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…

Or again:

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.

He was in a desperate situation. The army was in chaos, having lost all its heavy equipment in the evacuation from Dunkirk, and Britain was facing a German invasion. Politically he was weak. He had to include inveterate enemies in his cabinet, which contained members like Halifax and the young Rab Butler, who were in favor of getting what peace terms they could from Hitler. It was at that hour that Clementine wrote him a remarkable letter:

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that 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 & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner—It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like schoolboys &”take what’s coming to them” & then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders—Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming. I was astonished &upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with & under you, loving you—I said this & I was told “No doubt it’s the strain”—

My Darling Winston—I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders &if they are bungled—except for the King the Archbishop of Canterbury &the Speaker, you can sack anyone & everyone—Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. You used to quote:—“On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme”—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 & watchful Clemmie

Some might ask why did she write when living in the same house? She was not, according to Mary Soames, a good arguer: she spoiled her case by exaggeration and if she went on too long he became furious. That is the letter of a woman of exceptional character and principle.

It was not only Churchill that the bien pensants objected to. They distrusted his friends: in the old days F.E. Smith and the intolerable mega-rich “Bend’Or” Westminster. They disliked his protégés Brendan Bracken and Desmond Morton. They especially feared the influence of Max Beaverbrook. So did Clementine. In February 1942 when Churchill was reshuffling his cabinet, she wrote apologizing for her “violent attitude” but begged him to leave Beaverbrook out of his cabinet. “Exorcise this bottle imp & see if the air is not clearer & purer.”

It was not the first time she had warned Winston against Beaverbrook, who was widely believed to be responsible for Churchill’s disastrous speech in the general election of 1945 when he told the country that if Attlee were victorious Labour would govern through a Gestapo. But Max’s charm prevailed and after the war the Churchills often stayed with him in Jamaica and yet again at Cap d’Ail on the Riviera, where they celebrated the golden anniversary of their wedding.

She did not prevail all that often. In 1953, after he had suffered a stroke (carefully concealed from press and public), the Queen invited him to Doncaster to stay for the great autumn horse race, the St. Leger, and then to go north to Balmoral. Clementine begged him to decline, they had a row, he rang up to “say loving & forgiving words” to her, and she returned to the charge, urging him to husband his strength. The result of her protestations? They went both to the races and to Balmoral. But after the rows, notes of affection and remorse were slipped under bedroom doors.

Their most lasting disagreement was about Chartwell, the country house in Kent. In September 1922 Winston bought the house, damp and with dry rot, without telling her. Next month the Lloyd George coalition government broke up and in November, after twenty-two years in Parliament, Churchill lost his seat in the general election and was left, as he put it, without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix (the operation to remove it had made electioneering exhausting). Throughout his life, Churchill had worked as a journalist, as a writer, as a historian without a break, out of and sometimes in office. It was his only means of support unless he held a ministerial salary. But nothing stopped him at Chartwell. He learned bricklaying, he took up farming—goats, goldfish, swans, pigs, cows, all of which failed commercially. But after the war what he had several times contemplated now seemed a reality—he would have to sell the property.

It was then that William Camrose, the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, rallied a group of friends and admirers who raised the money to sell the house to the National Trust on the condition that Winston and Clementine could live there for their lifetimes. The trouble was that whatever pastime he took up he usually did well—polo when young—but they were always expensive pastimes with expensive friends. His one success was in horse racing, which he took up after the war: one horse, Colonist II, won him several races and some money. He liked to gamble at Monte Carlo and usually lost, not an immense sum but enough to cause pain; needless to say he had lost a packet buying on margin on Wall Street in 1929.

“My business and my toys have made me a poor companion.” That was true too for his children. He gave them as much time as he could spare—which was not much. But whenever possible he took one of them with him on official occasions and the letters are full of his pride in them. His affection for Randolph was immense. Randolph was good-looking, good company, brave, reckless, eloquent, overbearing, both charming and breathtakingly rude. Halfway through his time at Oxford, aged nineteen, he accepted an offer to go on a lecture tour in America. Everyone opposed it. Randolph went and never returned to Oxford.

His mother heard him lecture. “Frankly it was not at all good, & it is very naughty of him, becos’ if he would only take a little trouble it could be very good indeed…. The audience seemed spell-bound—but I think it was his looks & his colossal cheek chiefly!” Naturally he had become engaged, naturally to someone his parents considered unsuitable; and he offended Bernard Baruch by flirting with Baruch’s mistress. Worse was to follow. To Winston’s embarrassment Randolph stood as an independent candidate for a northern constituency where the Tory sitting member was unpopular. Randolph got 10,000 votes, split the Tory vote, and the Labour candidate got in. Intoxicated with this success, he fought altogether four seats and succeeded only in enraging the government and his father’s party.

One of Randolph’s most tactless and selfish ventures was to stand against Malcolm Macdonald, the son of the former prime minister who had formed the National government in 1931 with Stanley Baldwin. How could Baldwin be expected to give Winston his old job at the Admiralty in such circumstances? But Winston could never suppress his admiration for Randolph’s reckless audacity and good looks. He made excuses for him: “[With] the press…and with Rothermere, Beaverbrook and Lloyd George all goading him on, I really cannot blame him for accepting the official invitation of the local Conservative Association.”

When the war came, Randolph first held a staff job in Cairo responsible for press censorship. “His duties seem multifarious & will require discrimination, judgment & tact. But I think Randolph has these qualities…,” wrote his mother. He did not. Eight months or so later she was writing that his talents were “not sufficient to outweigh his indiscretions & the hostilities which he arouses. It’s no use offending & antagonising everybody unless you really are indispensable.” He next joined a commando unit. Then instead of rejoining his regiment he volunteered as a parachutist. Clementine considered it unfair to his young wife, who was expecting a baby, and to his father, “who is bearing not only the burden of his own country but for the moment that of an unprepared America.” “He might listen to me,” she added sadly, “as though he does not care for me, I know he respects me.” All in vain. The truck he was on in a long-range raid on Benghazi overturned and he was badly injured. A year later Randolph was parachuted into Yugoslavia and was one of the nine survivors out of nineteen in an air crash on his way to Croatia.

It was not only Randolph that distressed them. Their eldest daughter, Diana, married the son of an old friend of her father’s but they were divorced within three years. She next married Duncan Sandys. That marriage lasted nearly twenty-five years but ended in divorce after her nervous breakdowns: she died of an overdose of sleeping pills. Sarah, who was no less loved than Diana, went on the stage and fell in love with the comedian Vic Oliver—not the kind of son-in-law that her parents had hoped for: “common as dirt…[and] a horrible mouth” was the Churchill verdict. She married him but during the war they drifted apart and divorced. Her second husband was a society photographer who committed suicide and her third husband died after only a year. Winston took both Randolph and Sarah to wartime conferences; she was with him at Tehran and again at Yalta. She was much upset by the suicide of her second husband when she was already on the way to becoming an alcoholic. She worked in television in Los Angeles and was arrested there for drunkenness. The next year, playing the lead role in Peter Pan, she was arrested in Liverpool for being drunk and disorderly. Winston and Clementine were mortified.

Their consolation lay in their youngest daughter, Mary, the editor of these letters and the biographer of her mother. She married exactly the kind of man they would have wished for—a successful Conservative politician who served in the Coldstream Guards, a cabinet minister until the fall of Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s government. Four years later he became ambassador in Paris and later vice president of the European Commission. He liked all the things Churchill liked—horse racing, hunting, shooting, fishing, playing bridge. He was undoubtedly a patrician and after the Conservative victory in the election of 1979 became leader of the House of Lords. He and other patricians in the Cabinet opposed Margaret Thatcher’s laissez-faire policies, which were producing unemployment as Britain’s old inefficient heavy industries declined. Mrs. Thatcher demanded their resignation. She later said that when she told Soames he was through, he gave the impression that “the natural order of things was being violated” and he “had been dismissed by his housemaid.”1

More than anyone else Margaret Thatcher signaled the end of the patricians’ rule. Anyone who wants to know what patrician society was like from the beginning of the twentieth century until the Sixties should read these letters. No one worked harder than Churchill to climb the ladder to success, from the time he was a subaltern in India, reading on the stifling afternoons Gibbon and Macaulay and teaching himself to write English prose. But when he succeeded in politics he regarded it as his birthright. He believed that there had to be adjustments in taxation and a curb put on the House of Lords, but that the hierarchy in British life should be preserved, and the pretensions of socialists and Marxists that society was organized into classes at war with each other had to be exposed as a myth.

In his recent book David Cannadine sees Thatcher as the leader who was not prepared to accept the languid complacency of Macmillan’s patrician vision.2 To her Britain was governed by a self-interested and self-perpetuating elite, accountable to no one, operating in the Foreign Office, the universities, the BBC, and the Church of England, led by the patricians who mouthed compassion for the unemployed and were always ready to give in to trade-union bullying, indifferent to what “the people” wanted. And the people, as the old industries were being replaced by service industries, were now consumers rather than producers.

The present determination of the Labour government to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords is certainly a move to diminish the hierarchical structure of British society. But when the House of Lords is reformed, will it still bear that title—or will it be called, as some of Tony Blair’s supporters suggest, “the Senate”? At present the tide is running against the old patrician class. But who can foretell the future? Expelled from the House of Lords, the Cecils, Grosvenors, Howards, Stanleys, et al. will then be entitled to sit in the House of Commons (as indeed they always could as sons waiting to inherit their title). Will the electorate prefer them to the present generation of entrepreneurs? Or will the electorate become indifferent to a Parliament which increasingly will lose power to the bureaucracy of the European Union? Or will the British, exasperated by the fraud, nepotism, and unaccountability of the commisioners who have been forced to resign en masse, hover uneasily between the European Union and the United States, which at the moment is threatening the European Union and Britain specifically with a trade war over bananas? Churchill was at one time an advocate of a European political community, but he recoiled in old age and he hoped instead to throw in his country’s lot with the United States.

These are letters of love, and remind us how lovable Churchill was. Inconsiderate, obstinate, bullying, and selfish he might be, but those who worked with him and for him did not forget the irrepressible sense of fun that animated him and flowed into his conversation. He could be noble and magnanimous. Who else, after he had been cheered by crowds in Whitehall on the night the war with Germany ended, would have told them that “a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgement and our mercy…”3 ? In that word “mercy,” Shakespeare’s most prized virtue,4 lies his greatness.

This Issue

May 6, 1999