The granddaughter of an earl endures a turbulent childhood and considers pursuing a career before marrying a rough-around-the-edges aspiring politician. With him, she experiences a life of the highest highs and the lowest lows. They experience financial difficulties, the loss of a child, his waxing and waning political prospects, two world wars, and the heartache that their troubled children brought upon them in their later years.
Here, Clementine Churchill receives her long overdue acknowledgement. It’s a puzzling, sad, complicated story, however. Clementine’s life is not a happy one, but readers will find it a supremely interesting one. Alternately touching and shocking, Winston and Clementine’s marriage was not unlike a roller coaster ride. Driven apart by his detachment to everything but his job, his reckless spending, his indulgent laissez-faire handling of their wayward children, and his lack of sympathy for her feminist sensibilities, they nonetheless provided a united front when it mattered. She was unquestioningly devoted to his public perception, his legacy, and his career. Their marriage was a strange sort of co-dependency: he needed her for constant, unquestioning reassurance, “safety”, and emotional support. She needed him to feel involved, useful, and important. Her deft handling of one of the most powerful men in the world showed great restraint, insight, and patience as she did it successfully, always in the background and always quite persuasively.
Winston’s dogged determination wore thin in peace time but was just the thing to lead the Brits through the dark days of war. Clementine was doggedly determined too – to make the best of a terribly difficult situation, she threw her support behind him each and every time it was requested. While he handled the country, she handled him, advising him, smoothing over his rough edges, and even calling him to heel if he let his temper get the best of him. Even Clementine’s detractors eventually admitted to her strong organizational and leadership qualities. Her ambition and loyalty for Britain was so absolute that she even facilitated an affair between her son’s wife (Pamela Digby Churchill) and an American liaison, Mr. Harrison, in the hopes that the information Pamela secured as well as the influence she wielded over her paramour might prod America to join the war effort. Pamela did indeed become a key source of information that the Churchills actively exploited, much to their son’s lasting resentment.
Clementine herself paid a high price for her behind-the-scenes work, however. Prone to nervous exhaustion, depression, and chronic nerve pain, Clementine’s frequent solo trips abroad were the only thing that helped her maintain her sanity. Unfortunately, her prolonged absences from her children throughout their growing up years meant that she was a distant, often uninterested mother, who always put her husband’s needs (and her own) well before theirs. That maternal detachment haunted Clementine in no small way when she outlived all but two of her children: one child died in childhood, one committed suicide, and two drank themselves into an early grave. Her youngest child, Mary Soames, was the only one to ever have what could be considered a close relationship with her mother.
The author works hard to give Clementine all the credit she deserves. My only regret is that a short epilogue is all that is devoted to Clementine’s post-Winston life. The contrast between the Roosevelt marriage and the Churchill marriage is especially intriguing. A mixture of inspiration, sadness, and inexplicability – the story of Winston’s lionness is a remarkable tale indeed.
Amazon link is here.