First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

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Without Churchill’s inspiring leadership Britain could not have survived its darkest hour and repelled the Nazi menace. Without his wife Clementine, however, he might never have become Prime Minister. By his own admission, the Second World War would have been ‘impossible without her’.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill brings to life the complex women whose identity has been overshadowed by her husband, Winston Churchill. Commenting that she would have pursued a career in politics had she been ‘born with trousers and not a petticoat’, it was her calming influence, ability to read people and determination that influenced Winston and encouraged him during the murkier times of his political career. As the biography attests (something that is, perhaps, white-washed in history books), he wasn’t always well liked or respected.

Chronicling Clementines life from her eccentric and often impoverished childhood, born to a feckless father and reckless mother, Purnell brings to life the everyday occurrences of her mother Lady Blanche Hozier, namely her affair with a Dieppe fishmonger and how she, the fishmonger and his wife would argue at the fish-stall, causing a scene on the street. Her mother’s gambling and drinking cast a dark shadow over Clementine’s life, and the death of her beautiful sister, Kitty, the eldest of Blanche’s children, marked her for life. She was obsessed with order, everything had to be just so, and if it wasn’t, she became irritated. This obsession with neatness would mark her all her life. Also touched upon was her inferiority complex, beginning in childhood, and how she would have to teach French and take in sewing for pin money. Her rival, Margot Asquith, said she had ‘the soul of a servant’. Adding to this misery, her paternity was questioned, and she herself was never certain who her father was. The Mitford girls’ grandfather, Bertie Redesdale, was said to have been her real father, and Bay Middleton was also a strong contender. Regardless of the adulterous world of the upper-classes, Clementine was the target of gossip and snobbery, and among her contemporaries she was known as ‘the Hozier’. She never got over the shame she felt as a young girl.

Marriage seemed to give Clementine the stability she craved as a child, and having thwarted at least two engagements, she fell in love with Winston, an insecure young man who shared her complexities. She believed he came first, second and third in her life, and demanding so much of her attention, she was happy to leave her children in the care of staff to bolster his ego. The strained relationships with her children, especially as they aged, are touched upon, and stormy encounters with staff are revealed. Although Clementine was praised as having the ‘common touch’, she demanded complete loyalty (she disliked finding and training new staff) and certain standards were to be maintained.

Exploring Winston’s political career, with Clementine at the helm, we learn of a headstrong woman who pushed her husband to excel. On the arm of Winston, especially during wartime, she was instantly recognisable and famous in own right, but her work for the Home Front and the Red Cross (not to mention numerous charity appeals) gave her a singular purpose away from her husband. Even then, at that time, she was overshadowed by him. This battle of the sexes is apparent throughout the book, with Purnell exploring Clementine’s forward-thinking views and her sympathy for the Suffrage movement, even if Winston did not share her views. She knew she was as intelligent as any man in his Cabinet.

Mary Soames, Clementine’s youngest daughter, wrote candidly of her mother’s battle with depression in an age when little was understood about it. Purnell reveals Clementine’s hysterical outbursts, her emotional instability and, at times, her frequent rages toward Winston and her staff. And her physical health, too, was not strong. This, combined with Winston’s experience with the ‘Black Dog’ (as he called his depression), often makes for volatile passages in the book. As well as her health plaguing her, she constantly worried about money and their future together, and after he died, as a widow. I don’t think Clementine ever experienced the stability of a permanent home or being comfortably well-off. Winston’s love of gambling and extravagance contrasted with her frugality, something she was mocked for. As an old lady, she sold her paintings to fund her living expenses, but was embarrassed when pensioners began to send her tea bags because they thought she was ready for the poor house. I enjoyed the tidbits about this so-called gilded life, born into the aristocracy, and yet they were in dire straits. The concluding pages are quite touching as they detail her life without Winston and how she formed relationships with her children, and experienced the sorrow of outliving three of them – Marigold died in infancy, Diana committed suicide and Randolph died of a heart-attack.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating character as equally interesting as her famous husband. Through her meticulous research and sympathetic prose, she brings the allusive woman to life as a dynamic figure at the forefront of twentieth-century politics.

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