Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
Tribute to One of Life’s Great Survivors
The Anglo-Saxon Review, edited by Lady Randolph Churchill. John Lane, London and New York, June 1899-September 1901, 10 vols. Each volume bound in leather in facsimile to a fine binding, with a note by Cyril Davenport, F.S.A. Fine copies are rarities; a very good 10-volume set is presently on offer at $1000.
By Anne Sebba
Mrs. Sebba’s biography of Lady Randolph Churchill was reviewed in FH 137:50. This article was first published in the Financial Times Magazine. Finest Hour 98 was largely devoted to Lady Randolph.
Ask any writer. Every so often in the =course of research one is made an irresistible offer. It’s the price one pays for information. That’s what happened to me while researching the life of Winston Churchill’s American mother, Jennie Jerome. And I didn’t hesitate for a second.
A Churchill scholar in America, more interested in the man than his mother, revealed during our interview that he owned a complete set of ten beautiful leather-bound volumes of the Anglo-Saxon Review, a “quarterly miscellany,” once the talk of London society. The Review, founded and edited by the then-widow of Lord Randolph Churchill, ran from June 1899 until September 1901, when Jennie decided she could continue no longer with the loss-making journal. If I wanted them, the scholar said, all I had to do in exchange was send him some books available only in Britain. The deal was easily struck.
Several months later my books (for that is what they are, though issued as periodicals) arrived back in their homeland. For weeks I kept opening these dusty volumes with their gilt edges, high-quality paper and hand-blocked covers, each a facsimile of a famous medieval binding, and landing at random upon some obscure essay, poem or short story within.
Many of the pieces are by authors who toiled in the late Victorian literary vineyard, but whose names have long been forgotten, such as Pearl Craigie, who contributed a whole play. When Mrs. Craigie spurned George Moore, “a man who told but never kissed,” he spread malicious gossip about her and her friend, Jennie Churchill.
Why are these volumes so exciting? I had already seen Jennie’s original set, now owned by a descendant, and I could consult other copies any time at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. So I must own up to frankly base possessive instincts. I have become a collector! Alas I am exhibiting traits I have read of in others: touching, feeling and seeing an object gives me, the owner, a frisson that no amount of consulting the same volume in a library could offer.
My thrill at owning these books derives from the fact that I was writing the biography of their creator. I could indulge myself at leisure with the insights they offer into my subject. Owning a relic of one’s subject is a need to which many biographers succumb. As I have become obsessive about Jennie, wondering how she might react in any situation, owning something she created seems to bring me a heartbeat closer.
One year after launching the Anglo-Saxon Review, Jennie, a widow, married the handsome but feckless George Cornwallis-West, twenty years her junior. She had hoped the venture would make them some money. Lord Randolph Churchill had died in 1895, leaving her with a mixture of debts and dashed hopes. Such income as she had derived from a property in Manhattan once owned by her father, the financier Leonard Jerome. But it was nowhere near enough to fund her famously extravagant lifestyle. So Jennie at 46 set off for her honeymoon with George, carrying two baskets of papers: one containing outstanding bills she hoped her new husband might pay, and the other, editorial contributions to the next issue of her magazine.
Winston, then a young subaltern, advised his mother throughout. He was horrified at her suggestion of the magazine’s subtitle, “Blood is Thicker than Water,” through which Jennie wanted to play up the transatlantic connection. In 1900 Winston called this a “cheap imperialist jibe.” By 1941 he had perhaps realised the usefulness of such emphasis.
As an editor, Jennie was scatter-brained but charming. She had a small private army of friends—politicians, aristocrats, writers—whom she called upon to write for the Review: the Duchess of Devonshire, Henry James and Lord Rosebery in the first issue.
I had my volumes gently preserved and had a beautiful oak book trough made to house them. Just as Jennie envisaged, the books have survived—and that’s appropriate, for she was one of life’s great survivors. The bookplate on the front endpaper of each volume, a drawing of a trawler, declares the volumes Ex Libris Grimsby Public Library, over-stamped “with-drawn”; such ephemera, I believe, adds to their history, if not their value.
Catty friends of Jennie commented that the newsstand price—one guinea (£1/1 or about $5.50 at the time)—made each issue prohibitively expensive; others that Jennie unjustly fancied herself a literary lady. But hers was a genuinely creative spirit, and she used it in the Anglo-Saxon Review to brilliant if not profitable effect.
These handsome volumes provide a snapshot of an elite society on the cusp of change, just before the Edwardian era began. For me, they reveal a woman of high ambition and forgivable flaws.
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