Lady Soames, Patron of the Churchill Societies, is Sir Winston and Lady Churchill’s only surviving child and her mother’s biographer. Naim Attallah talked to her about life with them and sought her views on the current reevaluation of her father’s legacy.
Published by kind permission of Sarah Wasley and Quartet Books Ltd., London.
Finest Hour Issue 91, Summer 1996.
NAIM AITALLAH: When writing about your childhood you say that although elements of anxiety, sorrow and disappointment began to appear as the years went by, in your own recollection it is the happiness which pre dominates. Is that in effect a tribute to your parents, who helped shield you from the darker side of life?
LADY SOAMES: I wrote those lines after describing life at Chartwell and the wonderful Christmases we had there. As life went on and I became a teenager I began to know that life wasn’t a garden of Eden, and it was disquieting to me because of my idyllic childhood at Chartwell. The first time I saw my mother cry was one of the most traumatic moments of my young life. I had very rarely seen grown-ups cry and to see this beautiful woman, whom I loved and admired and also rather feared, weeping and completely disintegrated with grief was a terrible shock to me. I saw my parents a lot because we children were never kept away in the nursery wing, and also I was very much the Benjamin, so I strayed around all over the house and never felt I was excluded from my parents’ life when they were at Chartwell.
Although your mother was devoted and conscientious, there was never any doubt that Winston came first. You seem not to have had any sense of grievance about this. Did you come to mind it later?
Not at all. We all felt that our parents had other very important things to do. I never felt neglected emotionally or in any other way by them. It was in my mother’s nature to be dedicated, and it was true also of my father, luckily for him and perhaps for the world as well. However, much later, when I knew my husband Christopher was going into politics, I took a vow in my heart that I would try to give my children a greater priority than perhaps we had with my mother. But I think it very important in this context to remember that when my mother was bringing up her children it wasn’t a mark of bad mothering to have nurses and governesses; it was part of the way of life in that stratum of society. I certainly never regarded her as a bad mother.
Was your mother difficult in her relationships with people generally?
She was a very complex and emotionally charged character, but she wasn’t difficult all the time. She had enormously high standards which she imposed with varying degrees of success on her children but she was also very hard on herself. She adored my father, was completely absorbed in his life, and involved in his politics and she felt it all with every fibre of her being. But she was undoubtedly a highly strung animal.
But did she clash with your father because of that?
Yes. Perhaps history would have been different if my father had married a docile yes-woman; he might have had an easier time at home. But my mother had the will and the capacity to stand up to my father, to confront him and to argue with him, and the fact that she had that capacity is more important than whether she was always right. I don’t think she was always right, but she took a passionate interest in his political life, and there’s no doubt that sometimes her judgments about his friends were truer than his. I’ve always thought my father married an equal in temperament and in spirit.
You refer in your book to what you call ‘slaps at Winston’s departed greatness.’ What did you have in mind?
I suppose I was thinking of how much I minded that in quieter times, people took slaps at my father. But I’ve been brought up in a rough political school, so one accepts that that must be so. No true historian of the war is guilty of unjust or ill-informed criticism, but people who write meretricious histories are being tremendously wise after the event. They assume that we knew that we were going to win. But when you lived through it at the side of people like my father who were so deeply involved in it, the uncertainties were enormous. I feel that people very often don’t understand how much the war was lived step-by-step and day-by-day.
Did your father ever despair?
A lot has been made of the depressive side of his character by psychiatrists who were never in the same room with him. He himself talks of his black dog, and he did have times of great depression, but marriage to my mother very largely kennelled the black dog. Of course, if you have a black dog it lurks somewhere in your nature and you never quite banish it; but I never saw him disarmed by depression. I’m not talking about the depression of his much later years, because surely that is a sad feature of old age which afflicts a great many people who have led a very active life.
Was he dictatorial?
No. He had a greater measure of power than any leader in democratic times in our country, but you must remember that every Tuesday when he was in this country and the House was sitting, he answered questions in the House of Commons. He always regarded himself as a servant of Parliament, and I don’t think there is a recorded instance of his having gone against the decisions of the joint chiefs of staff. Of course, he would argue his corner but it’s not true to say he always got his way; he didn’t, and sometimes it made him very cross. Sometimes he even acknowledged they were right. Several times during the war he pressed some thing to a vote of confidence which people found rather tiresome because of course he would always get the vote of confidence, but he wished to demonstrate to the world that this was a war waged by a democratic country, and that he was empowered by the democratic vote even at the height of the war.
Tell me how you first fell in love with Christopher Soames.
It wasn’t love at first sight on my side, I have to say, but we met for the very first time in the British Embassy in Paris where, years and years later, he was to be ambassador and that was rather romantic. The U.S. Secretary of State was going to be in Paris and my father wanted to see him. We both flew to Paris for twenty-four hours, and in those twenty-four hours I met Christopher Soames. I think he fell in love with me straight away, and I did quite quickly after that, but the first time I really thought he had other fish to fry.
Did you have other fish to fry?
No. I was rather unhappy when I came out of the army. I’d had an interesting, exciting war as the equivalent of a captain. I’d served in mixed anti-air craft batteries, and inasmuch as it was possible then for women in England I’d been in action against the enemy. In some ways one felt sparkling and confident and yet in other ways not. I hadn’t been in my own world for five years, and most of my friends were either dead or still in the army or abroad. I found it quite difficult to reestablish life at home and I wasn’t very happy. My father was enormously famous, and I was made much of and had a lovely time wherever I went with him; but my own personal life wasn’t very satisfactory. Then, within a year of being demolished, suddenly wonderful Christopher Soames appeared on the horizon and, like my parents, I married and lived happily ever afterwards.
As Parliamentary Private Secretary to your father, Christopher Soames was a key figure, particularly when your father suffered a stroke and was scarcely functioning. How was it possible to keep this from the public and keep things running smoothly?
That’s really an extraordinary episode, and the more I look back on it, the more extraordinary I think it is. Again fate steps in. My father sustained the stroke in the evening at a dinner party in Downing Street, having earlier presided at a Cabinet meeting. Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler and several others were absolutely amazed afterwards when they learned of the extent of the stroke. They all said that Winston was rather silent and looked pale but none of them at the time noticed anything seriously amiss. By the morning Lord Moran [his doctor] had diagnosed a stroke and my father headed for Chartwell, having walked to the car from Number Ten. When he got to Chartwell, which was an hour’s drive away, he couldn’t get out of the car, and had to be carried inside. So it was only then that the worst effects of the stroke became obvious, and at Chartwell he was kept absolutely incommunicado. That week end Lord Moran told Christopher that he thought my father was going to die. Christopher didn’t tell me that, but I knew he was very ill. He was there for six weeks and somehow — it couldn’t happen now — Christopher and John Colville [Churchill’s private secretary] between them kept the machine turning over. Julian Amery is very naughty about it: he always says that Christopher was Prime Minister, but it isn’t true that Christopher ever said that or ever felt that he was.
What did you think of de Gaulle?
I admired him enormously: to me he represented, as he did to my father, whatever their differences and quarrels, resurgent France, the soul of France. I was also much alarmed by him, but he was very civil and kind to me. The only time I really had a conversation with him was at luncheon in the Elysee, when I sat next to him shaking with nerves. He was not an easily approach able person and we had an extraordinary conversation. He asked me, ‘Quefaites-vous d Paris, madame?’ and so I panicked and I said, ‘fe promene mes chiens, Monsieur le President.’ Instead of putting me down for giving an absolutely asinine answer to his question, he became very interested. He wanted to know what dogs I had and where I walked them and then suggested I take them to the Ile de Cygnes, which is a little island in the middle of the Seine. He drew it for me on the menu, and thereafter I always used to walk my dogs on the Ile de Cygnes with grateful thoughts to the General.
Did you warm to him?
I never had much time to, but I think one could have done. He was very fond of my mother, ever since the time when she flew at him for making a very anti-British remark. My father had missed it because he was at the other end of the table, and any how Papa ‘s French wasn’t very good, but when the General insulted the British fleet Mama retaliated in perfect French. The next day there arrived the most enormous arrangement of flowers, and thereafter he respected and liked her very much. For years after my father died he sent my mother a personal letter on the anniversary of his death.
You write of your parents’ relationship, “she was the scabbard to his sword, and she kept it shining!” Do you think that sort of commitment still has a modern application, or is it hopelessly outmoded?
I think it’s a little sad that husband and wife enterprises aren’t any longer thought to be particularly admirable. I’m in rather a muddle about this because I do want women to have careers, yet at the same time I recognise that it is quite difficult for women to have careers and to run families. I sometimes think that women have found liberation but haven’t quite found out how to manage it.
Did your father have time to show you affection when you were young?
Both my parents were enormously affectionate, visibly so, and he was a great hugger, my father, and loved having us around. The stiff upper lip of the British upper class had really no part in our family life; it was something I read about in books. I may have been deeply shocked the first time I saw my mother cry, because that was as a result of a great drama in the family, but I often saw my father weep and it never struck me as odd that a man should express emotion.
What kind of thing made your father cry?
He was moved by events and tragedies, by people behaving nobly, by poetry … I’ve seen him recite Shakespeare and his eyes brimming with tears. He wept easily. He wasn’t ashamed of it.
Were you aware of being set apart from your peers by virtue of your father’s importance, and if so, was that something you found difficult to cope with?
We were all brought up with a great sense of public service. I would have thought it contemptible in me to have wished my parents to be at my school sports day; what did it matter if they saw me coming fourth in the egg and spoon race? When the war broke out and papa took office, my feelings for him as his child became confused and mingled with the feelings I had as an ardent young Englishwoman. My father was the hero of the hour, to whom we all clung. Me too.
For much of the Thirties your father had been in the political wilderness. Them in May 1940 he began his “walk with destiny” for which he considered all his earlier life to have been a preparation. How great a part do you think destiny played in all this?
Destiny played a great part, because when he was a young soldier of fortune and seeking “reputation in the cannon’s mouth,” he could have lost his life on about five or six different occasions. Although my father longed to be in office in the Thirties my mother often said to me that it was a real blessing that he never held office then, because he couldn’t single handedly have turned the tide of appeasement and slow rearmament; he would have been involved in government in a time that came to be regarded, perhaps rather unjustly, as the dark decade when we were purblind. As it was, he was able to start with a clean slate.
Churchill was held in near-veneration during his life time. In more recent times the history books have not been especially kind. How do you respond to criticism of your father’s wartime record?
I try not to mind too much about judgments on public events. I dislike mean judgments and those based on being wise after the event. But of course my father must stand the test of history. He didn’t do everything right or make all the right judgments, but we did manage to win, despite all the mistakes, so I can only imagine the enemy made even more. One must keep these things in perspective, but of course I find it difficult to detach myself entirely, and when it’s a question of personal criticism, I sometimes know his critics are actually wrong.
Do you think your father ever took decisions which were perhaps good for Britain but were rather questionable on moral grounds?
My father would have done almost anything to win the war, and war is a rough business. I daresay he had to do some very rough things, but he wasn’t a man who took these sorts of decisions lightly. All those things weighed with him, but they didn’t unman him.
In the love and devotion between your parents there seem to have been only two ripples: one when your father wrote to Clementine saying that she absolutely had no need to be jealous, we know not of whom; the other when your mother, at the age of 50, fell in love with Terence Philip. I had the impression that you tried to play down the possible significance of this attachment, saying these five months had “the unreality of a dream.”
By that time, I was old enough to want to understand and I wrote what I believe to be the truth about that relationship. I truly believe it had the air of unreality about it; it was a holiday romance, and she came back to base. She certainly didn’t seek it, and he himself was, I believe, quite lukewarm. How much do you tell your children about a relationship you have had with a man who wasn’t their father? I asked her, “Mama, were you ever in love with him?” and she said, “Well, I was rather in love with him, for a time, and he wanted me to be.” But it wasn’t a commitment, it wasn’t planned and plotted, by which I mean she didn’t go on the cruise to meet Terence Philip. But when she came back she brought a little dove with her; it lived for two or three years and is buried under the sundial in the Garden at Chartwell, and round the base my mother had engraved the words: “It does not do to wander too far from sober men, but there’s an island yonder, I think of it again.”
Is fidelity always important in marriage, or can some marriages rise above it?
I’m sure some marriages can rise above it, and I’m very sorry whenever I see that lack of fidelity has caused a marriage to crash to the ground. Fidelity seems to me to be a very important ingredient in marriage: it’s part of the commitment, but equally I think it’s in certain people not to be able to be faithful, and one must hope then that they are married to partners who can sustain that. For my own part, I would have hoped not to know about it; and if I had, I would have hoped to keep it in proportion.
You must sometimes have had the feeling, particularly when your father died, that he somehow belonged as much to the British people as to your own family. Did that help ease the loss, or did it sharpen its poignancy?
When my father died it was a great loss, but also for him it was such a release. Life had become a burden, and it would have been a selfish person who would have wanted him to linger after all he had done in life. It was time, it was time.
You have sometimes joked that you feel like the last of the Mohicans. Am l right in thinking a certain sorrow infuses the jocularity?
Yes. One’s alone in the little shelf of one’s generation. I miss Sarah [her sister] particularly; she was the closest to me, and when she died, it was awful. We were great friends, and she was my heroine. I miss her very much. But anybody who lives beyond 70 or so is in the foothills of old age, and you can’t arrive there without suffering anything.