CHURCHILL’S HOME FRONT
First Lady – The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill
Sonia Purnell, London: Aurum Press, 2016, pb., 392pps., £9.99
No More Champagne – Churchill and His Money
David Lough, London: Head of Zeus, 2016, hb., 532pps., £25
Winston Churchill is one of the most closely-examined (and lionised) of all politicians, and it is accordingly difficult to think of new angles from which to view him and his legacy. But now here are two original and complementary studies at once, one profiling his wife Clementine, the other examining the impressive public figure through his unimpressive private finances. Both books are not quite the first words on their subjects, but are likely to prove the last, ensconcing themselves in the extensive Churchillian historiography as the go-to texts for future enquirers.
It is strangest there should not previously have been a major biography of Clementine – a charismatic, clever and strong-minded person who, as Sonia Purnell proves easily herein, exerted a salutary and at times world-altering influence over her husband. Churchill’s physician once observed that his eminent patient’s conviction began “in his own bedroom”, and the siren-suited symbol of “standing alone” occasionally referred to Clementine, only half-jokingly, as “She-whose-commands-must-be-obeyed”. Clementine, the author avers, “relentlessly privileged the national interest above her own health, safety and family”, alternating pillow-talk, blazing rows, walk-outs, and creative economising with elegant hospitality, informal diplomacy, proficient public relations, and highly effective charitable works, for which she would be honoured by three British monarchs, and even the Soviet Union. Yet her sway, like that of other powerful women, has gone largely unnoticed, semi-buried amid a welter of family anecdotes, staff reminiscences and political marginalia. She also disliked being interviewed. It took an exceptionally un-boreable seeker after truth (Purnell once authored a book entitled Pedal Power: How Boris Johnson Failed London’s Cyclists) to put together a coherent and convincing narrative from so many scattered sources.
Like Winston, Clementine was the grandchild of an earl (the Earl of Airlie), but she was always a poor relation, her parents moving houses to avoid creditors and reduced at times to making her own clothes. While Winston grew up amid the splendours of Blenheim, his wife-to-be was the
product of a broken home, a suburban grammar school, a lascivious mother and a formative year spent in and around the fish market at Dieppe.
That “fish market” reference may make British readers think disconcertingly of London’s Billingsgate with its proverbially scatological fishwives, but Clementine’s Dieppe was actually an English artistic colony presided over by luminaries like Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert. (She would always be more interested in art than her husband, and later encouraged his painting hobby.) Her nominal father, Sir Henry Montague Hozier, was probably not her biological father, and was in any case autocratic, dour and suspected of finagling, while her mother was often more interested in paramours (sometimes several at a time) than in providing for her offspring. Clementine nevertheless emerged as highly poised and well-educated, and she was greatly admired when she arrived on the London scene, notwithstanding the question marks about her parentage and relative poverty.
Winston clearly liked her athletic looks and quick wit, while she was drawn to his power, as hinted at in a 1919 missive,
You took me from the straitened little by-path I was treading and took me with you into the life & colour & jostle of the high-way.
She and Winston seem also to have been brought together by shared secret knowledge, both having experienced childhood bullying, youthful unpopularity, and neglectful parents. But they nearly never got married, with Winston taking an inordinate time to pop the question; there is a piquant anecdote about the showery day he did ask, the two sheltering in a Grecian folly at Blenheim, Clementine telling herself she would give her suitor as much time to ask as it would take a spider to stalk across the floor. Had that auspicious arachnid scuttled a little more quickly, they might never have combined, and maybe the course of British history would have been quite different.
Despite spending most of their 56 years of marriage living quite separate existences, even when sharing the same roof – or because they did – these two very different personalities remained bound to each other, him calling her “Cat”, her calling him “Pug” in a stream of baby-talking correspondence carried on even as History was hinging. Whatever was happening in the world, and however many enemies he might have at any given time, Churchill could be certain “Clemmie” would fight his corner with energy and intelligence. She became privy to everything that concerned him (excepting his purchase of the money-pit Kentish estate of Chartwell) – his health, his money problems, his electoral prospects, his relations with Asquith, Lloyd George and the Conservatives, the campaign to embroil America in the Old World’s war, the blow-by-blow action of the Battle of Britain, the details of D-Day – and took on countless lesser burdens so he was able to concentrate on what really mattered.
Come whatever did, there were always excellent meals on the table, cigars in his box, brandy and champagne to quaff, clothes laid out, servants to serve, maids and schools for the children, time to write the articles and books that so often staved off bankruptcy. Clementine was almost always available to advise, attend meetings, canvass, network, and pick up his pieces; even his justly celebrated wartime speeches were run past her before delivery, and he would turn to her after broadcasts and ask “Was that all right?”. She may even have saved his life, once grabbing him as he teetered on a platform edge at Bristol station as a train approached – and bolstering him during his blackest period, sacked from the Admiralty after the Dardanelles debacle. He became vastly dependent on her, sometimes climbing into her unmade bed to feel close to her when she was away, or telling her he became “frightened” whenever she was absent. His upbringing in heavily-staffed great houses had made him largely incapable of catering for himself, and encouraged a general insouciance about money; “Clementine struggled to see a way out, Winston simply assumed there would be one”. David Lough leads his book with an 1898 quote from his principal – “The only thing that worries me in life is money” – but apparently Winston did not let this worry get between him and sleep as often as perhaps it should.
There were constant family problems to contend with too; their daughter Marigold died just short of her third birthday, Diana battled with barbiturates and breakdowns (she would kill herself in 1962), Sarah became an alcoholic, and their only son Randolph was a boorish and feckless ingrate. Clementine’s relations with Winston’s mother Jennie were also rivalrous, and Clementine disapproved of Jennie’s bed-hopping (doubtless because of her own mother’s behaviour). This is not even to mention Winston’s manifold shortcomings – his depressions, extravagance (F. E. Smith once remarked that Churchill “was easily satisfied with the best”), garrulity, impatience, lack of political sense, quick temper, and self-absorption that verged sometimes on sociopathy. As an example of this last trait, after his name appeared on an I.R.A. hit list, he barricaded himself away in an attic bedroom with a steel door and brought a gun to bed every night, while the then heavily pregnant Clementine slept in her usual, unsecured, room downstairs. Clementine is thought to have considered divorce several times between the wars, but apart from the practical drawbacks, both kept gravitating back to each other out of what seems to have been psychological necessity, a shared desire for what Purnell calls “comfort and protection”.
She was capable of obnoxiousness in her own right, often being thrown into fury by something as simple as cold soup, or coloured flower arrangements. Their children could never relax with her, feeling obliged to be constantly entertaining in her cold presence (with the partial exception of Mary), while staff sometimes found her terrifying. But maybe the most startling thing we learn about her is how, despite her disapproval of extra-marital sex, she nonetheless facilitated it in the interests of the war effort. She allowed her daughter-in-law Pamela to cuckold Randolph with Averell Harriman and other useful Americans – at best pretending it wasn’t happening, but at times almost encouraging it. She also indulged Sarah’s equally useful extra-marital liaison with U.S. ambassador Gil Winant. She knew Pamela and Sarah were unhappy in their marriages, and sex has always been used as a weapon in matters of state, but still this leaves an aftertaste, this defender of the global high ground behaving just a bit like a Borgia. It does not seem quite to fit with the moral exemplar Pamela remembered as “Presbyterian…a very good woman [who put] morals…above any emotion”. She could also be a terrific snob; while at Chequers, Winston’s private secretary Jock Colville noted,
It amused me mildly that Mrs. C, who does nothing but profess democratic and radical sentiments, should put off inviting any of the officers to dine until the guard consisted of the Coldstream.
After 1945, both Winston and Clementine were as used-up as the country they had so recently commanded, and old problems came flooding back to add to the accumulating ailments of age. Financial worries returned, as England added impecuniousness to ingratitude, and Churchill became an embarrassing Colonel Blimp (David Lough recalls his history teacher telling him in 1964 that Winston was “a romantic old windbag”), his attitudes antediluvian, his postwar administrations exercises in futility, his bank balance still fluctuating. After he died in 1965, she remained loyal to his shade, for the almost-thirteen years left to her preserving his myth, keeping up appearances by sales of effects, taking up a pointless life peerage, growing deaf, striking up confiding conversations with relative strangers and the epically indiscreet Noël Coward – a symbol of an aimless kingdom, living in ever less splendid isolation, trading on the past, with nothing to hope for, a deeply poignant winding-down of an extraordinarily meaningful life.
It is testament to the persistence of the Churchill legend that a major publisher should have thought devoting 532 pages to an in-depth discussion of his finances would be a commercial proposition. Everyone already knows Churchill was a spendthrift, and how many of even the most cultish Churchillians feel a need to know the dismal details of his bank balances, debts, loans, mortgages and sundry outgoings? It would seem a great many, judging from the fact that No More Champagne was listed by the Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Mail and Guardian among their books of 2015. The book is very well-crafted, indeed masterly in its handling of material, as one would expect from a former private banker in possession of a first-class history degree from Oxford. But is that material intrinsically interesting?
The unexpected answer is yes. In a period when we like to whinge about wealth, and demand “transparency” from even the most pathetic of our politicians, it is entertaining to be reminded of Churchill’s conspicuous consumption, gambling, impulse purchases, late bill-paying, speculation, and tax avoidance. His finances have a flamboyant, freewheeling flavour, in keeping with a British tradition of buccaneering capitalism, but very much at odds with today’s prissier priorities. Furthermore, because Churchill’s money problems were akin to those being experienced by many other aristocratic families, his narrow economic history also becomes a national narrative, as landed interests were increasingly superseded by new money deriving from the likes of railways, mining and newspapers. Victorians and Edwardians waxed rich, the Great War wreaked economic havoc to add to the aching loss, the Twenties to Forties were touch-and-go, the Fifties pinched, and much of that time Churchill’s personal surpluses and deficits paralleled those of his beloved, doomed Empire.
Churchill’s political views were also partly formed by financial pressures which brought him into regular contact with and helping him understand the new class of entrepreneurs, some of whom would prove invaluable at times when he might otherwise have gone under. His ease with these, and experience of economic precariousness, also helps accounts for his fractious relations with the Conservative Party, complacent, protectionist, and still largely wedded to the landed order. Lough notes,
A common thread of exceptional risk-taking unites Churchill’s financial dealings and his political career.
There were countervailing pressures too; his need to take on writing commissions and lecture tours simultaneously raised his profile and gave him less time for front-line politics. The author also suggests one of the reasons Churchill would later return to the Conservatives could be that by then he had inherited his great-grandmother’s Irish estate. Churchill’s many adorers also ought to be reminded that their man found time in the war years to better his position, the major debts of 1939 turning into the equivalent of £4 million by 1945.
Through endless telling details, unpromising ledger line by line, Lough draws out subtle private meaning from scrutinised private means, eventually accounting for the statesman in full – colourful but constrained, idealistic but enmeshed, a man always partway between Destiny and his bank manager. As well as being unexpected, No More Champagne is also an understated triumph of the biographer’s art – an acutely English appreciation of a great Englishman present as everything altered, a prisoner of circumstances as much as a shaper of things to come.
This review first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission