Tuesday 27 September 2016

Books: Clemmie Churchill's passions

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, Sonia Purnell, Aurum Press €37.50

Charles Lysaght

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

Dedicated political spouse: Clementine Churchill seen here with Winston Churchill at Epsom races in 1949, often save him from folly. Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dedicated political spouse: Clementine Churchill seen here with Winston Churchill at Epsom races in 1949, often save him from folly. Photo: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Clementine and Winston Chruchill (line drawing)

Winston Churchill, Britain's prime minister and saviour in the Second World War, was, for all his genius and fine qualities, an impossible man, self-centred, demanding, impulsive, reckless, sometimes verbally abusive and often lacking judgment.

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Nobody could have remained married to him unless they were deeply in love. When, in 1908 at the age of 33, he proposed marriage to the 23-year-old Clementine he wrote to her mother stating that he believed that she was in love with him. He did not mention his own feelings.

Clementine was probably not the child of the man who was her aristocratic mother's husband. She emerged from a broken and far from affluent home, still insecure, to marry Churchill. The author believes that they were both virgins. Churchill proved a sexually undemanding husband, who made up for the lack of sex by affectionate letters and never wandering.

Clementine dedicated herself to his political career. No shrinking violet, she often saved him from himself by pointing out to him the folly of his ways.

The demands created by his frenetic lifestyle and his depressions in times of political misfortune took their toll on her, especially in his wilderness years of the 1930s. She was treated for clinical depression and left him alone for long periods. There were frequent shouting matches. The author of this lively biography says Clementine spoke of divorce in 1936 but the evidence is slender.

In World War II she carved out a role of her own, comforting those suffering in the air raids, smoothing relationships with visiting representatives from the United States and other allies.

The picture drawn of the Churchill parents conniving in the adultery of their daughter-in-law, the future Pamela Harriman -who was married to their son Randolph - because she brought useful information gleaned from the pillow talk of her influential American lovers is not a pretty one. In this, as in much else, Clementine failed as a mother to her four children.

In 1969, I spent an hour with her when researching my biography of Brendan Bracken. Her still beautiful face turned bitter when she told me how he had taken her husband away from her and pretended to be his son. Instinctively she recoiled from Bracken's brashness but was won over eventually by his loyalty. They played similar roles sustaining Churchill when he was down and restraining him when he was up.

So it was that in 1921, Clementine (who was, incidentally, a descendant of the Irish Jacobite Dillons) reprimanded her husband for the Black and Tan campaign and urged him to put himself in the place of the Irish: "You would not be cowed by reprisals that fall upon the just and the unjust. It always makes me unhappy and disappointed when I see you take for granted that the rough iron-fisted 'Hunnish' way will prevail." Shortly afterwards Churchill turned tail, joined the peace party in the government and helped to negotiate the agreement creating the Irish Free State.

For this Winston's 'Clemmie' deserves our gratitude.

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