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My Darling Clementine

Review: Sonia Purnell, ‘Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill’

Winston and Clementine Churchill / Wikimedia Commons
• October 31, 2015 5:00 am

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Though there have been numerous multi-volume biographies of Winston Churchill, and whole libraries written about aspects of his career, the lens has much less frequently been focused on his wife, Clementine, despite her great influence on her husband and involvement in his political career.

Sonia Purnell, the author of the new biography on Mrs. Churchill, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, points out the strangeness of her subject matter’s neglect, given the unique role that Clementine played in British government. She was privy to an extraordinary level of political and government operations because of the level of trust and confidence that her husband had in her. This is the first biography of Mrs. Churchill, other than that written by Clementine’s own daughter in 1979. Purnell emphasizes Clementine’s devotion to Winston’s career as a politician and her own unprecedented involvement, as the wife of the prime minister, in the running of the country, something that has not happened since.

Despite noting Clementine’s neglect in the biographies of her husband, the author tells Clementine’s story by tracking Winston’s career. This she does from necessity because Clementine explicitly devoted her life to her husband’s political ambitions. She not only found meaning in her life via her assistance in his career, but she also thrived off of being right in the mix of things. She found her spirits dampened in the years when she and Winston were out of the limelight. While in the country in the months following the birth of her first child, Diana, Clementine wrote to Winston: "My sweet Pug, I feel imprisoned here. I love to be in the thick of it with you."

Clementine’s absence in history books is all the more egregious given her intimate knowledge of all affairs of state. She was privy to the most top-secret information during both world wars, including the disastrous Dardanelles campaign and the invasion of Normandy. She accompanied him in inspections of garrisons and seaside town defenses, and was with him at the RAF fighter command center at Uxbridge during a key moment in the Battle of Britain in 1940. She was also regularly present in high-level meetings throughout Winston’s career. Not only did Winston trust her completely, but he also relied on her opinion and counsel. In their letters and telegraphs we see that she often advised him politically and edited, perhaps even wrote, his public speeches. From time to time she delivered them herself when he was unable to.

She was opinionated, and unafraid to express her disapproval with Winston as well as with high-ranking acquaintances (including Lord Asquith). She was known for her explosive temper that often got the better of her, although the author suggests that she was equally hard on herself. Clementine was the only person who could disagree with Winston without fear of his own legendary temper. His aides and other ministers were afraid to contradict him or challenge his plans and policies. However, Clementine, because she was so committed to him succeeding politically, would tell him harsh truths that she felt he needed to hear. She often did so strategically so that he would be likely to acquiesce.

From early in their marriage she found politics highly absorbing and discovered she had a kind of preternatural instinct for it. Concerning British politics Purnell writes that Clementine "developed an astute judgment of the characters involved, the goals that were achievable and the dangers to be anticipated." She particularly encouraged Winston to inspire those around him to trust him rather than intimidating them into going along with his plans. In one letter in 1940 she warned him of the "danger" of being "disliked" because of his "rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner," and advised that he would not get the best results from "irascibility and rudeness," signing the letter "your loving, devoted and watchful Clemmie."

After the catastrophic Dardanelles campaign in WWI, for which Winston was pinned with responsibility, he left to fight in France in an effort to revive his image. While there he was lured with the temptation of being given command of a brigade without earning the position. Clementine was desperate that he not do so: "I hope so much my Darling that you may still decide to take a battalion first…I prefer you to win your way than to be thought a favorite [of Field Marshal French]. I feel confident in your star." After being denied the favor by Asquith, Winston was furious and expressed a desire to sever all connections with him. It was Clementine who urged him not to "burn any boats!"

At times, however, Clementine exhausted at giving endless advice against which he would often rail, once writing "You must not beat your poor Kat so hard; it is very cruel & not the right treatment for mousers. I am absolutely worn out tonight." In response, he relented, expressing how much he depends on and admires her: "[T]he beauty & strength of your character & the sagacity of your judgment are more realized by me every day…[My] greatest good fortune in a life of brilliant experience has been to find you, & to lead my life with you…I feel that the nearer I get to honour, the nearer I am to you."

Winston also relied heavily on Clementine in his private life. He looked to her to make life comfortable and run smoothly. He was raised in wealth and was used to certain luxuries, notwithstanding the financial uncertainty that followed them for much of their lives. His insistence on comfort and luxury despite the cost often caused tension between them. He would flout their financial concerns in the name of some comfort or other, while Clementine was haunted by the financial woes of her own childhood. One particularly amusing example was his insistence, despite the inconvenience both in cost and practicality, on having the bathtub in their country home, Chartwell (a house that he bought without consulting her first), filled twice daily. He would then proceed to do somersaults in it, causing gallons of water to spill over the side, and leak into the cloakroom below.

Winston found Clementine’s presence a comfort to him, and was calmer when she was near. He experienced occasional bouts of depression, known in the family as the "Black Dog." These were brought about sometimes by the weight of deciding the fates of many men and women, sometimes by feelings of obsolescence in the inter-war period. He confided in his doctor, Lord Moran, that talking to Clementine was one of his solaces during these times. Clementine had, what Violet Asquith, who had been heartbroken when Winston married Clementine, later called a "private line" to Winston. She noted that it seemed as though only Clementine could "reach him with comfort & amusement."

Clementine and Winston’s correspondences also reveal a playful side of their relationship. They had a humorous way of using nicknames for one another as well as others. She called him "pug" while he called her "pussy cat". They had a general habit of referring to all other women as "cats." In response to a letter from Clementine expressing jealousy of another woman (she was insecure of his many female friends early in their marriage because of her own notorious philandering father) Winston wrote that he had "not spoken to a single cat of any sort except [his] mother!!!!!" Their daughter Diana was called the "gold-cream kitten" while their spoiled and forever problematic son Randolph was referred to as "the Chumbolly."

Although much of Clementine’s life was devoted to Winston’s career, she accomplished much in her own right. During WWI, she organized the effort to encourage women to work in factories manufacturing gas masks to be used on the front. She took charge of several canteens for munitions workers who were working around the clock to avoid shortages. During WWII, she volunteered for the dangerous job of sitting watch on rooftops for the fire department during air raids in order to set a good example. She was a woman of the people, full of empathy and insight into the needs of the public (yet another way she helped Winston’s career). The US ambassador Gil Winant toured devastated parts of London with Clementine during the Blitz and was struck by how her presence inspired and encouraged the people there, particularly women in their middle age. It was Clementine who organized the Red Cross effort to provide medical support to the decimated Russians in 1941. She started the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, raising several million pounds over the course of the war. She was honored in 1945 with an invitation from the Soviet Red Cross to visit Russia, receiving a Soviet Red Cross Distinguished Service Medal. Stalin himself thanked her in person for her work in providing aid to Russians during the war.

The author makes excellent use of hundreds of communications between Clementine and Winston. There was such an abundance of these because the two were often apart. Winston’s emotional and material neediness often exhausted Clementine who found respite in taking long vacations by the shore in England and in France, or aboard cruises. She would come back refreshed, but only for so long. She suffered from chronic nervousness and depression, a malady that receded when she was away from Winston. However, despite the toll it took on her nerves, she was happiest when she was with him: planning and strategizing, giving carefully planned dinners to solidify political alliances, visiting with politicians and their wives on Winston’s behalf when he was fighting during WWI, and advising him on all matters.

This biography, although meant to introduce Clementine Churchill to the world, also reveals another side of Winston that is usually not discussed. Purnell shows us what he was like in their private life. He could be quirky and endearing; he could also be grumpy, irrational, and above all selfish. Although interesting to see another side of this great man, Purnell seems occasionally to suggest that he was a hot-headed bumbler who just barely managed to become prime minister, and only did so thanks to Clementine’s role as his adviser.

Nevertheless, Purnell paints a brilliant portrait of a woman whose life was intertwined with so much of the fate of the 20th century, and about whom too little has been written. Purnell’s fastidious research, drawing upon references to Clementine in the letters and diaries of various aides, state diplomats, and friends who were privy to her and Winston’s lives both in public and at home, lifts some of the mystery and allows us to recognize what a fascinating woman her subject was.

Published under: Book reviews