The Churchills, By Mary S Lovell

The truth is in the tittle-tattle

Any history of the Churchills will be dominated by its most famous son and his achievements, but Mary S Lovell does a superb job of shining a light on other members of this aristocratic and political family – especially the women, from bold, ambitious Sarah Churchill, the power behind the throne of Queen Anne, onwards.

The women are an excellent choice for Lovell's focus. American heiress Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874 – their son and eldest child, Winston, was born just over seven months later. "Was Jennie pregnant before they married?" Lovell asks, unapologetic about gossip. ("In my experience the world has always thrived on gossip and [it] can have a place even in serious biography," she maintains in her preface.) And there's plenty to gossip about. Pre-existing biographies of Sarah and Jennie mean Lovell has little new to offer here, but she highlights lesser-known women such as the two unhappy wives of Winston's uncle, Charles, Consuelo Vanderbilt and Gladys Deacon.

The Churchills' marriage doesn't escape scrutiny, and Lovell records Clementine Churchill's hospitalisation and electrotherapy after a breakdown in 1963, while attesting to their enduring love for one another. The many marriages, the scandals, the lovers and the tragedies only make this extraordinary family seem more real and more human to us. Gossip, in this case, does them a service.

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