For years, I have had a biography of Winston Churchill on my reading list. Odd then, that I should have started reading one about his wife instead. Or perhaps not so odd. I have seen endless numbers of documentaries about the Second World War, and that was, after all, when Churchill the man had his finest hour. His wife is never mentioned in these accounts, so when a friend recommended it to me, I became curious.
The Churchills married in 1908. For an upper class couple, they seem to have been unusually devoted, and it seems unlikely that either of them ever strayed. She was very much a politicians wife, perhaps even more so: several of those who knew her seems to have thought she would have been an excellent politician herself, and in the end she did get a seat in House of Lords. By then, alas, she was too old to do anything with it. In fact, while she whole-heartedly supported her husband, she was also in opposition to him. She was a suffragette, he did not support women´s right to vote. He was a conservative (even though he allied himself with other camps from time to time), she was always liberal. She also seems to have been the better judge of character, had great sympathy with the working man and woman, and had a better hand with people – including her husband, and “handled” him like no one else could. Clement Attlee, who became Prime Minister in 1945, said that Winston was half genious and half mad and that without Clementine, he would not have made it through the war. This account shows exactly how, in all details.
Their relationship had politics and Winston´s career at its core. They cared about, but neglected their children, who grew up very troubled. The son, Randolph, was notoriously nasty and unrestrained. When Winston was not in office, or when there was not an election on, he and Clementime had a hard time getting along, and spent much time apart. She was sporty, reserved, principled and he was pretty much the opposite. She was also, unlike her husband, very aware of her own short-comings. She constantly learned from her mistakes and improved herself, both in her work and in her private life. For example, the Churchill´s youngest daughter turned out well, because Clementine made sure she lived with the same nanny throughout her childhood, and then made a real effort to become her friend as she reached her teens. From their failure with the other children Clementine had learned to compensated for hers and Winston´s lack of parental commitment. Successful she was, perhaps, but it is still a sad read.
Winston´s “black dog”, his depression, is well known. Purnell thinks this was nothing more than a pose compared to the depressions suffered by his wife, who at one stage was so ill, that she recieved electric shock treatment. She seems to have constantly been on the verge of burning out, but at the same time, she thrived in the heat of the action. Clearly, both husband and wife Churchill enjoyed their war, and while that sounds kind of horrible, I think it is a good thing that there was a couple like that in that position at that time, who could step in and lead Britain to victory. Purnell´s account really shows how much it cost them, how hard they worked, and it is difficult to imagine who else could have done a better job.
I can warmly recommend Purnell´s book to anyone who likes World War II history, or just enjoys reading about a very interesting woman.