Monday, January 21, 2019

DAY 1: The Ironies of History

Blenheim Palace
When Consuelo Vanderbilt arrived at Blenheim Palace in November, 1895, as a bride and the newest Duchess of Marlborough, Lord Randolph Churchill had been dead nearly a year. His mother, the Dowager Duchess Fanny, first met Consuelo when the twenty-year-old paid a bridal call on Fanny at her home in Grosvenor Square, where Randolph had died. The dowager still wore deepest mourning for her favorite son, and she lost no time in outlining Consuelo's chief value and purpose. As Consuelo recalls in her memoir, The Glitter and the Gold, Fanny declared:

"Your first duty is to have a child and it must be a son, because it would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston become Duke."

Cousins-by-marriage Consuelo and Winston at Blenheim
That little upstart--Fanny's twenty-one-year-old grandson and next in the Marlborough line of succession until Consuelo produced an heir--was somehow unworthy in the dowager's mind. This was primarily because of his mother. Fanny deplored Randolph's marriage to Jennie Jerome, and the passage of time only deepened her bitterness. The fact that Consuelo, too, was an American was apparently immaterial. Consuelo would never challenge Fanny's primacy in the history of Blenheim. She did, indeed, produce a firstborn son and then a second--coining the phrase "the heir and the spare" for all time--and the upstart was thwarted.

And yet...

When one visits Blenheim, or even pulls up its website online (which I recommend for the sweeping drone video footage that introduces the estate), it is impossible to escape the fact that a huge part of its attraction today is as the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Fanny, Randolph, his rakish brother George, and George's various wives and mistresses; Sunny the 9th Duke, Consuelo who eventually annulled her marriage and became Madame Jacques Balsan; their descendants in turn--all give way before the profound, unchallenged, singular and irreplaceable role that the upstart played in world history. Winston remains the most famous Churchill since the original John and his redoubtable duchess, Sarah.

That is due in major part to his mother.

As Winston wrote simply to Jennie upon first taking his seat in the House of Commons in 1899: "In a sense it belongs to you; for I could never have earned it had you not transmitted to me the wit and energy which are necessary."

Among its many events and offerings this winter, Blenheim is hosting an exhibition of family portraits from three centuries and some of Winston's landscape paintings. I imagine somewhere Jennie--and the upstart--are laughing.
Winston Churchill painting en plein air, Blenheim

For more images of people, places and fashion from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel. 

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