Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Three Yanks in Queen Victoria’s Court
Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters: Jennie Churchill, Clara Frewen and Leonie Leslie, by Elisabeth Kehoe. Atlantic, 2004), softbound, illus., 386 pp., $16, member price $12.80
By Ted Hutchinson
This engaging history charts the lives of the Jerome sisters, three New York women who went on to marry British aristocrats in the second half of the 19th century. Each would lead an interesting and exciting life, but what most closely united them was the love and trust that each held for her two sisters.
The girls were born to Leonard and Clara Jerome, he a successful stock speculator in Manhattan who was said to have made and lost three separate fortunes. Clara longed for each daughter to marry a “suitable” young man from the continent; she originally targeted the French upper classes, but after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 reluctantly steered her daughters towards England.
Jennie, Clara and Leonie were not easy to please. All were all accustomed to utter luxury, whether or not their parents actually had the money to pay for it. They continued these habits after their respective marriages. But Kehoe makes it clear that their extravagance was accompanied by absolute loyalty to each other, and to their husbands, throughout long and sometimes difficult marriages.
The youngest sister, Leonie, probably had the happiest marriage. She married Jack Leslie, a British officer who would inherit a large Irish estate. Although his family initially objected, Leonie won over her in-laws with her decency and common sense, and lived a relatively happy life in Ireland.
Older sister Clara eventually married a disaster of a man named Moreton Frewen, well known to bibliophiles as the “editor” who mangled the first edition of his nephew Winston’s first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force—nicknamed “Mortal Ruin” for his propensity to lose both his own money and that of any friend or family foolish enough to give him some. In spite of their perpetual pecuniary problems, however, Moreton and Clara loved each other and were married for many years.
The middle sister, Jennie, easily the most famous, was the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill and mother of Britain’s greatest Prime Minister. She is probably the reason a publisher was willing to take on this study. But the book is about Jennie and her sisters, and Winston and his brother Jack appear infrequently. Kehoe does support other research on Winston’s childhood, though she suggests that his boyhood was not as unhappy as his autobiography says. He certainly had a happier childhood than many of his cousins, particularly on the Frewen side.
The book is not without flaws. In the first line, we are told that Lord Randolph Churchill died of syphilis. This has been disputed strongly by qualified authorities, not least in this journal. The author says the disease was likely the single most defining characteristic of his marriage, a claim that at times makes the rest of the study hard to understand in any other context.
Such problems do not detract from the overall value of the book, which takes the reader to a lost time of glamour and romance, when being a member of the British upper classes meant, among other perks, unlimited credit! It also illustrates, as the author says, what it meant to be a female member of the British aristocracy during its decline, when incomes were falling but aristocrats were slow to reduce their expenditures.
The story of the Jerome girls is interesting, and one in which the women largely made a success of life through the love, understanding, and protection they afforded each other.
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