May 21, 2015

Reviewed for The Churchill Centre by ANNE SEBBA

First Lady djIn the winter of 1940-1941, shortly after the British had sunk the French fleet off Mers-el-Kebir, the newly exiled leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle, was a lunch guest at Downing Street. When the subject arose of how to prevent the remaining French fleet from falling into German hands, Clementine Churchill said she hoped it would support the British effort to defeat the Nazis whereupon de Gaulle replied that it would give the French more satisfaction to turn their guns on the British. Clementine was outraged and said so and although Winston tried, diplomatically, to smooth over the outburst, she was not placated.

“Winston, it’s not that at all,” she continued in her impeccable French. “There are certain things that a woman can say to a man which a man cannot say and I am saying them to you, General de Gaulle.” The Frenchman apologised and the following day sent his hostess a large bouquet of flowers.

This exchange, well into the latter half of their marriage, is a powerful example of Clementine’s earnest intelligence and noble sentiment, qualities which earned her Winston’s respect in the first place even though her liberal political views, especially on women’s suffrage, were often at odds with her husband’s. Once she had overcome (more or less) the shyness and insecurity of her early years, she was the one person able to reprimand Winston—and she was not afraid to do so, forcefully on occasions, as well as offering him the help, advice, support, and love that he craved. He was constantly demanding all of those, and she gave of herself unstintingly. Sex, although “a serious and delightful occupation,” (as Winston told his mother-in-law on their honeymoon), does not appear to have been a driving force for either of them although they quickly produced five children.

Sonia Purnell has written a highly readable, well researched, and insightful biography of a beautiful woman born into a rackety aristocratic family with no money, who never knew her own father and was terrified of the man she thought was her father. She suffered tragedy and hardship at a young age but quickly developed resilience, sympathy for those less fortunate, and an ability to earn her own living (rare for a girl of her class then) as well as a lifelong terror of running out of money.

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In 1908, when she married Winston he was already a well-known politician, ten years older than her, who, she was soon to discover was constantly overspending. In addition, he suffered bouts of depression, and for much of their married life experienced the pain of political isolation and unpopularity.

In painting a portrait of a highly unusual marriage, where the stresses and tensions threatened to snap on several occasions, Purnell excels. She does not shy away from revealing instances when both plates and tantrums were thrown and details several explosive occasions which ended with Winston apologising to Clemmie, (the name reserved only for intimates), especially if he overstepped the mark in ordering her about. “I should like you to make the seeing of my friends a regular business,” he once told her. At other times he risked making grave errors of judgement in his behaviour, avoided thanks to her advice.

In 1943, when Winston was away in Carthage seriously ill with pneumonia and a fibrillating heart, an exhausted Clementine, travelling in an unheated Liberator bomber one foggy January night, agreed to fly out to see him—a visit which had a most extraordinary effect in making the 69 year old patient swiftly recover. With Clementine on hand to provide the kind of food he liked, Winston was soon able to work, directing operations from his bed. As Mary, fortifying her mother, told her: “despite all his difficulties—his overbearing—exhausting temperament—he does love you and needs you so much.”

Sometimes living with Winston was just too difficult and, sporadically, Clementine took herself off and was away for weeks at a time. In 1935 a recuperative cruise resulted in a love affair, probably unconsummated, with a handsome art expert called Terence Philip, an episode which threatened the family equilibrium. By pointing out how different was the marriage of US President Franklin Roosevelt, who often ignored his wife Eleanor while a former lover, Lucy Mercer, was regularly on hand, Purnell shows that in spite of his often exasperating egotism, Winston was transparently honest in his love for Clementine. “I tell Clemmie everything,” he proudly boasted to Roosevelt.

Like any good biographer, Purnell is properly partisan in her responsibility to her subject, promoting her, bringing her out from the shadows and seeing events from her subject’s viewpoint. As the biographer of her mother-in-law, Jennie Churchill, however, I feel bound to say this could be at Jennie’s expense in particular following the catastrophe at Gallipoli when, although Clementine was quietly supportive, it was Jennie who reacting with fury on her son’s behalf, motored down to see him in the country to bolster his self-belief and introduced him to influential journalists for his version of events. The two women were very different, and although Clementine came to admire Jennie’s courage in adversity, in the early years she found her extravagant, interfering and overbearing.

This is an immensely enjoyable and deeply researched account of a woman who failed dismally as a mother (other than with her last born child, Mary) but who succeeded spectacularly with her main project in life, nurturing Winston in order that he became the great wartime leader both she and Jennie (who died long before in 1921) knew he could be. Once, when Winston’s doctor, Lord Moran, shared with Clementine the seriousness of his patient’s heart condition, exacerbated by the long distance flying necessary for him during the War, she decided not to share these worries with Winston so that he was able to continue putting country above personal safety. Keeping silent was, Purnell argues, Clementine’s most decisive and courageous action of the war.

Anne Sebba is the author of American Jennie, The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill (2008) and is currently writing Les Parisiennes: How Women Lived, Loved and Died in Paris from 1939-49 for publication in 2016.

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