February 11, 2015

Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014

Page 24

By John G. Plumton

A Daughter’s Tale: The Memoir of Winston Churchill’s Youngest Child. Doubleday / Random House, 2011, 352 pages.

Randolph Churchill is said to have regretted -the difficulty of acorns surviving in the shade of a great oak. Yet in some cases acorns thrive, and fall not far from the parent. One example was Mary Churchill, later Lady Soames, whose personal story was wonderfully told in her long-awaited autobiography.

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Here she recounts the rapid-fire events of her first twenty-five years, culminating in her marriage to Christopher Soames in 1947. She was born at the same time as her father purchased Chartwell, a house she has treasured all of her life. Her book brings Chartwell alive as a home better than any guidebook.

She opens with a poignant account of the sad death of Marigold Churchill, the beloved “Duckadilly.” A year later Mary arrived: “Perhaps I was, for my parents, the child of consolation.” We meet Maryott White (“Cousin Moppet” or “Nana”), her mother’s cousin and Mary’s godmother, nanny and lifelong friend. With her parents often in London and abroad, “Nana in all matters ruled my existence—always loving and always there.”

Nana introduced the precocious child to the joys of literature: a passion that has remained throughout her life. Lady Soames recalls being enthralled by Black Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beatrix Potter. She was spellbound by her father’s recitals of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. A treasured possession was a gift from her sister Sarah, “a lovely green leather-bound copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, much faded now.” Her love of literature expanded to the theatre, and there is a litany of the great plays of the 1930s and 1940s that she enjoyed.

Mary grew up in an adult world and her memoirs are full of insight: “I loved my parents unquestionably and my mother I held in considerable awe. I thought her very beautiful, sought to please her, and greatly feared her displeasure….My relationship with my father was altogether much easier—it just seemed to happen. Of course, he did not have to deal with the small print of my life or wrestle with my shortcomings in the same way as my mother.”

Her siblings were all very different: “Randolph was too distant from me in age to be part of my scheme of things….Diana was benevolent towards me but was chiefly London-based, coming down to Chartwell on weekends. Sarah was my childhood heroine and my greatest friend.”

Winston’s circle included Professor Lindemann, Eddie Marsh, Alfred Duff Cooper, Bernard Baruch, Lawrence of Arabia (“I liked him very much and noticed his piercing blue eyes and intense manner”) and Lloyd George (“I was strongly and immediately struck by the great man’s white locks, his animation and his celebrated Celtic charm”).

World War II, her formative influence, takes up half of the book. She began the war living at Chequers, an 18-year-old with the Women’s Voluntary Service, which she joined in 1940. The next year she joined the Army’s Auxilliary Territorial Service as a “gunner girl.” She traces her career from training centres to command of an anti-aircraft battery, and as aide-de-camp to her father on trips to the summits at Quebec and Potsdam.

Young Mary lived a very eclectic wartime life, enduring the privations of ordinary soldiers, while staying betimes with her parents at Chequers and No. 10 Annexe, the above-ground rooms where her father spent most of his time in London. She had an active social life. Like most of her peers, she enjoyed being “footloose and fancy-free and very much on the look-out for romance.” She declined two marriage proposals—actually three because the eventual winner, Christopher Soames, had to propose twice.

Her portraits of VIPs are fascinating: Harry Hopkins (“at first a somewhat dour impression from which soon emerged great personal charm”); Jan Smuts (“calm demeanour and wise judgment”); Charles de Gaulle (“a stern, direct giant. We all thought him very fine”); Mackenzie King (“very nice but a bit of a maiden aunt”); Franklin Roosevelt (“most kind, charming and entertaining”); Louis Mountbatten (“good-looking and most affable. Sarah and I fell for him in a big way.”); In 1945 she wrote her mother of Sir Harold Alexander: “The person I’ve really lost my heart to is Alex—who is definitely my fav’rite Field Marshal. He is one of the few people I fell for at the age of 17 who has stood the stern test of time.”

Even at a young age, Lady Soames had an eye for detail and character analysis. There are moving descriptions of the loss of family and friends during the war, and accounts of “tensions and difficulties on the family front,” even as great events unfolded. We are reminded throughout the book that the Churchills were a very human family in ways that historians are unable to capture.

Although there is a bibliography, the major source is the diary the author has kept for most of her life. Assuredly it is one of the great documents of history, which some day may be a major resource for historians. In the meantime, A Daughter’s Tale is a most illuminating portrait of the early life of a remarkable woman who truly was a worthy offspring of Winston.

Mr. Plumpton is a former president of The Churchill Centre, a senior editor of Finest Hour, and a contributor for thirty years. This review is reprinted from FH 153, Winter 2011-12

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