Fortune's Daughters by Elisabeth Kehoe

Snobbery, sentiment and the fate of Winston's mum
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The Independent Culture

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In the late Sixties, after Winston Churchill had died and greater frankness was permitted to all biographers, a serious two-volume life of his mother was published that discussed her many lovers and her husband's syphilis. A great-niece of Lady Randolph Churchill's brought out a chatty memoir, and a grandson edited her letters. Winston apart, the toilers in the family cottage industry have written two dozen books about themselves or one another. So what does Elisabeth Kehoe have to add, in the way of fact or perspective, or even charm, in this biography of Jennie Churchill and her two Jerome sisters?

Not much, and she seems to know it. A rather defensive afterword states that their story "illuminates what it meant to be a female member of the British aristocracy during its decline" and that "Clara, Jennie and Leonie managed rather well". Kehoe's claims that the three Jeromes, daughters of a New York stockbroker, "were witnesses to the glory days of the British Empire" and "maintained lifelong loyalty" to their husbands are hardly compelling. The latter task was simplified, in Clara's and Jennie's cases, by the fact that they and their spouses often occupied separate continents.

If these lives illustrate anything, it is the cruelly manipulative sentimentality of the late- Victorian and Edwardian upper class. The Jeromes sound like duller, more brazen versions of Edith Wharton's heroine in The Custom of the Country.

The spendthrift sisters expected money from their father all his life, even when he was old, ill and no longer rich, as well as from their offspring. Though the children's grandparents had tried to protect them with direct bequests, their parents used bullying and emotional blackmail until they signed these away.

"I have only you and Jack to love me," the widowed Jennie, temporarily without a lover, whimpered to her elder son, whom she had ignored from birth; then she wrote to the boys, serving in the Boer War, that she didn't want them living with her on their return.

Clara's versatile husband, Morton Frewen, failed at cattle ranching, gold mining, land speculation and every other venture he tried. Plagued with bad luck as well as bad judgment (he would have made millions had the key figure in one scheme not decided to return to New York on the Titanic), Morton sounds like the man in the Jewish proverb: "If he sold shrouds, people would stop dying." Worse even than his business record was his character. In one letter he says he is an "extremely proud" man who finds it "frankly disagreeable" to "suggest" his daughter might help him, then, in the next sentence, denounces her for not snagging a husband rich enough to support the family.

Kehoe doesn't try to make this sorry trio sound glamorous, as past biographers would have done. But she gives us no psychological or social insight either, and no wit. She explains that syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease, and that it was fashionable at the time to display wealth in the form of jewellery. Randolph Churchill "slowly yet inexorably" goes mad, and Dublin is, believe it or not, "a city of contrasts". But it's nice to know that one suitor had "a castle with its own moat": hiring one is such a bore.

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