Ottawa author Charlotte Gray is one of Canada’s most prominent non-fiction writers. Some of her best-sellers include The Promise of Canada: People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country; The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country; Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell and Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. Her award-winning books capture the heart of Canadian history.
With a degree in history from Oxford University, the British-born writer came to Ottawa in 1979 with the idea that moving to Canada’s capital would be an ideal place to nourish her writing career; it was, but not in the way she expected. Her husband told her they’d be in Ottawa for a few years, and there would be plenty of magazines she could contribute to, but there weren’t. But then her children were born, and the city grew on her.
“I found Ottawa a marvelous place to be a mother and a writer,” Charlotte enthused.
As her three boys got older, the proximity to ski hills and active lifestyle appealed to the entire family, and they never left. Charlotte’s career blossomed as well.
“I knew nothing about Canadian politics, but I researched and fact-checked, which gave me a wonderful window into a country I knew nothing about.” Today she is a highly respected Canadian historian. And in her most recent book, her talent for research takes readers outside of Canada to better understand two mothers, and their influence and complex connections, with their prominent sons, Sir Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Her latest novel, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons: The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt, is a double biography of two strong-willed women, born in New York in 1854 and having raised globally influential sons.
In a recent conversation, Charlotte Gray spoke with Ottawa At Home about Ottawa, motherhood, writing, and her new book.
What do you like about living in Ottawa?
Ottawa is the best place to learn about Canada, but the other thing I love about living here is my friends and the writing community I’ve created. My friends include Liz Hay, Frances Itani, Denise Chong, Roy MacGregor, Graham Fraser, and Jeffrey Simpson, to name a few.
What drew you to these two women, Jennie Jerome (Winston Churchill’s mother) and Sara Delano (Franklin Roosevelt’s mother)?
I found it fascinating that both women were born in the same state within the same year to privileged families but made different choices in marriage and lifestyle, and they had very different parenting styles. Their commonality was that their powerful sons adored them and were devasted when they died.
How did you learn about these women, and what prompted you to write about them?
A wonderful editor Phyliss Bruce who edited six of my books suggested that I should reach a larger audience than my Canadian books have brought, although several of my books have been published and sold outside of Canada. Phyllis noticed that I was part of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa and brought the two mothers to my attention. Their story fascinated me; Jenny was wild, she started a literary magazine and was creative and energetic with a sensational love life, while Sara was very focused on her son and stepped in to help his wife during difficult times. She is credited for keeping Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's marriage together. Biographers of both men haven’t written favourably about their mothers. There seems to be a myth that great men were born destined for greatness.
As the mother of sons, do you relate to these women in some capacity?
Yes, every mother relates to the experience of watching children growing away and yet still often expressing need. With these women, I was very keen to show them finding their selves in the world, not just as mothers of statesmen. I think there is tension for every woman raising children and establishing a career, and for these women, it was stymied by convention, and so many people wanted them to fail.
The book is said to be about how leaders are not just born but made. Can you elaborate on this?
Their personalities were there at birth, but their mothers shaped them with their parenting styles.
Winston craved his mother’s attention which made him needy. Through his mother, he learned to bend people to his will. Meanwhile, Franklin's mother stifled him, and this made him aloof.