Wednesday, February 20, 2019

At The Poisoned Pen with Stephanie Barron!

I've been fascinated with Jennie Churchill since my mother brought home Ralph G. Martin's two-volume biography of her. There was just something about that face on the cover. When I learned that one of my favorite authors, Stephanie Barron (AKA Francine Mathews) was writing a book about her, I was thrilled.

Reprint of Martin's classic
For the most part, Jennie Churchill has been given short shrift because she was a woman who lived her life the way she wanted to live it-- and the men who wrote about her did not like that. It was more than time she received a woman's touch, especially a woman as talented as Barron.

As usual, Denis and I showed up early to Barron's event at The Poisoned Pen, and although I did get some reading done, it wasn't much because Stephanie came into the bookstore early and sat down to chat with me for a few minutes. By the way, I'm calling her Stephanie throughout this post because that's the name her book is written under, but I'm used to thinking and speaking of her as Francine. (Her name is Francine Stephanie Barron Mathews.)

One of the things we talked about was the cover of That Churchill Woman. It is a striking one that shows a woman wearing elbow-length gloves and a fitted long gown in pale blue-- and we only see the woman from the bottom lip down, something I usually hate. I mentioned that to Stephanie who said that leaving off Jennie's face was a conscious decision because her face is so strong that Stephanie and the publishers thought some buyers might be put off by it. I can see their point, and I do (reluctantly) agree with it. Stephanie also showed me the four different color choices for the gown on the cover, ranging from pale cream through two shades of pink to blue. Yes indeed, blue was the best.

Of course, once we began chatting the time flew and before I knew it, the room was packed and the event was starting.

L to R: Stephanie Barron, Barbara Peters
Barbara: This is one of my dearest friends and favorite authors. She's a diverse writer-- mysteries, spy stories, women's fiction, Jane Austen... all kinds of wonderful things-- and she's brought us her new book today which is about Jennie Churchill.

Stephanie: After twenty-six years of writing, some people know me by both Stephanie Barron and Francine Mathews but most only follow one or the other. I hate to cause confusion.

Barbara: That's no fun. I love sowing confusion. [audience laughter]

Stephanie: In general, my Mathews books have a grittier edge to them than the Barron books, and in this case, there's real divergence because this is not a suspense-driven plot; it's what's known as biographic fiction.

The day before yesterday (January 24) was the anniversary of Winston Churchill's death. It was also the anniversary of his father's death seventy years before. I find it ironic because Winston had a strained relationship with his father and tried to address it by writing his father's biography. Bending over backward as a son because his father actually treated him dreadfully. I started researching Winston as a writer of spy novels-- Jack 1939 and Too Bad to Die-- in which Winston appeared as a minor character. And in researching him, I was deeply struck that most historians-- male and most of them British-- were incredibly dismissive of his mother. They describe her as irresponsible, self-indulgent, selfish, a profligate with money, a bad mother, possibly nymphomaniacal... and did I mention that she was a bad mother? [audience laughter] And oh, of course... she was American.

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What you realize when you read Winston Churchill's male British biographers is that they to a man are outraged that the great man, the savior of Western civilization, was only half English. It just kills them. [audience laughter] They really wish he would have come from out of the sea on the half shell like Venus, fully formed-- and parentless. But they're left with the choice of lauding him for the qualities his father gave him or lauding him for the qualities his mother gave him and liking neither parent very much.

On the other hand, Winston absolutely adored Jennie. This comes through in all his autobiographical writings. "She shone for me like the evening star. I loved her dearly. From a distance." Later he says, "She became my ardent supporter with all her wit and energy, and the two of us were more like brother and sister than child and parent, or so it seemed to me. And so it went on till the end."

So I was confounded by the fact that, on the one hand, his biographers hated her and, on the other, he thought she could do no wrong. I really wanted to look into that and figure out who might be right.

Jennie was a profoundly complex person, so in this book I don't whitewash her but I present her in all of her verisimilitude and hope that the people who read the book will have questions, will have debates, will have discussions about what her contributions might have been as a human being and as a parent.

Stephanie Barron foreground
Barbara and Stephanie then had a short conversation about American heiresses who went to England and used their money to marry into titled yet impoverished families. Jennie's father, Leonard Jerome, was a Wall Street financier. Jennie and her sister were raised in Paris. They were not accepted in Gilded Age New York City both because they were Catholic and because of Leonard's endless string of opera singer mistresses. Mrs. Jerome was not amused, hence the move to Paris.

Stephanie: Leonard Jerome adored Jennie and basically gave her permission to live her life as she chose. When Jennie met Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough, the Duke wanted a very sizable dowery-- and he wanted Randolph to have control of it. Leonard Jerome wrote to the Duke of Marlborough, "You must understand that my daughter has the rank of princess in this country, and as such she will retain control of her finances. It is not the American tradition to hand over... money." This was very empowering, and as a result, Jennie had a unique sense of independent worth. In 1874 there were very few twenty-year-old women who had that.

Barbara: I think it's important for us to remember that there is a class system in America, but it's based on money rather than birth. Jennie's father was a philanderer, so it was not a surprise to her when her husband turned out to be equally so but differently because he was gay in a time when that could not be acknowledged. Jennie was married to someone who was going his own way, so it should not have been a surprise when she began to go hers.

Stephanie and Barbara then went into the Marlborough family dynamics. They were interesting because the Duchess of Marlborough hated Jennie and wanted to ensure that her first-born son had an heir so that there was no way Jennie's son Winston could inherit the title or Blenheim Palace. (I simply cannot transcribe every single word that was said due to time constraints on myself and on your patience. Sorry!)

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Stephanie: I always find it astounding that the person they all regarded as the upstart, the interloper, the semi-legitimate Marlborough-- Winston-- is now the chief reason why anyone goes to Blenheim. Because, if you pull up Blenheim's website, it says "The birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill"-- I always think Duchess Fanny is turning in her grave! [audience laughter]

Barbara: Also, if you go to Blenheim, the big thing is not just to go to the palace but behind the palace and over here in Bladon is the Marlborough family cemetery. Not only is Winston there and all, Consuelo Vanderbilt, who divorced Sunny Churchill and moved to France and married someone else, came back and is buried there. She absolutely hated living there, but she was buried there. So was Jennie. So they're all there in death-- all those strong personalities who hated each other.

Stephanie: When I was looking at Jennie's life, there was just so much to examine. From the Civil War to growing up in Newport to being educated in France. She was a concert level pianist who studied with a disciple of Chopin. She loved to paint, and she is in large part the reason Winston went on to paint in later life.

I came to the conclusion in examining her character that so many of the incidents in her childhood had formed the woman that she became and had formed in turn her choices. To do her duty,  she saw it necessary to live by a code of loyalty-- even at great personal cost. She did know great pain and great loss. Ultimately she was a profoundly strong woman. She was also a writer. She was extremely witty.

Stephanie Barron (with microphone)
One of the ways I did research for this book was to delve deep into the Churchill Archives which are held at Churchill College, Cambridge-- a vast repository of everything ever written by Churchill including his letters written home from school from the age of eight. His mother's letters. His father's letters to him. Leonard Jerome's letters to Jennie. Things as obscure as Winston's doctor's notes to his parents when he was dying of pneumonia. Everything is in this archive.

What I love about that kind of research when you're writing biographic fiction is that you have a voice, so it's not simply the dead figure of a woman. She's  compelling from her photographs, but you see her handwriting on the page. You can pull up and print copies of her letters and see the rather careless, breathless rapidity of her writing.

Stephanie and Barbara then talked a bit about Randolph Churchill's life and political career, as well as his intense dislike of his son Winston. Randolph could not be bothered to campaign, so Jennie did it for him, wearing a special dress in her husband's racing colors of pink and chocolate. She also wrote speeches for him. She was incredibly important to her husband's political career. Then Stephanie read aloud a scathing letter Randolph wrote to his son, which left us all a bit stunned, but Barbara made us laugh again when, after the letter was read, she said, "And this from a man who died from syphilis!"

Barbara: So when you talk about biographical fiction what is it exactly that you're saying? You're writing novels about real people and real things but interpreting them as a novelist?

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Stephanie: Yes. Those of you who have read some of my other fiction will know that this has been a unifying principle in my writing for years. I love to write about people who have actually lived. I love looking at the interstices, the gaps, in a person's life. The moments when things might have gone differently and imagining a story around them.

For Jennie, the challenge was figuring out how to frame her story. When you're used to writing mystery fiction, you always rely on the architecture of the puzzle plot. The notion of suspense to advance the story. You want to draw the reader in and keep the story moving. When you're writing about life, there's not necessarily any of that. There's not really a plot to a life. So I chose to frame twenty years of her life with flashbacks to ten years before that when she was nine through the age of nineteen. And I framed it by looking at what formed her, what choices she made that brought her a sense of purpose or duty, and how that, in the end, formed her relationship with her son.

Barbara: I love biography. If I weren't actually running this bookstore, I would read a lot more biography because I think other people's lives are fascinating. But I also do think that sometimes novelists get at the truth of a life much better than a biographer can.

Stephanie: When I approach an actual character-- like Jack Kennedy-- I had to find a quality in his early life that resonated for me, that I empathically could absorb and by doing so, feel comfortable enough with who he was to inhabit his mind. For me, that was how chronically ill he was throughout his childhood, how that illness encouraged him to believe that he was going to die before the age of thirty, how that in turn made him determined to live as fully everyday as he could, and how that made him somewhat reckless. That helped me absorb him as a character.

For Ian Fleming in Too Bad to Die, it was the fact that he lost his father when he was six during World War I and he was looking for that kind of relationship for the rest of his life. That gave me a handle on him.

Stephanie Barron (with microphone)
For Jennie, it was that knowledge of her relationship with her father, because they were so much alike. I loved my father intensely so I could put myself in her shoes and see myself as the daughter of a man who had no sons but who empowered a woman so much that she thought she could do anything. And she in turn gave that to her son.

For me, biographic fiction is all about embodying someone, and that's very challenging.

Barbara: I think that you can learn more from history by reading fiction or biographical fiction than you may ever learn from reading actual history. I've always loved historical mysteries because it does add a structure to it. If it's done well, you get to learn all these wonderful things. And it does sort of help you learn about today.

For example-- my only political statement for today-- if you had read history, you would know that the Mongols went around the Great Wall of China. It did absolutely no good. The Maginot Line that the French built to protect themselves from Germany. What happened? The Nazis just went around it. Or Hadrian's Wall. The Romans built it to protect themselves from the Celts. What happened? They just climbed over it. So historically, walls have been 100% ineffective, and the only good thing about the Great Wall of China is that you can see it from space. [audience laughter throughout]

Following this, there was a short Q&A segment. A fan asked Stephanie if she was going to write another Jane Austen mystery. Stephanie replied that she might, although where the last book left off, Jane only has eighteen months to live and her knowledge of that fact has made the thoughts of writing another Austen mystery problematic.

I always learn something from this former CIA analyst, which is why I try never to miss any of the events she has at The Poisoned Pen. I'm already looking forward to her next one!


  1. Fascinating. Who knew this much about the Churchills? I surely didn't.

    But I am perturbed about the cover with Jenny Churchill's head cut off. Why would readers be turned off by her face? This doesn't happen with biographies. Full faces are shown.

    And I've never seen it with a man's face on fiction or biographies So, I ponder the real reason this continually happens.

    If a publisher doesn't want to show a woman's face then use a different design on the cover.

    Stephanie Barron sounds delightful and is a dedicated researcher and writer.

    1. With the exception of the present-day generations, the Churchills are fascinating, and I'm really looking forward to reading THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN for Francine's take on everything. I could sit and listen to her/talk with her for hours. She has so many interesting things to talk about (including her training for the CIA).

      Evidently there is a large contingent of book buyers who won't buy books if there is a face on the cover. Somehow, publishers have got it carved into their list of commandments that all women who buy books want to imagine themselves as the main female character as they read, and they can't do that if a woman's face is actually on the cover. And you're right about men's faces on covers. Seldom seen outside of biography. Once in a blue moon you'll see the figure of a man on the cover of a thriller, but it's almost always quite a small silhouette. As if it's some sort of clue for bearers of the Y chromosome that this book is safe to read because there's a man on the cover.

      It's all poppycock and balderdash to me, but evidently that line of thinking has been selling covers for a long time. I wonder how we can possibly start changing the "rules"?

  2. This is so interesting! It's amazing how much there still is to discover about the past. I think that's part of why I enjoy historical fiction when it's well-researched. And biographies and other historical non-fiction can be compelling, too. Glad you enjoyed this latest visit to the PP, Cathy.

    1. Going to these events at The Poisoned Pen is a fun way to further my education-- I'm always learning something from these authors!

  3. Lovely write-up! Totally enjoyed hearing about what Stephanie/Francine and Barbara discussed. I remember seeing this author on a panel and, at the time, I didn't know she had been a CIA analyst. I only knew about her Jane Austen series and I had also read A FLAW IN THE BLOOD (also very interesting by the way). The whole thing about the women's faces and covers is TSFW (can you figure that out?). Sigh. Guess that's why we see the back of their heads and them walking away and half their heads and no head. I'm so glad you told me that I was supposedly imagining myself as the character in every book. I was TS to know. LOL LOL

    1. A Flaw in the Blood was mentioned swiftly during the event. I liked that book.

      After getting hung up on Technically Safe For Work for a while, I did-- finally-- figure out TSFW. Some days I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer. *sigh*

  4. I think it's all poppycock myself, some old-fashioned ideas by older male publishers. After all, until recently, not that many women writers' books were even published.

    And, still today, many male reviewers won't read books written by women or recommend them. I read a "By the Book" in the NYT Book Review with George Pelecanos. He did not mention one woman writer when asked his favorite writers/books.

    And men still own many publishing companies. I don't know, but women readers have to speak up and say something to publishers. A @Me Too Movement is needed for fair treatment of women writers, characters, illustrators and for fair depiction of women on covers.

    This is a 19th-century attitude toward women. It's like when men threw tomatoes at the Suffragists outside the White House during WW I. Or insisted women have to wear dresses to work, or whatever. It's all outdated attitudes.

    Women should write/email/call publishers to let them known that women on covers is fine. I like women's faces on TV, online, in person and on book covers. What's not to like? I mean really!

    An online petition would be good.

    1. I really wish I could talk to the marketing departments of several publishing houses and get some in-depth answers to questions... like about how covers are chosen.

  5. And who decides on covers and the criteria? And why have partial faces of women? If women are drawn and it's not a photograph, the artist can do whatever she/he wants to do.
    But this reminds me of the horrid Mickey Spillane books I would not read as a teenager. Covers were of slain, shot, stabbed, dead women. This isn't as bad, but it caters to a market I can't figure out. Who wants to see half of women's faces? Would they do that to the Mona Lisa?

    1. I remember seeing a cover that had a partial Mona Lisa face on it quite some time ago. Nothing is sacred.

  6. I'm reading a fantastic Korean-family saga over four generations. It was on best of 2017 book lists, and is a great read. Very moving about the abuse of Koreans living in Japan during WWII. However, one version of the cover (not the beautiful artistic one in blue) cuts the woman's head off right above her eyes. So, at least we see her face up to her eyes.
    But then her forehead and hair are cut off.

    This is an international best-seller. I just do not understand the thinking of publishers about this. Why not show a woman's full face and hair?

    1. I wish I had an answer for you, Kathy, but I don't.

  7. Oops, the title is "Pachinko," and the writer is Korean-American, Min Jin Lee.

    1. Thanks for letting me (and others) know about this book, Kathy. It sounds like a good one.

  8. It's a very good book, but I cried at certain parts.


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