February 11, 2015

Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014

Page 23

By Paul Addison

Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill. London and Boston 1999, 702 pages.

In the fifty-six years of married life Winston and Clementine Churchill were often apart, Winston often in search of action and adventure. Clementine too was affected by wanderlust, and sometimes set off for distant parts, leaving Winston at home. In 1935 she sailed away for a three-month cruise to the Far East. VE-Day found her in Moscow at the end of a tour of the Soviet Union. Whenever apart they exchanged long letters, supplemented by occasional notes and telegrams. Hence this remarkable edition of 800 exchanges out of some 2000 between them, which opens with a letter from Mr. Winston Churchill to Miss Clementine Hozier on 16 April 1908, and closes with a note from Clemmie to Winston on 18 April 1964.

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Mary Soames is a fine editor. Her unrivalled knowledge of the subject is complemented by literary and historical skills which are gracefully worn but highly professional. Through footnotes linking passages and biographical notes she dispenses just the right amount of background information.

As she explains in the Preface, many of the letters have been published before, Clemmie’s in Lady Soames’s own life of her mother, Winston’s in the official biography. Nevertheless there is little sense of déjà vu. In bringing together both sides of the correspondence and eliminating everything else, she reveals as never before the inside story of a marriage that was a great political partnership.

It was, of course, a marriage of its time. At the wedding Clemmie promised to love, honour and obey. Capable and intelligent, a strong supporter of female suffrage, she sacrificed much of her own potential for a husband who never sought to disguise his egotism or his absorption in the masculine world of politics. Yet the marriage worked for a simple reason, tenderly and movingly expressed in their letters. Winston and Clemmie married for love and the passing of time served only to strengthen the bonds between them.

When Winston began to court the beautiful Miss Hozier in 1908, he was backward with the opposite sex. In one of his earliest letters to Clemmie he wrote of his cousin Sunny: “He is quite different from me, understanding women thoroughly, getting into touch with them at once, & absolutely dependent on feminine influence of some kind for the peace & harmony of his soul. Whereas I am stupid & clumsy in that relation, & naturally quite self-reliant and self-contained.”

The letters between them in the aftermath of Gallipoli, when Winston was in the trenches on the verge of despair and she was at home fearing he would be killed, display the devotion which enabled them to ride out storms. “We are still young,” Clemmie writes, “but Time flies stealing love away and leaving only friendship which is very peaceful but not stimulating or warming.” “Oh my darling,” Winston replies, “do not speak of ‘friendship’ to me—I love you more with each month that passes.”

Winston and Clementine wrote for one another’s eyes only, dashing off lively, spontaneous accounts of children, friends, relations, births, weddings, funerals, anxieties about money and health. It is fascinating to see great historical events in the sub-plot of a family history. Mussolini, for example, turns up as a most charming guest at a tea party during a holiday visit by Clemmie to Rome.

Readers are bound to be struck by the fact that Winston and Clemmie took so many holidays apart, yet wrote frequently to explain how much they missed one another. Here perhaps, was one of the secrets of a long and happy marriage: they didn’t see too much of each other, allowed absence to make the heart grow fonder.

Clemmie was Winston’s loyal supporter, never losing faith in his genius or sincerity. But she was a shrewd observer of politics and acutely aware of the reasons why he sometimes aroused hostility and mistrust. Within a few weeks of his appointment as Prime Minister in 1940 she wrote to warn him “that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic and overbearing manner….you won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness.”

The idea that Churchill had no existence outside politics is a myth. Here we see him as a husband, father, friend, host, author, painter, bricklayer, film fan, and lover of good food and drink, a man of flesh and blood sharing the joys and tragedies of human life. Even in World War II he somehow found the time to read novels. His letters display a love and concern for his children, and an interest in their fortunes, that few top executives could match today.

The Churchills were both a happy and an unhappy family. Randolph was courageous and brilliant but rash and uncontrollable, a bull in the china shop of his father’s reputation. Sarah had a successful stage career but her emotional instability was a source of great anxiety, her first marriage to an entertainer whom Winston described as “common as dirt.” Diana suffered a failed marriage and a highly-strung disposition and eventually took her own life. Our author, growing up at idyllic Chartwell in a relatively calm time, was a striking exception.

Apart from his marriage, Chartwell was the great turning-point in Churchill’s private life. Although it had its uses as a political headquarters, it really awoke in him an ancestral love of the land. To Clemmie’s dismay, he poured a fortune into rebuilding the house and grounds, and costly experiments in farming. He wrote her more than a hundred “Chartwell Bulletins” full of enthusiastic reports on the creation of waterworks and rockeries and the fortunes of a menagerie of animals and pets. Here too he was a fond parent, building a tree-house for the children; and a benevolent country squire, intervening to assist “Mr. and Mrs. Donkey Jack,” gypsies who lived in a shack on common land. But for World War II, Churchill would have abandoned politics, pulled up the drawbridge, and settled down to the delights of Chartwell. Or would he?

Professor Addison, University of Edinburgh, is author of several fine Churchill biographies including the seminal Churchill on the Home Front (1992). His review is repritned from FH 102, Spring 1999

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