That Churchill Woman

Written by Stephanie Barron
Review by Kristen McDermott

Luminous, passionate, rebellious Jennie Churchill, Winston’s glamorous mother, has inspired many biographies and novels. The latest, by Stephanie Barron, author of the wildly successful Jane Austen mystery series, is a delicious blend of Victoria, Downton Abbey, and Gossip Girls. Barron skips back and forth in time to give us a sense of Jennie’s memories and interior life and includes a few point-of-view chapters featuring the men who she loved best— her son Winston and her longtime lover, Prince Karl Kinsky. “She had known love was a terrible thing. Love destroyed families and happiness,” Jennie Jerome reflects early in her story, and her sympathetic intelligence allows her to view her privileged world in Gilded Age America and England with a realism that never degrades into cynicism.

Barron captures her devotion to the arts, her sons, and her tormented, syphilitic husband, Lord Randolph Churchill, wisely focusing on these qualities more than on her sexual liaisons with a large portion of the great and near-great in England’s upper crust. The exception is her on-again, off-again affair with Kinsky, and Barron depicts them as intensely principled people whose romance the reader can’t help but root for.

This is a wonderful vacation read, never too ponderous, and full of satisfying details about clothing, art, music, and social gamesmanship. It’s a deep dive into the pleasures of the upper crust, but by the end of the novel, it’s impossible not to think of Jennie as a friend, and as an exception to the cliché that the privileged Victorians were self-absorbed snobs.