When you are married to a legend, you get short shrift in the great one’s biography. And if that legend is Winston Churchill, you are truly an afterthought. While there are scores of Churchill biographies, there are precious few Mrs. Churchill biographies.
In this excellent and long-overdue biography, author Sonia Purnell paints a vivid portrait of Clementine (rhyming with mean, not mine) and her influential position as Winston’s closet confidant for fifty-seven years.
The Churchill marriage revolved exclusively around Winston, his career, his ambitions, and his comforts. Churchill worked 24 hours a day and expected Clementine to keep up.
Churchill especially enjoyed conducting business over meals at home. Over the years, Clementine hosted, cosseted, and sometimes argued with a wide array of world leaders, cabinet members, military leaders, diplomats, and business tycoons. On any topic or decision, Clementine was as well-briefed as Churchill. Although Churchill expected her to uniformly support his positions, she didn’t always, and he was (mostly) gracious if she turned out to be right.
In addition to supporting Churchill’s regal professional ambitions, Clementine also managed a sizeable household. Since the Churchill’s were chronically short of money, this was a challenge. Born at Blenheim Palace, Churchill was an unapologetic aristocrat. As F.E. Smith once put it, “Churchill was easily satisfied with the best.”
Organizing a household around Churchill’s many eccentric and demanding personal routines was a full time job. A simple matter of bathing was more complicated than a train schedule.
“Winston took a bath twice a day, poured exactly at midday and again at seven p.m. by his valet. The bath had to be two-thirds full and heated to precisely 98 degrees Fahrenheit, rising to 104 degrees once he had plunged in. He ordered the overflow to be blocked up as he did not like to lose water but was fond of somersaulting in the tub–an alarming maneuver that caused gallons of displaced water to seep down onto the coats of visitors in the cloakroom below.”
A shortage of funds meant the Churchill’s moved frequently, and Clementine was responsible for re-establishing the laborious household routines over and over again. (And often asking her friend Lord Beaverbrook to pay the back rent.)
With such an exhausting spouse, Clementine had little time for anyone else especially her children. As daughter Mary said,
“Father always came First, Second and Third.”
Not that Clementine had a proper maternal role model. Her mother Lady Blanche, an impoverished Scottish aristocrat, divorced her husband Colonel Hozier when Clementine was a child, launching Clementine and her siblings into a peripatetic and penurious life.
Colonel Hozier had good reason for divorcing Lady Blanche. It is now thought that none of Lady Blanche’s four children were Hozier’s. Although this was not widely discussed during Clementine’s life, Lady Blanche was famously indiscreet which prompted plenty of gossip about Clementine’s paternity.
Unsurprisingly the Churchill children were a disappointment, with the exception of the youngest, Mary, who was mostly raised by an excellent nanny. Alcoholism, depression, and multiple marriages (eight between them) feature in all of their lives.
Winston however triumphs with Clementine as his partner. Which leads one to the question, would Winston have been Winston without Clementine? After reading this fascinating biography, I think not.
What Other Reviewers Think
Lynne Olson, author of Citizens of London.
“In this wonderful book Sonia Purnell has at long last given Clementine Churchill the biography she deserves. Sensitive yet clear-eyed, Clementine tells the fascinating story of a complex woman struggling to maintain her own identity while serving as the conscience and principal advisor to one of the most important figures in history. Purnell succeeds brilliantly at an almost impossible task: providing fresh and thought-provoking insights into Winston Churchill in the course of examining his complicated marriage.”
Who Wrote It?
Sonia Purnell is a biographer and political commentator who has worked at The Economist, The Telegraph, and Daily Mail. She is the author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition about London Mayor Boris Johnson.