Lady Randolph Churchill
by Jennifer Finstrom

“From too much love of living, from hope and fear set free.”—Swinburne

Her death is what initially captivates me. Tragic, avoidable, much like what I imagine happening someday when I’m walking down stairs in impractical shoes while texting. Jennie Jerome Churchill kept her collection of shoes in ornate glass cases to show them off, fell wearing new high heels, and broke her ankle. Her leg was amputated, but she died nonetheless.

I know little more than this when I begin to read the two volumes of Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill by Ralph G. Martin but soon learn of our shared literary pursuits. I read in volume one that “an increasing number of society women smuggled Swinburne’s poems into their bedrooms,” wish I could tell her how, in the late 1980s, I sought out Swinburne in second-hand bookshops, picked out the second last stanza of “The Garden of Proserpine” for my future gravestone.

“Had she only been the mother of Winston Churchill, her place in history would have been assured,” the inside front cover of the first volume tells us, and already, I have almost forgotten that he is her son. When volume one ends in 1895, she is forty years old, younger than I am now. She laments that her life is over: her husband dead, her admirers all married or gone.

She doesn’t know that she will marry twice more, doesn’t know what courage and wit she will summon at the end, telling the doctor to be sure he cuts high enough. I like to think that I might somehow share those qualities—though not the additional marriages—and her pragmatic optimism as well, when she says of her third husband, a man not much older than her son, “He has a future and I have a past, so we should be all right.”

IMAGE: “Jennie Churchill,” 1880 (artist unknown).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: The more I learn about Jennie Churchill (1854-1921) the more captivated I am.


Jennifer Finstrom
 teaches in the First-Year Writing Program, tutors in writing, and facilitates writing groups at DePaul University. She is the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine, and recent publications include Escape Into LifeExtract(s), Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, and NEAT. For Silver Birch Press, she has work appearing in The Great Gatsby Anthology, the Alice in Wonderland Anthology, and in Ides: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks.