In the Shadow

Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage

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

Clementine Churchill
Clementine Churchill; drawing by David Levine

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…

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