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In the Shadow

Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage

by Mary Soames
Houghton Mifflin, 732 pp., $16.95

A member of the women’s forces told Mary Soames how she used to look down from her office window in wartime, often after a night of heavy bombing, and see the prime minister’s wife, immaculately dressed, going for a walk alone in the park behind Downing Street. The story gives us a glimpse of the isolation that attended this handsome, shrewd, hardworking woman, happy in her marriage, surrounded with people and tasks and her children. Behind her façade of cool poise and her unfailing conscientiousness, says her daughter, she was both shy and passionate, and few people were allowed to get near her. Being the support and confidant of a public man at times only emphasized the isolation.

There was nothing in her childhood to persuade Clementine Hozier that the world was to be trusted. She was six when her highly incompatible parents separated; her mother had been found dabbling in adultery, and although her father had evidently done likewise, it was enough to give him the whip hand for ever after. Money—by the standards of her class and time—was kept short, and her mother, though of excellent birth, was made déclassée by the separation. Clementine and her sister were first sent to live abroad with the father, then sent to an oppressive boarding school, then kidnapped from it, more or less, by the mother and taken to live with her. Some years later the father made an abortive kidnapping effort on his own account. In the meantime life was lived in a succession of lodgings and relatives’ houses, and always under the shadow of her more brilliant elder sister, the mother’s favorite. When Clementine was fourteen this much loved sister died.

She was sent to school, presumably an unusual thing for a girl of her class however poor, and not only loved it but became a Suffragist and dreamed of university. This of course was out of the question; and her mother found a kindhearted relative who helped with the expense of launching Clementine into society. By now she was beautiful, and was twice engaged (and dis-engaged). When she met Churchill she was twenty-two and he ten years older; the course of true love ran conventionally smooth, though it was daring to accept an invitation for Blenheim without having a personal maid. But she went, and the proposal was in the pattern of the marriage that was to follow: an early morning assignment in the rose garden; Clementine was punctual, Winston overslept.

The Biography of a Marriage,” the book is justly subtitled, and without sentimentality it must be said that their fifty-seven-year marriage seems to have been, for all its imperfections, the best thing that could have happened to either of them. Churchill was an egoist and a go-getter and had a vulgar streak; devotion to his fanatically loyal and scrupulous wife tempered his self-will. On her side, though clearly she was always an anxious and perfectionistic woman who suffered from his vagaries, she had as well the satisfaction of knowing how she was loved and depended on. If Churchill’s ambition and extravagance had not been balanced by an irreproachable home life, might his career have been very different? Lloyd George told Churchill his wife was his “salvation” (she did not quite reciprocate the compliment—“I know he likes me, but he is a sneak…tho’ he seems to recover again & again from his muddles & mistakes I am not sure his partner would; he would instead be saddled with the whole lot while L1-G skipped off laughing”).

Churchill was seventy-one when he wrote to his wife: “I feel so tenderly towards you my darling & the more pleasant & agreeable the scenes & days, the more I wish you were here to share them & give me a kiss.” When he wrote “Do you love me? I feel so deeply interwoven with you that I follow yr movements at every turn & in all circumstances…. Do cable every few days, just to let me know all is well & that you are happy when you think of me,” they had been married thirty years; she cabled back, “My darling. My thoughts are with you nearly all the time and though basking in lovely sunshine and blue seas I miss you and home terribly. Tender love. Clemmie.” On their eleventh anniversary he had written, “It is a rock of comfort to have yr love & companionship at my side,” and she to him that “Darling, you have been the great event in [my life]. You took me from the straitened little by-path I was treading and took me with you into the life & colour & jostle of the highway…. I have been happier every year since we started.”

There are other very moving passages quoted here. But the reason that the marriage is well documented is that in fact, in spite of their affection, they were much apart. It was not only the times when Winston’s career took him away; they spent many holidays apart. Clementine had too much taste to enjoy the vulgarities of the rich Riviera set that Churchill liked (“God—the Riviera is a ghastly place,” she wrote, and “I am suffocated with luxury and ennui”); and he was not to be persuaded that the beach at Frinton or museums in Paris could be enjoyed. There is the implication in Lady Soames’s discreet book (almost too discreet—there is little mention of drinking, for instance) that though her mother’s story is indeed the story of a marriage, and of a good one, it was a marriage that put much strain on Clementine Churchill, as much because of Churchill’s demanding temperament as because of the stresses of politics. And there was no one, really, in her life except her husband.

It was of course normal for women in her position to have their children brought up by nannies; but she seems to have been a rather unusually remote mother. The young couple doted on their babies and were bitterly grieved when one died; yet it is odd to see remarks like this from Clementine: “Meanwhile I have had much leisure to play with & observe the ‘kittens.’ You will be surprised to hear that they are getting quite fond of me. I am finding out a lot of things about them. They ask occasionally with solicitude & respect about you….” When their son Randolph, in 1942, joined a parachute unit, she was greatly upset—not, as one might expect, because of the danger to him but because it would add an extra worry to his father’s life. There is something a little chilling about this.

We soon became aware,” writes Lady Soames, “that our parents’ main interest and time were consumed by immensely important tasks, besides which our own demands and concerns were trivial. We never expected either of our parents to attend our school plays, prize-givings, or sports’ days.” Clearly she was herself the reliable and the favored daughter, though she does not say as much. Here the question of the great British nanny comes in. The elder children had a succession of them while Mary, as youngest, was lucky enough to have a long-term substitute mother just as Churchill himself had had. About the mishaps and tragedies that dogged her siblings’ adult lives Mary Soames is understandably reticent.

At the time of the wedding in 1908 Churchill already had a lifetime in miniature of adventures and successes behind him: fighting in four wars, the authorship of three books, escapades as the South African correspondent of the Morning Post when he was captured by the Boers and escaped; and eight years in politics, with a recent rise to Cabinet rank. And there were lifetimes of experience to come, for both of them. He was to be Home Secretary, then First Lord of the Admiralty; then after the Dardanelles disaster in the second year of the Great War—“God bless the Dardanelles,” Diana Churchill at six put in her prayers, aware that the word had some ominous sense—resigned, went to the trenches for five months, came back as Minister of Munitions. During the 1920s he held high offices; but in 1929 his ten years “in the wilderness” as a backbencher began. In 1939, as far as history is concerned, it was his real life that started. Clementine Churchill had been asked during the Thirties whether she thought he would ever be prime minister. “No, unless some great disaster were to sweep the country, and no one could wish for that,” she had answered.

She was indeed always remarkably shrewd, and though Churchill seldom took anyone’s advice when he really wanted to do a thing, her good sense must have influenced him. When it did not, and his lack of flair for understanding other people’s feelings led the bull to charge into the china shop, she was usually vindicated. She never approved of the “heroic” dash to defend Antwerp during the First World War that led some of his colleagues to consider him an unstable poseur. She recognized that his support for the king during the abdication crisis would tell against him. She spotted the appalling sentence in the 1945 election broadcast just after the Nazi defeat—that Labour planning would be enforced by “some kind of Gestapo”—but he refused to delete it. And by worrying compulsively about money she kept some sort of check on Churchill’s expansive gestures.

Records have survived of some of her wise counsel, because she learned to write out informal memos rather than to tackle her husband personally about problems. In the bad days of 1940, when his always unreliable behavior was deteriorating under stress, she wrote:

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something I feel you ought to know.

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner….

My Darling Winston. I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be….I cannot bear that those who serve the Country & yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you—

Besides you won’t get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality. (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful

Clemmie

Though she was the most loyal of colleagues to her husband, clearly it was not quite a question of “He for politics only, she for politics in him.” Mary Soames suggests that her feelings were always more with the Liberals whom Churchill deserted in 1924. And as early as 1912, as wife of the anti-Suffragette Churchill, she had written a spirited letter to The Times in reply to one opposing votes for women on psychological and physiological grounds. Hers appeared under the heading “Ought Not Women to Be Abolished?”

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be “Should women have votes?” but “Ought women not to be abolished altogether?” …We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitiveness…and…later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and, if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up…. May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented, and immoral species which has infested the world for so long?

She was not a do-gooder, and of course was enclosed in the outlook of her upbringing and class; yet when she was traveling in Barbados she wrote to Winston of tin shacks, undernourishment, and disease—“And this is a sample of the British Empire upon which the Sun never sets.” During the blitz she undertook to inspect the shelters in which London housed itself at night. She was appalled and straight away recommended stringent delousing, plenty of buckets for lavatories, and bunks large enough for human beings.

The story of the last years is, inevitably, a little sad: Churchill’s infirmities and his stubborn refusal to retire for so long, the strain on his wife who, like other political wives, longed for a peaceful period out of the public eye. “One must always hope for a sudden end, before faculties decay,” he had written to her in 1939, but neither of them was granted that blessing. Mentions of Clementine’s needing to rest, get away, have a break, become frequent; the phrase “recharging her batteries,” which occurs throughout the book, becomes monotonously frequent. Clearly she did have crises of depression and anxiety that were quite different from Churchill’s extroverted sulks, and she did not have his ability to drop preoccupations and relax. In 1963 she had a brief nervous breakdown and it was at this time that her eldest daughter killed herself.

Mary Soames has made an excellently professional job of her mother’s life, the book is well indexed and annotated, and it was certainly worth doing. It would be a pity to read Clementine Churchill’s life only in terms of her husband’s, and Lady Soames avoids doing that. We can read about her with interest not only because she lived so close to great events but precisely because she was in many ways a fairly ordinary woman, whose devotion and conscientiousness might have happened to make her the working partner of a headmaster or backbencher rather than of Churchill. Our only chance of knowing much about the lives of non-genuiuses, it seems, is when they lived in the shadow of a genius; and we do want to know about them. Perhaps the least ordinary thing Clementine Churchill did was to destroy the Sutherland portrait. It makes one wonder if there was a dimension in her that this biography leaves out.

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