Winston and Clementine

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It was lockdown, and I was short of a book to read. One night I picked up the fat paperback volume of letters that I had ordered from Amazon (yes, I know, but where else could I buy a 1999 paperback in twenty-four hours in the panicky first weeks of the pandemic?). The book was Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill; I thought it might be useful research for my biography of King George V. To my surprise, I was gripped. During those early weeks of London lockdown, I clung to the certainty of routine: long walks through the haunted, empty streets of Mayfair or Westminster, sneaking in two walks a day because of my dog, the weekly socially distanced supermarket queue and, at the end of those strange housebound days, looking forward to my bedtime ration of Churchill letters.

Churchill was a stunningly prolific writer. An article such as I am writing now of 1,800 words, which is long by our standards, he would toss off in a couple of hours. According to an American website, he wrote an estimated 20 million words in his lifetime. A very large proportion of the words he wrote are about himself, even the books purporting to be historical. Of The World Crisis, Churchill’s history of the First World War, A. J. Balfour observed that it was ‘Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe’. The eight volumes of the official Churchill biography by Martin Gilbert total 3 million words, and these volumes of biography were accom­panied by twenty-three companion volumes of printed documents and letters, which add another 12 million words.

The effect of all these millions of published words is to bury Churchill, making him less accessible rather than more so. No one today is going to plough through all eight volumes of

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It was lockdown, and I was short of a book to read. One night I picked up the fat paperback volume of letters that I had ordered from Amazon (yes, I know, but where else could I buy a 1999 paperback in twenty-four hours in the panicky first weeks of the pandemic?). The book was Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill; I thought it might be useful research for my biography of King George V. To my surprise, I was gripped. During those early weeks of London lockdown, I clung to the certainty of routine: long walks through the haunted, empty streets of Mayfair or Westminster, sneaking in two walks a day because of my dog, the weekly socially distanced supermarket queue and, at the end of those strange housebound days, looking forward to my bedtime ration of Churchill letters.

Churchill was a stunningly prolific writer. An article such as I am writing now of 1,800 words, which is long by our standards, he would toss off in a couple of hours. According to an American website, he wrote an estimated 20 million words in his lifetime. A very large proportion of the words he wrote are about himself, even the books purporting to be historical. Of The World Crisis, Churchill’s history of the First World War, A. J. Balfour observed that it was ‘Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe’. The eight volumes of the official Churchill biography by Martin Gilbert total 3 million words, and these volumes of biography were accom­panied by twenty-three companion volumes of printed documents and letters, which add another 12 million words.

The effect of all these millions of published words is to bury Churchill, making him less accessible rather than more so. No one today is going to plough through all eight volumes of Gilbert’s offi­cial biography, magisterial and comprehensive though it is. Andrew Roberts’s terrific 2018 biography fills a gap by constructing a narrative of Churchill’s life which works for readers of today (and even that weighs in at over 1,100 pages).

This rich collection of 1,700 letters between Winston and Clementine, written over a marriage of fifty-six years, was edited by Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames in 1999. The letters formed the core material for her bestselling 1979 biography of her mother. Inevitably the correspondence is uneven. The Churchills wrote to one another when they were apart, and this means that at times such as the Second World War, when they were mainly together, there is relatively little material. Mary Soames’s editing is very well judged. She tells you what you need to know without overloading and obscuring the text with unnecessary detail.

The joy of the Winston/Clementine letters is that you can hear Churchill and his wife almost as they speak. The letters are not weighed down by the bombast and booming rhetoric of some of Churchill’s published work. Nor are they mediated through the lens of a historian or a biographer. In these letters you get your Churchill neat, and the immediacy brings you closer to the man than many of the books about him.

Churchill married Clementine Hozier in 1908 when he was 33 and already a Cabinet minister. Clementine was ten years younger. As a young man, Churchill was widely dis­liked by his contemporaries on account of his insufferable cockiness, but in his letters to Clementine he was neither arrogant nor overbearing. On the contrary, he claimed to be ‘stupid & clumsy’ in his relations with women, and he described himself as a loner – ‘a solitary figure in the midst of crowds’. He told her: ‘I am so much centred in my politics, that often I must be a dull companion.’ He found in Clementine an equal and a supporter. ‘Don’t be disloyal to me in thought,’ he begged her, ‘I have no one but you to break the loneliness of a bustled & bustling existence.’ To which she replied: ‘What I want & enjoy is that you should feel quite comfortable and at home with me.’

The tipping point in this lifelong conversation comes with the First World War. For Winston the outbreak of war was the moment he had been preparing for ever since as a boy he had played with thousands of lead soldiers. ‘I know how you are feeling,’ wrote Clementine in July 1914, ‘tingling with life to the tips of your fingers.’ But the disastrous failure of the Dardanelles expedition led to his disgrace and resignation, and he left the government to join the army in France. From the front, Winston poured out his feelings in letters to Clementine – ‘I had almost lost the Art of writing,’ he wrote. ‘I am gradually regaining it through my missives to you.’ These are marvellous letters, the descriptions informed by an acute under­standing of warfare. As Clementine wrote, ‘How much better you describe things than the most brilliant news-paper correspondent. But I forget. You were one once.’

There can be few men for whom the experience of the trenches was a rest cure, but Churchill claimed that under fire he found ‘tranquillity’, happiness and release from care. He writhed daily, however, at ‘the lack of power to make things work’. Marginalized and powerless, he looked on with dismay. ‘I see so much that ought to be done . . . that will never be done.’ One of the most striking themes to emerge from these letters is Churchill’s sense of destiny and his bomb-proof self-belief. In spite of the collapse of his political stock after the Dardanelles, he ached to return home and take a share in the direction of the war. From London Clementine wrote warning him repeatedly against taking the ‘awful risk’ of coming back lonely and unprotected. ‘For once only I pray be patient.’ For once he listened.

I read these letters in sections, dotting around rather than working chronologically through them. Those from the 1920s and ’30s are especially good. By then Churchill had returned to the Conservative party, but he certainly wasn’t the hunting, shooting, fishing type of Tory. He liked to spend the winter months in the South of France with rich friends such as Consuelo ex-Duchess of Marlborough or the Duke of Westminster, and visit the casinos there – ‘it excites me so much to play – foolish moth’. Perhaps he needed the thrill: gam­bling was for him a substitute for political crisis. He was never happier than when fighting an emergency such as the 1926 General Strike – ‘an anxious but a thrilling & engrossing time with power & scope which is what the Pig likes’, as Clementine described it. How he would have enjoyed fighting the pandemic.

Money was a constant worry. Churchill relied on his pen to pay the bills, and the letters give a vivid sense of living from one deadline to the next. Whenever he had money he spent it. In 1921 he inherited a fortune from a distant relative, which seemingly freed him from the need to earn money by writing articles at inconvenient times. Not so. By 1926 he was once more on his uppers. ‘No more champagne!’ he cried, and proposed drastic economies such as letting Chartwell and cutting down to two clean white shirts a week.

When the Conservative government fell in 1929 and Churchill was in opposition, he plunged at once into work on the life of his ancestor, the great Duke of Marlborough. At one point he was churn­ing out 20,000 words a week. Most of what he wrote after 1918 was dictated to a secretary (always a Miss), and his letters to Clementine were dictated as well. ‘I have almost lost the art of thinking with a pen in my hand.’

Churchill was a loyal, devoted and affectionate hus­band, but he and Clementine had little in common. They shared an interest in politics, but she remained staunchly Liberal while he moved to the right. She liked the sea and was a talented tennis player. He preferred painting. She was sociable and enjoyed visiting friends, he was happiest at home at Chartwell. Here he spent his time dictating, bricklaying and supervising a small, uneconomic farm, and all the while ‘I drink champagne at all meals and buckets of claret & soda in between.’ This was the Chartwell dream, and it was not a life that Clementine greatly enjoyed.

Churchill’s sheer energy and his need for constant drama and activity were exhausting. Little wonder that Clementine sometimes found the pace of life with him too much. His gambling frightened her. Gambling had destroyed her family. It had made her ‘ill and ashamed’ to watch her mother Blanche Hozier tottering down to the casino in Dieppe and recklessly flinging away her money at chemin de fer in a ‘superstitious and groping’ manner. Scarred by this, Clementine was more risk-averse than Winston. She was a worrier. ‘It is a great fault in me that small things should have the power to harass & ago­nize me.’

She travelled often, and her letters are sometimes written from nursing homes or health farms where she took herself to cure her nervous collapse and extreme fatigue. She was a neglectful mother; looking after Winston was more than enough. Some have com­mented that the real cause of Clementine’s nerves was the need to get away from her hyperactive husband.

Clementine was no doormat. If she thought Winston was wrong she told him so. She usually wrote him a letter, even if they were in the same house, because she knew she would lose an argument with him in person. In 1940 she roundly rebuked him for his ‘rough and sarcastic manner’ towards his private secretaries and his ‘contemptuous’ manner towards his colleagues. ‘My Darling Winston,’ she wrote, ‘I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.’ On his frequent journeys during the war to secret destinations, she insisted – rightly as it turned out – that he be accompanied by a doctor. She watched his flights with anxiety, sending telegrams in code: ‘Mrs Frankland to Air Commodore Frankland. I am following your movements with intense interest, the cage is swept and garnished fresh water and hemp seed are temptingly displayed, the door is open and it is hoped that soon Mr Bullfinch will fly home.’

Churchill resigned as Prime Minister in 1955 aged 80, and he lived on until 1965. These forgotten last years are charted in the letters he wrote from the Riviera, gambling in the casino, dictating and paint­ing – ‘a wonderful cure because you really cannot think of anything else’.

Without these intimate letters the private side of Churchill would be unknowable. Churchill kept no diary, and this lifelong exchange brings us closer than anything else to an extraordinary human being.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Jane Ridley 2021


About the contributor

Jane Ridley is working on a biography of King George V and Queen Mary.

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