s opera singers.
“And suffered at the hands of a governess?” Kinsky guessed.
“I was sent to a convent school.” When she’d rather have gone riding each day with Papa back at Jerome Park. “I caused endless trouble for the nuns.”
“Of course you did.” His warm blue gaze met Jennie’s. Disconcerting; most dinner partners kept their eyes firmly on their plates. “That explains the French. You were young, and the young pick up languages effortlessly.”
“Your English is just as good,” she countered.
“Thank you. My father was a diplomat before me. I was raised as much in London and Paris as on my own estates.”
My own estates. That was part of what made Charles fascinating—he was one of those men who ruled the earth, or at least a good swath of it. He expected to have whatever he wanted. Her husband, Randolph, was similar—a duke’s son, in the habit of ordering people around. But younger sons owned nothing.
“That’s when I first met Sisi—your Empress Elizabeth,” Jennie observed. “I was fifteen, and we hunted together at Compiègne. She treated me like a daughter.”
“Don’t tell me you were in France during the Prussian invasion?” Kinsky asked suddenly, frowning. He must have hazarded her age and done a few sums. The invasion, a dozen years ago.
“Not quite. We caught the last train out of Paris,” Jennie supplied, “ahead of the cavalry. Our maid was supposed to follow. She never did.” Marie had simply pocketed the train fare and lived on in the empty house, selling the Jerome family’s belongings piece by piece to survive. “We managed to cross to Dover and install ourselves at Brown’s Hotel, like the other refugees.”
“So much for the convent.”
“Well . . .” Jennie flashed him a smile. “I was seventeen by that time, and straining at the leash. But poor Paris! The Prussian Siege was bad enough. The Commune that followed . . .”
“You saw that, too?”
“Mamma insisted on returning to France once the war was over.”
“For her health,” Kinsky suggested, amused.
“A mistake, Count, from which Mamma eventually recovered.”
The enchanting city in ruins. Sixty-five thousand people buried in mass lime pits on the outskirts. The Bois de Boulogne, through which Jennie had galloped almost every day, cut to the ground for firewood. The Tuileries Palace a heap of smoking rubble.
“You have a gift for survival, Lady Randolph.”
She shrugged. “Americans are hard to kill.”
“And eventually you settled in England ?”