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|
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|
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.
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|
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!)
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)|
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?
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 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!