Elisabeth Kehoe's engaging biography of the Jerome sisters covers 100 rich years of British history from 1850 to 1950. Drawing on other biographies as well as on family papers, Fortune's Daughters links three individual stories (each as good as a novel in itself) and creates a broader view of the decline of the British aristocracy and the simultaneous rise of American wealth and influence. It is kaleidoscopic, moving around sex, money and society to demonstrate the changing roles of women into the 20th century.
Jennie, Clara and Leonie Jerome are the three thrilling daughters of the Americans Leonard and Clara Jerome. Leonard makes (and loses) his fortune several times over on the New York stock market and loudly displays his wealth by building an extravagant mansion on Madison Square and buying large amounts of 19th-century bling for his wife and daughters.
He is a generous philanderer who lives life to the full, but his wife harbours more snobbish desires for social acceptance in the right circles.
It is easier to gain this in Europe than in New York.
The invasion of Paris by the Prussian army in 1870 cuts short an exciting sojourn at the French court (related through the whirlwind of Clara Jerome's youthful letters). The family narrowly escape and instead launch themselves on British society. The eldest, Jennie, beautiful and witty, falls in love with and marries Lord Randolph Churchill. There is considerable wrangling between the parents over the marriage settlement: the British aristocracy, horrified at vulgar American connections, and Leonard Jerome holding out for his daughter's rights to inheritance in a shockingly modern way (an act that, as it turns out, does her a considerable favour). Jennie's marriage offers her access to the top ranks of British society, tensely divided between the old Victorian formality of the Churchills at Blenheim and the modern Edwardian raciness of the Prince of Wales' circles. She uses her social position astutely to gain political power first for her husband and later for her son, Winston.
Clara, the middle daughter, falls for the colourful and charming Moreton Frewen (nicknamed Mortal Ruin), and they start their married life in the Midwest on his ranch, the first of several extravagant (and failed) schemes for making money in the colonies. Owning land in Britain does not pay any longer, and Moreton and Clara's marriage is an extreme example of a common condition across all three marriages: absent husbands, colonial exploitation and financial worries.
Kehoe provides fascinating detail of massive debts incurred. Debts, however, do not curb the need to keep up appearances; designer gowns or the expenses of keeping servants are never sacrificed. (At the marriage of Clara's daughter, a room was put aside for gate-crashing creditors.) Destitution is left for members of the next generation.
Leonie, the youngest sister, more temperate by nature, marries into Irish aristocracy and also moves in royal circles. The book's political backdrop is dramatic and covers at once the decline of the British Empire, two world wars and Home Rule in Ireland. These events are offered as illustrations for the family histories more than as part of an historical analysis, but on occasion the interception of world events and the sisters' lives provide some of the most moving writing in the book.
Though playing an instrumental role in British politics at the time, we see a more private view of Jennie's son Winston when he is deeply moved by the widowing of his cousin Clare in the First World War. The account of the death of Leonie's son is wrenching. (Losses sustained by British and Irish peers in the Great War were proportionately higher than in any other group.) It may be that Kehoe feels most at ease with her subjects when they are at their most human and stripped of some of the social trappings of their time. She has more sympathy with Jennie as a middle-aged woman deserted by a much younger second husband than she does for the younger "selfish" Jennie pursuing love and power at the expense of her children.
She is more comfortable with the Jerome sisters' offspring, who have to work for their living, than towards her main subjects who, caught in the social mores of their time, often appear irresponsible and decadent.
Yet this approach is ambiguous. Here is also a desire to portray these American sisters vividly occupying socially powerful positions in British society and revealing a careful but tough new independence. It is surprising, therefore, that her final comment is that their "greatest achievement" is their children - a varied bunch ranging from Winston Churchill to Hugh Moreton (who marries a village girl and lives on the breadline in Australia). Kehoe's attitude is contradictory about their roles as mothers but, at the end of the day, motherhood is offered as the most substantial achievement of three aristocratic socialites.
Antonia Byatt is director of the Women's Library, London Metropolitan University.
Fortune's Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters, Jennie Churchill, Clara Frewen and Leonie Leslie
Author - Elisabeth Kehoe
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 452pp
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 84354 158 0