I developed a sudden interest in Clementine Churchill after watching the drama Churchill’s Secret on TV earlier this year. It depicted what I assumed at the time was a fictitious incident of Churchill having a stroke in the 1950s and it being covered up. It also depicted rather strained relations between Clementine and her children. Having searched for biographies of her I selected Clementine Churchill by her daughter Mary Soames – an obviously partial account, but one that sounded an interesting way of delving into her history and character.
On reading it I realised that Churchill did indeed have a stroke in June 1953 during his last stint as Prime Minister, whilst entertaining the Prime Minister of Italy in Downing Street. After the family squirreled him away from his guests for a night’s sleep, he then presided at Cabinet the next morning. But by lunchtime he was much worse and was persuaded not to take Questions in the House. The following day he was just about able to walk to a waiting car in Downing Street, but unable to get out of it by the time he reached the family home Chartwell in Kent. By the next day it was thought unlikely that he would live through the weekend.
Great secrecy surrounded the incident at the time, which meant a very small circle indeed was told. This included three media barons who achieved the incredible, and in peace-time possibly unique, gagging of Fleet Street, so that word did not spread. I could not believe that this was something I had never heard about before.
Reading this was also fascinating as it meant seeing the great events of the twentieth century from the perspective, albeit via her daughter, of someone who was at the heart of them. I was quite shocked by Mary’s attitude to the Suffragettes, given the recent celebrations of them and their cause. She comes across as more disapproving of them than her mother, who approved of their cause despite their methods, which frequently put Winston’s life in danger.
It was also fascinating to read about the relationship Clementine had with her children. Mary describes it as Winston dominating Clementine’s whole life, so that her children, personal pleasures, friends and outside interests competed for what little was left. As Mary puts it ‘Winston came first – always’. Clementine apparently loved babies, but as her children got older she was often unable to share treats and expeditions with them and so missed that part of her relationship with her children. She became as reserved with them as she was with others, making her relationships with them unspontaneous and formal.
The children revered their mother and her beauty and ‘placed her goddess-like on a pedestal’. Mary describes their demands and concerns as trivial compared to the ‘immensely important tasks’ that consumed their parents interests and time. She writes that ‘We never expected either of them to attend our school plays, prize-givings or sports days. We knew they were more urgently occupied, and any feelings of self-pity were overborne by a sense of gratification that their presence was so much required elsewhere.’
Her son Randolph and Clementine never established a close relationship – Mary describes that ‘their character and outlook and attitude to life were too dissimilar’. Sarah and her mother developed ‘a loving, companionable understanding’, despite her parents trying to delay or prevent her marriage. Diana’s relationship with her mother was clouded with misunderstanding, whilst Mary describes her own relationship with her mother as respectful and admiring rather than close in the early days, although she got to know her mother better as ‘a person rather than a deity’ in skiing holidays together, which gave a foundation for a then long and loving close relationship. With all of her children Clementine applied her own perfectionist standards, which was not always easy for them as she was immensely demanding, and ’emotional, electric storms’ could brew when her public face of serenity and calm cracked in private.
Clementine clearly led an extraordinary life and the strains of it were bound to have an impact. On top of supporting Winston through the world events that shaped their lives, she lost her daughter Marigold at the age of three and then Diana, who had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide in October 1953. Her extreme resilience was shown again after Winston’s death on 24 January 1965 when she did not collapse, and she finally had to deal with the death of her son Randolph who died suddenly at the age of 57 in 1968. Of the five children she had borne, only Sarah and Mary survived her.
I am so glad that Churchill’s Secret inspired me to find out more about Clementine Churchill. This is a fascinated take, from the inside of the family, of both her family life and her public life.