Magazine article The Spectator

Nanny Comes to the Rescue

Magazine article The Spectator

Nanny Comes to the Rescue

Article excerpt

JENNIE CHURCHILL by Anne Sebba John Murray, £25, pp. 416, ISBN 9780719563393 £20 (plus 2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Celebrity culture confers celebrity status by association as much as by merit. Footballers' wives and girlfriends, pop stars' and politicians' sons and daughters, are gilded by proximity to the golden ones, often regardless of their own intrinsic talent (or lack of it). It is unusual to find this phenomenon operating upwards through the generations, however. Jennie Churchill, despite her great beauty, charisma, notorious marriages, and reputed 200 lovers, would not merit a page in the history books were it not for the place deservedly reserved there for her son.

Anne Sebba dutifully makes a case for Lady Randolph Churchill's achievements in her own right, but they do not exceed those of a legion of other contemporary politicians' wives or society hostesses. There is a wealth of evidence testifying to the extraordinary animal magnestism she exerted upon the opposite sex (she was described as having 'more of the panther than of the woman in her look'), and she would have been remembered for many years as a great beauty and object of desire, but her greatest claim to fame lies in being Winston's mother and it is in this role that this exhaustive biography comes most vibrantly to life.

Regarding Jennie's stewardship of Winston's early life Sebba is even-handed, mitigating Jennie's maternal failings by citing the time and energy taken up by her indisputable contributions to her husband's political career, and - is this a mitigating factor? - her always busy extra-marital love-life. True, her sins were not active cruelty or wilful neglect; her crimes against Winston were sins of omission. Both she and her husband ignored clear messages from their son about his needs and this cannot be excused by contemporary views about child-rearing.

'I think that even by the standards of their generation, ' reflected a cousin who had known Jennie, 'they were pretty awful.'

At the age of eight Winston was packed off to St George's School, near Ascot.

Accounts of the brutality of the school's headmaster almost beggar belief. A boy sent for punishment would be made to take down his trousers and kneel over a block. He would be held down by two older boys while the Rev. H. W. SneydKynnersley set about thrashing him with a birch. A past pupil recalled: 'The swishing was given with the Master's full strength and it took only two or three strokes for drops of blood to form everywhere. …

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