The British like to think of their country as the cradle of parliamentary democracy, but many years passed before it became democratic. The aristocracy ruled during the nineteenth century, and even in the twentieth century, when women at last won the vote, patrician government prevailed. There were gaps when Labour formed a government, but although some ministers came from the working class the essence of the British Establishment hardly changed. Until 1914 there was still such a thing as “Society”: when in the Twenties a rival, Café Society, appeared, the two had to overlap. The administrations after World War II of Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, and Douglas-Home remained patrician.
It was not until the 1960s that patrician culture began to crumble. During the regimes of Wilson and Heath British political culture began to shift, but it was not until the Thatcher years that the patricians were told by her to get off the stage. They sat disconsolate, biting their nails in the wings. Until then they had assumed that the fruits of office—the perks, the freebies, the official banquets, the parties confined to their own set—would still be theirs.
Winston Churchill was born a patrician, born indeed in Blenheim Palace, a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. What was he to do? He was the son of a younger son of the aristocracy. He had no money. While he worshiped his father, his father considered him a dunce; and after a meteoric rise in the cabinet the father failed in politics and then died, leaving his extravagant wife a widow unable to support her son. Winston chose a role that he fulfilled throughout his life. He was an adventurer and preferred the company of adventurers. Despite a lamentable school record at Harrow he passed quite high out of Sandhurst into a cavalry regiment and went straight off to Cuba, where Spain was trying to suppress a guerrilla movement. There he made some money filing reports to a newspaper.
Then he went to India with his regiment, covered a campaign on the northwest frontier, and made more money by writing a book about it. He then wangled—the word then used to describe backstairs influence—a transfer to the Sudan, where he charged with the cavalry in a battle against the Dervishes. His regiment forgave him because back in India he scored three out of the four goals winning the interregimental polo tournament. He chucked the army, went out to South Africa as a journalist to cover the war, was captured by the Boers, escaped, and became a national figure. The ten thousand pounds he made from his books and articles enabled him to stand for Parliament as a Conservative.
But the Conservatives advocated protectionism and tariffs. Churchill favored free trade. He “crossed the floor of the House” and joined the Liberals. When they won the 1905 election he was at once given a junior office, and in 1908 became the youngest cabinet minister in fifty years. Even after 1940 true-blue Tories hated him. They thought he was a cad who did not behave like a gentleman. Many doors were closed to him, but however bitter political warfare became, patrician society cut across party lines and Churchill remained friends with the most brilliant Conservative member of Parliament, F.E. Smith, and even with the Tory leader, A.J. Balfour.
This was the young man whom Clementine Hozier decided to marry. Her mother was the daughter of an earl, her father secretary of Lloyd’s; but Blanche Hozier had had at least nine lovers and Clementine’s real father may have been either a Mitford or more probably “Bay”Middleton, the one-time admirer of Elizabeth, “Sisi,”Empress of Austria. The first time Churchill was introduced he just stared at her, and she was whisked away by a beau who chided her for talking to “that frightful fellow Winston Churchill.” They did not meet again until two years later, both of them reluctantly going to yet another social event, and Winston, late for dinner, found himself next to her. This time he made no mistake, and she accepted him.
Thus began the correspondence, 1,700 letters in all, from whichMary Soames, Churchill’s youngest daughter, has made a selection. It is superbly edited, and Mary Soames expresses her gratitude to Ann Hoffmann, who transcribed the manuscript letters, added the footnotes, and compiled an index that puts others to shame. Mary Soames lights up a corner of Churchill’s life that his many biographers haven’t discovered. This is Churchill the family man, and it is a loyal but frank account.
Even for a politician, even for a genius in love with his own destiny, Churchill was exceptionally self-centered, selfish, willful, and impervious to the wishes of others. Clementine knew what she was in for. She herself loved politics, the great world, the perks of office like the Admiralty yacht, and settled for the fact that Churchill was often away—not on official duties, but stalking stags and hunting wild boar with his friend Bend’Or, the Duke of Westminster (who was undoubtedly a cad). He went to Blenheim and stayed at Balmoral with the King. Her stamina could not compete with his; she worried, so her daughter reveals, about trivialities and frequently needed time off to rest at spas or travel by herself. They had rows. She once threw a plate of spinach at him. She gave him good advice, warned him against his shadier friends like Max Beaverbrook, begged him not to ruin his family by buying Chartwell Manor: all in vain. Today in Britain, being a politician seems to be a recipe for divorce. MPs have affairs with their secretaries and then marry them. How did the Churchill marriage hold together?
The secret is in these letters. Practically all begin or end with touching, genuine endearments. They told each other continuously that they loved each other. He knew that women want to be reassured that they are loved and cannot be told so too often. She believed in his destiny and told him so. He was her pig, she was his cat, their rallying cry was WOW. At the nadir of his fortunes, after the debacle of the Dardanelles, he writes from the trenches on the Western Front:
Oh my darling do not write of “friendship” to me—I love you more each month that passes and feel the need of you & all your beauty. My precious charming Clemmie…
You cannot write to me too often and too long—my dearest & sweetest. The beauty & strength of your character, & the sagacity of judgment are more realised by me every day.
If no letter came from him, or in later days too many were typewritten and not, as he put it, “in my own paw,” she would complain,
My Darling I do love you so much & I constantly think of you & of all you do and are…. I send you my Heart’s Love….
Miaow—Letters from faithful Mary & Moppet but no Pig’s paw….
He would write when on the front bench in the House of Commons:
Shall I send you some more money…. I know what [an economical] cat it is, but the Riviera is a frightfully expensive place…. So now Sir Donald has finished his tame oration and Ll.G. is on his legs. Once more my fondest love & I wish I cd kiss yr dear lips. Goodbye my beloved. Here ends this fragmentary & discursive scribble from your faithful & churlish Pig.
He went his own way. But not always. In 1914 he took flying lessons at a time when aircraft crashed only too often. She was pregnant and had nightmares. She implored him to stop. “It is like beating one’s head against a stone wall.” For once he gave in. “I will not fly any more until at any rate you have recovered from your kitten.” It was a wrench because he was on the point of qualifying for his pilot’s certificate.
He had been made head of the Admiralty in 1911 and was the moving spirit in the cabinet in 1915 to capture Constantinople and break the deadlock on the Western Front. The disaster of the Dardanelles, in which thousands of British and Australian troops died, haunted him for the rest of his life, so she believed. “I thought he would die of grief.” Grief for the loss of life, for the blunders of admirals and generals certainly, but grief mostly for his own career: he thought it was finished. Churchill was destroyed by the man he had appointed as First Sea Lord, the eccentric and by that time deranged Admiral Jacky Fisher, who wrecked Churchill’s plans to send naval reinforcements to the Dardanelles and then resigned, refusing even to speak to him.
In the coalition government the Conservatives forced Churchill to resign, and though he was given a sinecure office, he decided to leave the cabinet, rejoin the army, and go to France. He scorned a place on the staff and was offered command of a brigade but he insisted first on going into the trenches to learn what modern war was like. He was therefore attached to a battalion of the Grenadier Guards. The colonel said to him on arrival, “We don’t want to be inhospitable, but I think it only right to say that your coming was not a matter in which we were given any choice.” He was, as might be expected, fearless in the front line, and full of ideas for limiting casualties. The Grenadiers came to like him, and he later commanded a battalion of Scottish infantry.
Clementine begged him not to return too soon to Parliament, but he insisted on speaking there in a debate on naval expenditure, in which he urged—of all things—the recall of Fisher; he was humiliated by the hostile reaction. He intended to make another speech on the army but Asquith reminded him that his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had committed political suicide by one imprudent speech. He returned to his battalion. Clementine told him that all his friends advised her that he should not return to Parliament so long as his battalion was in the front line. This advice he took; but in the end he returned, and when Lloyd George ousted Asquith as prime minister Churchill eventually became a minister again.
When Lloyd George’s coalition government broke up, Churchill lost his seat in the general election, but by degrees he oiled his way back to the Conservative Party and Baldwin made him Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was blamed ever after for putting Britain back on the gold standard; but apart from Keynes, expert opinion was behind him. However, he veered off the party line over independence for India, over rearmament in face of Hitler, over the abdication of Edward VIII, and over Munich. When war came, Chamberlain had no choice but to offer him at last his old post as head of the Admiralty. But the fiasco of the British army and navy landings in Norway when the German army invaded that country in 1940—an expedition that owed much to Churchill’s pugnacity—made him once again suspect as someone with bad judgment. When France fell, the miracle occurred. Chamberlain was forced out and Churchill found himself the master of his destiny.