Friday, December 9, 2022

Money, Beauty, and the Power of Music

I had heard of C. W. Gortner as a writer of Tudor-era historical fiction long before I actually had the opportunity to read one of his books. That one, The Romanov Empress, had nothing to do with the Tudors (Gortner, who has a Master’s in Renaissance history, had long since moved on from the sixteenth century) and everything to do with my other great academic love: the history of Russia and the Soviet Union more generally. But by the time I read it, I had already agreed to let Jennifer Eremeeva have the fun of interviewing Gortner for the New Books Network.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I received a pitch for his next book, The First Actress, about Sarah Bernhardt. The novel—more or less contemporaneous with The Romanov Empress, which focuses on Marie Fyodorovna, the Danish princess who became the mother of Nicholas II—arrived at another moment when I had no space in my interviewing schedule, but we set up a written Q&A for this blog. So when I received a message from this year’s publicist about the release of Gortner’s The American Adventuress—featuring Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill—I was determined to move heaven and earth, if need be, to talk to Gortner for New Books in Historical Fiction. That interview went live yesterday. It was a fun conversation, very revealing about Jennie and her world, and the novel is already in print, so give it a listen and then read the book. It’s the perfect time of year, after all, to dive into an enchanting saga about glittering society parties, royal liaisons, and aristocratic scandals that can show up even The Crown.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

From Lucrezia Borgia to Marlene Dietrich, Empress Marie Fyodorovna of Russia, and most recently the actress Sarah Bernhardt, C. W. Gortner has made a career out of finding strong, fascinating, real-life heroines for his novels. In The American Adventuress, he focuses his attention on Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill.

From the moment we first meet her as a sassy and defiant twelve-year-old schoolgirl, Jennie charts her own course—to the consternation of her more conventional but in some ways wiser mother. Her father—an entrepreneur hovering on the edge of elite New York society—adores and supports this second daughter whose character so resembles his own, but some shady business dealings and a long-term affair with Jennie’s piano teacher eventually undermine his marriage. Jennie’s mother flees with her three daughters to Paris, where the girls complete their education. Then the Franco-Prussian War begins, and the family moves to London and safety.


There Jennie makes the acquaintance of an odd-looking but charming and intelligent young man, Lord Randolph Churchill, who proposes marriage almost right away. Jennie falls madly in love, and soon they are courting in earnest despite opposition from both their families.

A gifted pianist, a beauty, a free spirit, and a loving if often-distant mother, Jennie lives life to the hilt: spending extravagantly, flirting outrageously, neglecting her children, and breaking convention in ways that defy our views of the constraints placed on Victorian women. But whatever her faults, Jennie herself is unforgettable, and it is Gortner’s achievement that he brings her so vividly to life.

Images: Jennie Jerome in 1880, with her two sisters, and with Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ideas, suggestions, comments? Write me a note. (Spam comments containing links will be deleted.)